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Xenophobic attacks of Nigerians in South Africa

By Aare Afe Babalola

“Solution not in appointment of special envoys or state visit but in current economic challenges in Nigeria”.

NIGERIANS living in South Africa have yet again come under attack by local vigilantes. Many suffered only the destruction of their homes and business, while some who lost their lives were not so lucky. As usual reports of these events which the press described as “Xenophobic attacks” have attracted the usual condemnation from Nigerian authorities. The House of Representatives through a press conference called by the Speaker, was particularly at the forefront of the demands for answers from the South African authorities. While the ruling party called for a nationalisation of South African-owned business interests, the Presidency announced that a special envoy had been appointed to meet with the South African authorities on the issue. It has now been reported that as part of a fence-mending efforts, President Muhammadu Buhari will pay a state visit to South Africa in October.

To be certain, the recent xenophobic attacks were not one of a kind. In 2015 and 2017, there occurred a series of attacks on nationals of foreign countries. In that attack, nationals of Zimbabwe and Nigeria bore the brunt of the violence. That particular incident was attributed to the inciting words of the Zulu king who called on all foreigners to leave the country. Prior to that time there had been reported attacks in 1998, 2000, 2008, 2009 and 2013. In 2013, the governments of Nigeria and South Africa signed a Memorandum of Understanding to reinforce diplomatic ties with the hope of preventing further attacks. The events of 2016 and 2017 have proven that those efforts were in vain. The recurrence of these attacks without a doubt raises the question as to why they are common to South Africa. Indeed, at a loss to understand why Nigerians have been targeted, many reasons have been adduced as being responsible, the most amusing of which is the claim that South Africans involved in the attack were acting on ridiculous claim that foreigners, including Nigerians, were taking away their jobs and women!

Xenophobia explained

However, to understand the root cause of the problem, one must go a bit back in history. Firstly, it is important to note that the word “xenophobia” is not a medical term but a political one. It is used to describe a situation in which members of a group or culture regard members of another culture as threats to their own interests. Wikipedia specifically defines the word to be: “the fear of that which is perceived to be foreign or strange. Xenophobia can manifest itself in many ways involving the relations and perceptions of an in-group towards an out-group, including a fear of losing identity, suspicion of its activities, aggression, and desire to eliminate its presence to secure a presumed purity. Xenophobia can also be exhibited in the form of an “uncritical exaltation of another culture” in which a culture is ascribed “an unreal, stereotyped and exotic quality”.

While many have traced the rise of Xenophobia in South Africa to the post-apartheid era, the truth is that the foundation of it was laid decades prior to that time. It has, for example, been reported that in the early part of the last century, South Africa passed numerous acts intended to keep out immigrants, such as the Immigrants Regulation Act of 1913, which provided for the exclusion of “undesirables”, a group of people that included Indians. This effectively halted Indian immigration. There was also The Township Franchise Ordinance of 1924 which was intended to “deprive Indians of municipal franchise”.

However, while 1994 was a remarkable year for the country following the demise of apartheid, studies have shown that it also marked the rise of acute nationalist views and sentiments which have fuelled the xenophobic attacks. According to a 2004 study published by the Southern African Migration Project, SAMP: “The ANC government – in its attempts to overcome the divides of the past and build new forms of social cohesion… embarked on an aggressive and inclusive nation-building project. One unanticipated by-product of this project has been a growth in intolerance towards outsiders… Violence against foreign citizens and African refugees has become increasingly common and communities are divided by hostility and suspicion.”

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Whatever is the true origin and cause of the problem, it cannot be disputed that it is very wrong and contrary not only to African tradition of welcoming visitors but also duties of countries to protect foreigners from such attacks. It is even more disturbing when it is considered that Nigeria contributed in no small measure to the collapse of apartheid and subsequent enthronement of democratic rule in South Africa. In a statement released by the Nigerian Guild of Editors, the South African Institute of International Affairs was reported as having recorded that Nigeria spent $61 billion between 1960 and 1995 in the fight against apartheid.

We must look inwards

To address this issue, we must look inwards on two broad fronts. Firstly, we must understand that the general negative impression of Nigerians by foreigners and specifically our African brothers in South Africa has been influenced largely by the conduct of some criminally-minded Nigerians who for personal and fraudulent gain are not bothered about the effect of their actions on the generality of Nigerians and the country itself. Recently the Federal Bureau of Investigations, FBI, revealed the indictment of about 80 Nigerians in fraud scams in the country. Also reporting on the outcome of the visit of the special envoy appointed by President Buhari to meet with the South African authorities following the recent spate of violence, officials of the host government were reported by THISDAY to have stated as follows:

“…President Cyril Ramaphosa and senior officials of his government insisted to Buhari’s envoy that the widespread attacks were not xenophobic, revealing that although between December 2017 and September 2019, 89 Nigerians were killed in the country, 39 of them were slain by their compatriots due to drugs related disputes. South African officials nevertheless admitted that 19 of the death arose from police brutality while the rest were due to other causes.

The South African authorities were also said to have revealed that between 300,000 to 400,000 Nigerians are in South Africa. Of this number, 10,860 are currently in prison serving various terms but 60 percent of these inmates are in for drug-related crimes. The authorities reportedly told the envoy that there are three categories of Nigerians in South Africa. The first are professionals, who are doing very well in such fields as medicine and the academics. The second are businessmen, including genuine traders. The third are those into drugs. These people (drug couriers) are few but they are very loud. Sadly, it is they that are seen as the faces of Nigeria in South Africa,” a senior official was said to have told the special envoy.

While xenophobia and the attendant violence cannot be excused or tolerated, such unflattering statistics surely cannot help. So effort should be directed at combating the activities of the few unscrupulous Nigerians who have contributed to this sordid image of Nigerians abroad. Secondly, it is also important to examine just what it is that draws Nigerians away from their fatherland to such places where they suffer so much indignation. Without a doubt the current economic challenges have brought about an exodus of sorts of Nigerians to other parts of the world in search of the proverbial golden fleece. In Nigeria at the moment, most businesses have either collapsed or are on the brink of collapse owing to a myriad of problems. Job opportunities, where they do exist, are difficult to take advantage of. A few years ago, several innocent lives were lost following a stampede at the screening exercise of a national agency for job applicants.

Many business ideas have been frustrated due to absence of capital as banks still charge unrealistic interest rates that continue to hamper the growth and development of small businesses. Yet as economists will point out, such small businesses are the required linchpin for the long term recovery of the Nigerian economy. Thus, in my estimation, the immediate response from government about the unending xenophobic attacks on its citizens should be the formulation of policies that will make it easier for Nigerians to make a living here.

Where jobs are available and availability of business credit is not a problem, the attraction of foreign travel for purpose of basic economic sustenance as opposed to large scale direct foreign investment in the economies of other countries will be reduced. This is where government should direct its energies. The solution is not in the appointment of special envoys or state visits. The recent attacks, viewed against the history of xenophobia in South Africa, should leave no one in doubt that it will occur again. Government must act fast.

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