I AM not in a jingoistic mood at the moment. When I hear that Black criminals in South Africa are killing Nigerians and burning down their shops, my knee-jerk reaction is enormous sadness about the breakdown of a once-warm relationship between the two countries, rather than burning anger fuelled by patriotic fervour.
I understand why so many Nigerians are absolutely furious and hellbent on revenge. But most South Africans are not xenophobic thugs, and vicious tit-for-tat attacks on blameless South African businesses and individuals are not the answer to this problem. Some Nigerian flag-wavers are insisting that MTN, the mobile phone and internet service company, which is largely South Africa-owned, should be crippled in retaliation. And I’m told that some Nigerian MTN customers have destroyed their MTN sim cards in protest.
Those who want to punish South Africa are also urging us to boycott the Shoprite supermarket chain, another jewel in the South Africa crown.
And I am not opposed, in principle, to this kind of citizen activism. But this nation is infrastructurally challenged and so stressful to work in; and where I live, MTN is the only sufficiently reliable wifi service. And I need good communications networks for my professional duties, and I can live without Shoprite – which is no big deal, but I’m not ready to worsen my hypertension by ditching MTN!
Diplomatic pressure is the best way forward if you ask me, and the Nigerian authorities are not allowing their hitherto somewhat sluggish counterparts in Pretoria to take this matter lightly. The Nigerian Government has, quite rightly, demanded compensation on behalf of Nigerian victims of larcenous, pyromaniacal, homicidal South African mobs…and recalled our High Commissioner to South Africa, Ambassador Kabiru Bala…and pulled out of the World Economic Forum, which is being held in Cape Town as I write.
I, meanwhile, have been personally sucked into this palaver. I was planning to attend an event in South Africa in early October, and I applied for a visa six weeks ago because I was trying to be super-efficient and not leave things till the last minute. The visa was supposed to be issued within 15 working days, so I should have received it by the middle of August, but nothing has happened so far – as in no visa and no explanation.
Toxic tensions revolving around Nigerians in South Africa are not new and have been ongoing for a couple of years. But they have escalated alarmingly in recent months, and it’s obvious that my visa application has been held up because of these tensions. And I finally get the message!
It’s almost as if Nigeria and South Africa are at war, and I no longer regard a near-future trip to South Africa as safe or desirable, so I’m submitting a formal request for the return of my passport today and a refund of my processing fee.
Despite my disappointment, I am not feeling hostile towards South Africa. I just feel heavy-hearted, world-weary and puzzled. I just want to know why Black South Africans are turning on Nigerians…who were one of their greatest allies during the battle against white minority rule.
We didn’t just act as loyal cheerleaders and staunch moral supporters when Nelson Mandela was serving his heroic 28-year jail term and our Black brothers and sisters were being treated like animals on their home turf. We also contributed arms, money, scholarships, shelter, political asylum, etc.
My sister, Lela Kogbara, was a member of the Anti-Apartheid Movement’s Black Solidarity Committee and the Chairperson of Action for Southern Africa, ACTSA, from 1994 to 2012. Lela still serves on ACTSA’s Executive Committee and was one of the many Nigerians who ensured that our Black South Africa brethren were not abandoned to fight White racists alone; and when Mandela was eventually released from Robben Island, Lela was one of a small handful of people who were invited to have breakfast with him and Queen Elizabeth in Buckingham Palace in London.
And, by the way, Nigerians were not by any means the only Africans who stood shoulder-to-shoulder with South Africans in their hours and days and weeks and years and decades of need.
Nor are Nigerians, though the main focus of antagonism, the only targets of South Africans who are assaulting Black foreigners. Zimbabweans, for example, have also been targeted. And it’s worth noting that the Presidents of Congo, Malawi and Botswana have also pulled out of this week’s conference in Cape Town.
So why has the considerable goodwill that once existed between South Africa Blacks and other Africans evaporated in recent years? There are many theories about what has gone wrong. Some say that South Africans are tired of Nigerian gangsters flooding South Africa with drugs, inflicting violence/death in the districts they inhabit, corrupting South Africa youths and violating South Africa girls.
Others say that some South Africa Blacks are attacking Nigerians, Zimbabweans, etc, because apartheid psychologically messed them up, didn’t equip them to be dynamic and self-confident…and made them feel enviously helpless around successful Black foreigners. Another viewpoint is that Black South Africans are tired of other Africans constantly expecting them to feel eternally grateful for help donated during the liberation struggle.
Then there are stories about Nigerian men dating/marrying South Africa women, showering them with cash, boasting about their alleged superiority and making South Africa men feel inadequate. Whatever the cause may be, I have South African friends of all hues, including well-informed fellow journalists, who tell me what is going on out there behind the headlines; and I know that most Black South Africans don’t hate us or harm anybody.