Emma Emeozor, [email protected]
Xenophobic attacks on foreign nationals in South Africa started way back in 2015. But the recent attacks seem to have stood out as it is the first time the South African government would swallow its pride and go on its knees to apologise to Africa on behalf of its citizens.
Undoubtedly, President Cyril Ramaphosa was dazed by his experience in Zimbabwe when angry Zimbabweans booed him while speaking at the memorial service for former President Robert Mugabe. The president must be commended for taking the initiative to send envoys to apologise to affected countries. The gesture is a demonstration of age-long Africa tradition which requires a person to apologise when he has offended his brother(s).
Nonetheless, what is in an apology if the act or offence for which it is made re-occurs afterwards? The same Africa tradition that demands apology for wrongdoing also warns against a repeat of the act. Considering the antecedence of xenophobic attacks in South Africa, it cannot be concluded quickly that the president’s apology would bring about a new orientation and the end of Afrophobia in South Africa.
The much orchestrated apology must be taken with a pinch of salt until the perpetrators of the attacks and their sponsors would have surrendered fully. So far, Ramaphosa has only doused the tension the recent attacks sparked across the continent. What remains to be done is the deployment of concrete efforts to eradicate xenophobic-motivated criminality and the consequent cleansing of the land.
Meanwhile, what is worrisome is the fact that top politicians, labour unionists and professionals’ fuelling the attacks to promote their vested interest(s) in the country’s socio-political chess game. While these architects of doom remain masked, those carrying out the attacks are those who are unfortunately members of the lower rung of the society, those who are not sure of what to eat the next day.
If Ramaphosa is truly committed to ending xenophobic attacks, the process of re-orientation of the people must start with members of his cabinet. It seems the president and some of his ministers are not in tandem with the line of action to take. So far, the utterances of some ministers show there is confusion over the interpretation of the problem. In the present circumstance, it will be difficult to end the attacks. Simply put, xenophobia is the other name for racism. But as Africans are the victims in the hands of their fellow South African Blacks, it is Afrophobia attacks. Interestingly, some ministers in the cabinet of Ramaphosa believe that attacks on Nigerians and other Africans are the handiwork of bandits in search of what to eat. They have tried to play down the seriousness of the problem. The posture of this group of minsters only points to the fact that there is confusion in South Africa’s government over who to blame for the orgy of attacks and killing of foreign nationals.
Even as the president’s Special envoy, Jeff Radebe, was in Nigeria tendering apology, the minister of higher education, science and technology, Blade Nzimande was busy in Durban, tacitly making statements that could infuriate South African workers against other African nationals.
Nzimande chose to turn a blind eye on the mayhem unleashed on Nigerians and other African nationals. His response to the wave of attacks that took place was not only condemnable but a clear demonstration of the hypocrisy of some of the country’s powerful leaders. The minister had argued that the continental condemnation of his country was unfair.
He reacted with vile language when he put up, saying “We cannot absorb the results of all the problems that are made by leaders who want to loot their countries, who do not care about their own people.” Curiously, he was addressing workers union. He is also the secretary of the union.
His outburst did not end there. Apparently excited by the cheering response of the audience, Nzimande hit ‘harder’, saying. “African leaders themselves must get their act together, such that they don’t destroy their country and people have to leave.
“You can’t just blame South Africa, we are doing the best. But it is time we ask those leaders in our continent, ‘what are you doing to make your countries better places to live in?”Nzimande has the right to indict non performing African leaders. But his comment is perfidy at a time when the continent expects South Africa’s government officials to stand with the victims of the attacks.
The minister was not only reckless in his remarks but was also myopic as he forgot so quickly the fact that thousands of South Africans in the Diaspora are enjoying the hospitality as well as benefiting from the economy of their host countries.
Nzimande cannot say Nigerians and the other African nationals being hounded are not making meaningful contributions to the development and growth of South Africa’s economy. Certainly, not all non nationals are criminals. Of course, foreigners who are criminals do not operate alone. They have their local partners.
Nzimande and his cohort also cannot say that how to make South Africa a better place to live in is to incite union workers to chase African migrants out of the country. The minister responsible for small business development, Lindiwe Zulu, reportedly said the rioters “feel there are other Africans coming into the country and they feel these Africans are taking our jobs”. She was quick to add: “We are facing a challenge that is beyond South Africa as a country. This is an African problem.” She however stopped short telling the world that it is an African problem created by selfish, greedy, incompetent and power hungry South African politicians.
Ending xenophobic attacks in South Africa may depend on how the problem is tackled. A concise definition and understanding of the problem is crucial, especially as a section of South African politicians are twisting the meaning of xenophobia and the consequent attacks. This requires sincerity and commitment on the part of all, particularly the country’s political leaders. The politicians must put behind them their differences and unite in the fight against xenophobic attacks.
Nigeria and other African countries have been magnanimous in their reactions to the killings of their citizens. It is difficult to say South Africa would have reciprocated the same way if its citizens were victims of Afrophobia in other African countries.
In Nigeria, much ado has been made on the measures the Federal Government should take to ensure that unwarranted attacks on its citizens do not occur again. But, opinions are divided on the various suggestions so far made. They include dragging South Africa to the United Nations and the African Union.
The thinking among some analysts is that the UN and AU could impose sanctions on South Africa to serve as deterrence. But this may be wishful thinking. Since xenophobic attacks started in South Africa, the UN has not made any tangible statement to check the trend. The Africa Union is a toothless bulldog. Therefore, it will be a waste of time and resources for any government to go to the two bodies. Rather, the aggrieved countries should consider how best to address the problem respectively.
Zimbabweans demonstrated courage when they confronted Ramaphosa. Booing the president sent a clear message to South Africans that enough is enough. Nigeria has said it will adopt diplomatic channels to resolve the crisis. While Nigerians are not opposed to the position of the Federal Government, they are however wary of talks that don’t yield the desired results.
Attacks on Nigerians resident in South Africa have been on for about five years now. The thinking among watchers of Nigeria-South Africa relations is that Nigeria seems to be playing the role of an under-dog even in matters affecting the safety and security of its citizens.
The recent attacks provided an opportunity for Nigeria to demonstrate its capability to defend and protect its citizens resident in any part of the world. Nigerians are being hounded in Ghana and elsewhere also. It is curious that the Federal Government is always talking about the deployment of diplomatic channels to resolve crisis involving the killings of its citizens in the Diaspora.
Though no Nigerian would want the country to go to war with a fellow African country, the safety and security of Nigerians in the Diaspora cannot be compromised for whatever reason.
The minister of foreign affairs, Geoffrey Onyeama owes Nigerians the obligation to tell them the specific actions the Federal Government is taking to address the problem.
Indeed, Nigerians are at a loss as to what the minister meant when he reportedly said that the xenophobic issue has not gotten to a stage where it can be reported to the United Nations. “We haven’t got to that stage yet. And I don’t think it is necessary. I think it is something we can sort out ourselves. We have that capacity and belief to do that,” Onyeama said.
Except for the order by President Muhammadu Buhari that Nigerians willing to return home be evacuated from South Africa, there had not been any strong action by the government to assure Nigerians that it has the capability to handle the problem to their expectation. The Buhari administration must read the hand writing on the wall and study carefully the language of South African ministers and politicians before drawing conclusion on what action to take.
There are talks about compensation. But how many Nigerians resident in South Africa have insurance cover for their businesses? In other words, how many Nigerians will be entitled to compensation if ever the South African government would pay? Therefore, the talks about compensation make little or no meaning to many of the Nigerian victims. What Nigerians want from the Federal Government is an action that would tell South Africa and the international community that the lives of its citizens cannot be sacrificed on the altar of diplomacy.