Business Day, 6 March 2017
As a Nigerian who has lived in South Africa for over 13 years, it is quite distressing having to write articles after periodic bouts of xenophobic attacks against African citizens. These attacks – against Zimbabweans, Mozambicans, Malawians, Somalis, Ethiopians, Nigerians, and Pakistanis – reportedly killed 350 foreign nationals between 2008 and 2015. Poor leadership, incompetent governance, and a lack of conflict resolution skills have all resulted in a deadly cocktail of Afrophobia.
This time it was again the turn of the Nigerians, often stereotyped in the popular imagination – even by several academics – as drug-traffickers, who “steal” South African women. This is despite the contributions of its citizens in sectors as varied as business, academia, media, and the arts. In the recent attacks, hundreds of pyromaniac arsonists burned and looted scores of homes and businesses in Rosettenville, Mamelodi, and Atteridgeville which they alleged were drug dens and brothels. The evidence of proof was similar to the witch-hunts of the medieval age. Such “mob justice” surely has no place in a constitutional democracy. Zimbabweans and Pakistanis were also accused of being involved in crimes, and accused of taking away homes and jobs from South Africans. The South African police has, in turn, been accused of widespread corruption and not doing enough to protect foreigners.
The typical response to these attacks from South African officialdom – who themselves sometimes fan the flames of xenophobia – is to engage in “xenophobia denialism”. Officials like Home Affairs Minister Malusi Gigaba have sought to portray rampaging vigilantes who are clearly targeting the homes and businesses of foreigners as mere “criminals”, while mouthing unhelpful platitudes about most South Africans not being xenophobic. As evidence, President Jacob Zuma also noted that there were no refugee camps in South Africa, and that most foreigners were therefore integrated into local communities. That the xenophobic attacks have continued unabated over the last decade clearly confirms the abject failure of such integrationist efforts.
The joker in the pack has been the Johannesburg mayor, Herman Mashaba. South Africa’s own Donald Trump has played the role of buffoon-businessman to perfection, with an unnerving inability to grasp complex issues, let alone make reasoned arguments. Instead, he has thrived on spewing xenophobic vitriol and espousing a crass nativism totally unbecoming of his position. Like the historic Nero, he has fiddled while his Afropolitan megapolis has burned. Treating his job as if playing a kid’s game of ‘cops and robbers’, he ludicrously donned an ill-fitting police jacket to embark on ‘operations’ with his force in the South Rand.
Mashaba has talked as if foreigners and criminals are synonymous, linked prostitution to Nigerians, and complained that migrants were “messing up Johannesburg”. He has engaged in the same ‘dog-whistle’ politics that King Goodwill Zwelithini embarked on in 2015. The attacks in Rosettenville which torched a dozen foreign homes followed Mashaba’s incendiary remarks. This prejudiced pseudo-philosophical politician has offered such gems as: “We are not xenophobic, but we work in the interest of South Africans. It is about national identity and pride. There is no nationality called African. You are either South African, Angolan, or Ethiopian. My ID states that I am a South African, not African.” That such divisive rhetoric in such a cosmopolitan city does not elicit more vociferous condemnation says much about the poverty of political and civil society leadership.
The response from the Nigerian government has been forceful, as it has been in the past. Abuja has called on South African authorities to stop the violence and protect its citizens, and has threatened to go to the African Union (AU) to protest. Nigeria has claimed that 116 of its citizens have been killed over the last two years, though Tshwane has disputed these figures. Many Nigerians at home are also appalled by these xenophobic acts, which have resulted in the vandalism of the offices of MTN in Abuja. While South Africans seem to express hatred against Nigerian citizens, Nigerians have tended to direct their ire at South African companies.
South Africa and Nigeria are Africa’s two largest economies, and among its most active peacekeepers. If Africa is to achieve peace and prosperity, both countries will need to work together as the engines of regional integration, and prophets of Pax Africana. How then can one possibly justify these horrific xenophobic attacks and a “March Against Foreigners” in a “rainbow nation” claiming to have one of the world’s most liberal constitutions?