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Taming the spirit of xenophobia

The Punch logo The Punch 16/04/2019 The Punch
a group of people standing in front of a crowd © Provided by The Punch

Tony Ademiluyi

On June 12, 1964, former President of South Africa, Nelson Mandela, was sentenced to life imprisonment for attempting to violently overthrow the Apartheid government in that country. He was sent to Robben Island to live there for the rest of his life alongside his comrades, including Govan Mbeki, Thabo Mbeki’s father.

The campaign for the release of Mandela became a worldwide affair as genuine agitators and hustlers all found a common cause to demand that he should be set free. Nigeria played a vital role in the destruction of South Africa’s apartheid policy. Nigeria spearheaded the campaign and bankrolled some of the activities of the Mandela’s organisation, the banned African National Congress.

Using the African Leadership Forum as a platform, former President Olusegun Obasanjo was said to have brokered peace deals between President Frederick De Klerk’s government and Mandela when the latter was eventually released from jail. Then the first truly democratic elections were held in South Africa in 1994, with Mandela emerging as the first black President. It was an epochal year for the citizens of that country. Many African nationals immediately saw the country as a goldmine and rushed in to take advantage of the many opportunities available. Many Nigerians were not left out as they trooped in large numbers to become partakers of the new renaissance the African state.

What happened was that the end of apartheid merely transferred political power from the whites to the blacks. The real economic power still lay in the hands of the white minority. This gave room to resentment from the black population as the average South African black lacked the skills and education to compete in a modern world. Activism had given way to administration and they clearly lacked what it took to consistently bring home the bacon.

The black South Africans now saw their new adversaries in the hardworking nationals of other African countries, who were honestly earning a living without or with little support from the government. In no time, the waves of violence started and the media did its best to downplay it so as to give the impression that all was well in the country. The conspiratorial role of the white dominated media was made more pronounced by the fact that the whites weren’t happy with the progress that these other black nationals were making and they advocated running a more closed economy.

The media’s role in the crisis was short lived, following the brutal murder of 62 people in a wave of xenophobic attacks that occurred in 2008. An unspecified number of Nigerians were among the victims of those attacks. Sadly, the attacks have continued with renewed intensity. Two Nigerians were killed in the latest incident that took place a few weeks ago.

Nigerians are nicknamed ‘kwere kwere’ in South Africa. They are particularly hated by their hosts for working so hard in that country and having the uncanny ability to squeeze water out of a stone. They are also hated because South African women are said to prefer the more hard-working Nigerians to their rather laid-back men. The erstwhile apartheid fighters are allegedly envious of the loud swagger of their Nigerian guests and would do anything to cut them to size.

It is tragic that Nigeria is yet to take an official position to defend the interests of her nationals in that country. It is a well known fact that Nigeria is home to many South African companies, from MTN to Shoprite, amongst many others. These companies make the bulk of their profits in Nigeria and remit it back home without any interference from the Federal Government. Nigerians don’t have the time to haunt down and kill South African residents in the country as we have a rich culture of accommodating our guests, even when they don’t reciprocate such to us.

The xenophobic attacks appears to be somewhat encouraged by the South African state as the King of Kwa Zulu Natal, Goodwill Zwelithini was quoted to have said, “We are requesting those who come from outside to please go back to their countries. The fact that there were countries that played a role in the country’s struggle for liberation should not be used as an excuse to create a situation where foreigners are allowed to inconvenience the locals.”

Given King Zwelithini’s position as a first class monarch, pro-xenophobia supporters would have taken it as a cue to spill the streets with raw human blood, the blood of their African brothers from other countries. While South African businesses flourish in Nigeria, there are deliberate policies to stifle businesses owned by other African nationals in that country. One recalls the attempt of a well known Nigerian media house that went there to set up shop in 2004, only to be frustrated out a few years later.

There is a need for the Federal Government to take a firm decision on the killing of Nigerians resident in South Africa. The government is to blame, in the first place, for the excruciating conditions that drove many Nigerians to South Africa. Now that they are being hacked to death like rams, the same government has done practically nothing to save them. How can the citizens of this country be treated worse than dogs in another country on the African continent?

The onus of ending the ongoing xenophobic attacks should also be laid on the shoulders of the South African Government. For instance, King Zwelithini ought to be reprimanded for making a hate speech. We recall the punishment that was meted out to the Rwandan politicians who promoted hate speeches on radio in the wake of the 1994 Rwandan genocide, which three months. Hate speeches shouldn’t be taken lightly as the after effect leaves a sour taste in the mouth.

The African Union should be a rallying point for love and solidarity among its member states. Appropriate sanctions should be meted out to countries that directly or indirectly encourage xenophobia.

The South African government should educate its largely illiterate black population so that they have the appropriate skills to contribute their quota towards nation building and to vent their frustration on innocent Nigerians.

The Nigerian Government should also speak up and be more vocal in defending the interests of our citizens in South Africa. Enough of the killings.

  • Ademiluyi contributed this piece from Lagos
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