By Ebele Orakpo

A former Executive Secretary of South African Relief Fund, SARF, Dr. Omawumi Urhobo, in this interview, explains how South Africa and Nigeria can foster permanent harmonious relations.

•Dr. Urhobo

Urhobo, who is the President/Chief Executive Officer of Morgan Smart Development Foundation, also shares her experience as the student counsellor to more than 500 South African students in Nigeria during the apartheid era.

She was the Student Counsellor of the International University Exchange Fund, IUEF, an international NGO based in Geneva, Switzerland, that had an agreement with the Federal Government of Nigeria and the African National Congress, ANC.

Involvement in the South African struggle in the 1970s

It was the aftermath of the Soweto Uprising of 1976 when many students went into exile and they needed to be evacuated because they were staying in the border countries of Botswana and Zambia and the South African government was sending planes to bomb these countries. Thabo Mbeki, who was ANC’s chief representative in Nigeria, negotiated for these youths to be brought to Nigeria to continue their studies.

With that arrangement, about 500 of them were brought to Nigeria. I was a fresh graduate from University of Lagos, working in the Federal Ministry of Social Development. The Cabinet Office, as it was then called, was looking for a Student Counsellor that would take care of the students. That was how that responsibility fell on me. It was a great idea because the first thing that occurred to me was that the salary they were offering me was more than what I was getting in the ministry.

Who employed you?

The NGO recruited me while the Federal Government made the places available. The students from Soweto were politically-vibrant and here I was, a young girl, whose duty was to ensure that they were properly placed in schools, and their social needs met. The Federal Government Colleges, FGCs, were newly set up so they were taken to FGCs all over the country. I got them admission, and I ensured they got their stipends. We did that until apartheid ended in 1994.

Hell of an experience

It was a hell of an experience for me. This group of politically active students did not behave normally, so people just couldn’t understand them. They could fight and do a lot of things but with the support of government, we ensured they survived and got education. Mashinini, who was the President of SA students in Soweto then, was hosted in Nigeria, so also was Makhubo, the guy in the famous photo, carrying the girl that was shot by the police during the Soweto Uprising.

Mmusi Maimane, the opposition leader in the South African parliament, and many others were here. At a point, Nigeria was considered a front-line state because of our commitment to the anti-apartheid cause. Thabo Mbeki was so effective in terms of establishing a good relationship with the government as the Chief Representative of the ANC. Nigerians took these SA blacks into their homes. Chief Olusegun Obasanjo said Nigeria spent over $10 billion as support for the struggle.

Mama Evelyn

I became Mama Evelyn at a young age because students were coming to me with various challenges. A student once came to me and said: “Mama Evelyn, I can’t get a girlfriend,” and I asked why; he said: “It is because I am not circumcised and the girls said they won’t be with me.” I made arrangements for many of them to be circumcised. Nigeria helped to crumble apartheid.

World Bank cuts sub-Saharan Africa’s 2019, 2020 growth forecast(Opens in a new browser tab)


When apartheid ended, the South African Relief Fund, SARF, came into place. Beyond the Federal Government’s support for the struggle, individual Nigerians were called upon to also help. A lady (now late) donated what she called her widow’s mite, that was the seed money used to start the SARF. Later, all civil servants were instructed to contribute a percentage of their salaries to SARF. I became the Acting Executive Secretary, ES, of SARF because the substantive ES could not deal with the rudeness and the very militant posture of the students. For years, we were looking after the students and, at the same time, raising money and taking relief materials to the ‘frontline’ states.

At one point, the South African government had my name on the ‘Wanted List’. They said the students were brought to Nigeria to be trained and I was one of the supervisors. You can then imagine when I visited Botswana, Zambia or Mozambique because these were places the refugees were taken to.

After the Soweto Uprising, there was continuous rioting, even ordinary South Africans were coming out and they flooded Zambia and Botswana. Zimbabwe had their problem at the same time, so we were also taking in Zimbabwean refugees. There were Mozambicans too but because of the language barrier, they did not find it comfortable here. When apartheid collapsed, the mass movement of Nigerians to South Africa began.

Mass movement

With independence, the South African blacks that have been oppressed for so long, did not have the boldness of character and the aggressiveness needed to take charge of the evolving economic system and all the vacancies. So, Nigerian professionals moved there in droves. Naturally, the bad guys also moved in. In 1996, when I went to South Africa, the Hillbrow area was a no-go area for South Africans. Nigerians colonised the area.

It’s an area with high rise buildings originally owned by white South Africans, so Nigerians were buying off the buildings. Over the years, they created a colony for themselves there and more blacks moved in.

Dwindling economy

I was there two years ago and I was stunned by the level of poverty. The present South African government has not done too well. Thabo Mbeki, who took over from Nelson Mandela, was more sophisticated. He was in exile and had interacted and knew the dynamics. He was going to be more careful with the transition.

Mandela was neither a politician nor a development practitioner, he just depended on a lot of advice but by the time Thabo Mbeki came, he was more grounded in terms of his political, economic and developmental exposure; so I think he had a template of a gradual thing that will help to transit properly and absorb the blacks into the system.

Then there was an internal coup that I saw happen. They removed him and Jacob Zuma, who was internally grounded in the country, came in. He didn’t really have exposure but he became a politician that would say all the right things and people followed him and then everything started going bad. It was during his rule that corruption got to the limit and he was indicted. There was a failure in governance.

Failure of governance, scapegoat

Cyril Ramaphosa is trying to salvage the situation because he had some exposure himself in the private sector, development and business. By the time I went to the country in 2016, the statistics were frightening in terms of the level to which the economy had degenerated, so it was a question of the blacks looking for a scapegoat on whom to transfer the aggression.

Yes, there are many Nigerians there. Yes, a lot of wrong things are being done by Nigerians, but there is a huge mass of law-abiding Nigerians contributing to the economic development of South Africa.

Unfortunately, some of our people exported all the bad behaviours in Nigeria to SA – living in opulence, big parties, big cars amid poverty. It is provocative. South African blacks, I am sorry to say, are typically laid back. They don’t have that aggressiveness and it is because of years of oppression.

SA blacks are laid back

I seriously indict the South African government because they are not doing it the right way. I remember the SA security forces during the apartheid regime that were very brutal. They ensured the security of lives and property. What happened? How come they can’t do anything about the violence in South Africa today? If you think that people have become a nuisance in your country, there are legal ways to deal with them. Arrest the ones you find wanting, try them, sentence them to jail or deport them.

But they are not laid back when it comes to fighting other blacks, why?

It’s because they have been trained to be aggressive in the wrong direction. They probably just need a leader who tells them what to do. Nigeria and South Africa need to dialogue. They said the Ghanaians actually went to parliament to get a law in place to dislodge Nigerians from Ghana. I don’t think we went to the extent of getting a law but there was a proclamation giving Ghanaians one week or 48 hours to leave.

MASSOB condemns, insists there will be no toll gates in Biafra(Opens in a new browser tab)

SA men accused Nigerian men of taking over their women, how true is that?

It is a fundamental issue. But again, who doesn’t love a macho man? The Nigerian man has style, has class, and the wherewithal. And their girls are very shapely. Again, there is a lot of violence against South African women by their men. I was watching Malema’s interview where he said: “Ïs it the Nigerians that are coming to beat your wives and girlfriends in the villages?” Amid the crises, the women went to demonstrate at the Stock Exchange in Jo’Burg against the violence of their men against them.

So if they are claiming that Nigerian men are taking their women, is that enough to kill them? Why don’t you be a man yourself and make yourself worthy instead of physically and mentally abusing your women every day? They have a serious alcoholic problem. Let us even leave the drug side. When you drink, who is your first contact when you get home? Your wife! And you beat her up. I am not telling lies against South Africans, it is the reality.

Drug cartels

The main drug cartels conduct their business in more sophisticated ways but Nigerians carry drugs on the streets. They put them in lollipops for children to drink and get addicted. No matter how you want to put it, the South African government has not met its responsibility considering how far we have come.

Repatriation not new

Ghanaians first repatriated Nigerians in 1957 immediately they got their independence. The next was in 1965 in which they sent away all Nigerians in Ghana. In the early 80s, Nigeria sent over two million Ghanaians packing. I am still in touch with my friend, Mrs. Mbeki, the wife of the former South African President, till date. She is completely distraught.

She said to me: “Evelyn, I can’t understand. Can we ever get together again? That fraternity that existed between Nigeria, South Africa and the whole of Africa, not just Nigeria.” If you look at the history of this “foreigner must go”, it always has to do with the economic situation and when the economic situation becomes that bad, the first person they move against is the foreigner. There is a systemic failure in South Africa presently. You may not believe it but that is the truth. They have not been able to handle the economy. It is in very bad shape, so the South Africans find it easier to turn against their own fellow Africans.



Comments expressed here do not reflect the opinions of vanguard newspapers or any employee thereof.