South African xenophobic Attacks

…the Federal Government must act fast and decisively. The administration must hit while the iron is still red hot. Failure to act decisively would mean that Nigerians in South Africa, like other migrants in that country, will continue to live in an open prison.


This headline is not original. It is a parody of one of the famous lines from “Redemption Song”, one of the many evergreen works of reggae legend, Bob Marley. In “Redemption Song”, the legend had sung the line, ‘How long shall they kill our prophets/while we stand aside and look’, in honour of his hero, Marcus Mosiah Garvey, Jr. Garvey, universally acclaimed for black nationalism and Pan-Africanism, was widely reported to have had so influence on Marley’s music and the Rastafari culture that Marley saw him as a prophet. So, when the Jamaican hero died at 52 in London in 1940, after suffering two strokes, Marley believed his prophet was actually poisoned.

Garvey died, putatively after reading a mistaken, and negative, obituary of himself in the Chicago Defender in January earlier that same year, which stated, in part, that Garvey died “broke, alone and unpopular”.

Notwithstanding the insistence of some Nigerians in Johannesburg that one citizen, Tochukwu Nnadi, was extra-judicially murdered by South African Police for alleged peddling hard drugs, Thursday’s clarification, by the presidency, that no Nigerian died in the recent xenophobic attacks in South Africa offers some cold comfort. But it may never insulate against the ever present fear of recurrence. Not even Nigeria’s recourse to the African Union (AU) to intervene before matters graduate to a murderous scale, nor the belated promise/move by President Jacob Zuma to curb the barbarism, can guarantee that. As long as the risk factors continue to breed, the cancer could only go into remission for a season. With time, it may resurge with vengeance once the masterminds pull the trigger. And Nigerians, like other African immigrants, would be fair game, once again, to the evil quantities.

This is no doomsday prophecy. It is a simple but reasonable guess; one anchored on the history of xenophobia and the antecedents of its evil architects in the Rainbow Nation.

By the way, the metaphor, Rainbow Nation, represented in the country’s flag with its six different colours, was created, in 1994, by the revered Archbishop Desmond Tutu. In the spirit of the times, he used the term to describe post-apartheid South Africa as a powerful congregation of variegated nations and diverse cultures now bound by a powerful cord of unity. That was after the former racist enclave had its first truly democratic vote which yielded Dr. Nelson Mandela as its first Black president, in a classic prison-to-palace story. In his early days in office, President Mandela had built on that enthusiasm to proclaim the new nation as a melting pot that offers limitless hope and boundless opportunities for the White, Black and Brown.
“Each of us is as intimately attached to the soil of this beautiful country as are the famous jacaranda trees of Pretoria and the mimosa trees of the bushveld – a rainbow nation at peace with itself and the world…”, Mandela had proclaimed.

There is absolutely no doubt that Mandela meant every letter in that proclamation. He did; and he walked the talk. However, the tragic paradox is that not all his compatriots bought into the dream. Like one racist regime after another did to them during the obnoxious apartheid era, Black South Africans have, since 1994 when Mandela took office, been chasing foreigners, especially African migrants, like bush meat. According to the Johannesburg-based non-profit organisation, African Centre for Migration and Society, through its XenoWatch reports, migrants from “volatile countries” like Burundi and Somalia, those “seeking business opportunities from states like Nigeria or Ethiopia, or from nearby neighbours like Mozambique and Zimbabwe,” are the hottest targets. They are the most vulnerable. Their offence? “Competing for (jobs and) limited resources in the same impoverished areas as most of South Africa’s black majority.” In addition, they constantly accuse the migrants, especially Nigerians, of importing narcotics and prostitution into their communities. And the wages for those ‘iniquities’ are extreme violence, cold-blooded murders, maiming, destruction of property and businesses.

…I understand and sympathise with South Africans on the unemployment, grinding poverty and economic distress they grapple with daily. Nigeria, like the rest of the world, has its economic woes too. But such frustrations should not be sufficient for South Africans to brand some races as “criminals”.


To back its report, XenoWatch, provides some morbid statistics. It asserts that some 360 xenophobic murders have occurred since 2008 (as against 62 between 2000 and March 2008). It describes the figures by another non-profit organisation, the African Diaspora Forum (ADF) as ‘under estimates’. In its own report, the ADF records that the 2008 xenophobic violence yielded at least 62 deaths. This is besides the 342 migrants’ shops looted and the 213 torched. Indeed, in one of such horrific attacks, the world watched in horror, on television, as a Mozambican man was burnt alive. Yet, that horror, and the worldwide umbrage it generated did not deter Zulu King, Goodwill Zwelithini, from shamelessly instigating another round of attacks in 2015, when he declared that foreigners should “pack their bags” and go. That reckless declaration, (which, in retrospect, must have enjoyed secret official endorsement) drove about 2,000 migrants into refugee camps, and left five people dead.

As in 2008, the South African Government, after the 2015 attacks, promised to set up a special court to probe the bestiality. It was an empty promise. It yielded nothing. Therefore, like a rattle snake which was bruised but not fatally injured, xenophobia continues to thrive in South Africa, producing more disastrous consequences after each attack. It happened again early this month, with Nigerians as prime targets. Although the Nigerian government reports zero morbidity in the latest attacks, which, according to reports, were callously supervised by the Mayor of Johannesburg, a very nasty man, The Guardian, in its editorial of February 20, referred to a report indicating that over “116 Nigerians have been murdered in the last two years either by South African citizens or even officials of the state”.

Surely, I understand and sympathise with South Africans on the unemployment, grinding poverty and economic distress they grapple with daily. Nigeria, like the rest of the world, has its economic woes too. But such frustrations should not be sufficient for South Africans to brand some races as “criminals”. Every nation on planet earth has its fair share of criminals. Yet, one rotten apple in a basket should not warrant condemning the good ones. If any Nigerian commits any crime in South Africa, let the law deal squarely with the individual. Let the criminal have his/her day in court. That is more civilised than brutalising and murdering immigrants, especially fellow Africans, over unsubstantiated charges. It is inhuman. It is bestial. Before I leave that, I have a question on the ridiculous accusation that Nigerians and other immigrants are stealing jobs: is it a crime for fellow Africans to sign on to jobs that South Africans refuse to touch with a kilometre-long pole? How does that qualify for the death sentence?

Push that aside. Let’s come back home. Yes, there have been the usual howls of protests, and diplomatic sabre-rattling, but would that stop the mindless murders of our people in South Africa? There is no guarantee it would. This is because, officially, Nigeria’s has never been sharp and forceful enough in telling those murdering its citizens in the Rainbow Nation that enough is enough. Past responses from our government had often been cloaked in the Big Brother Africa philosophy; and I’m not talking about the idly, semi-pornographic reality show currently being filmed and beamed from South Africa. I’m talking of Nigeria’s posture as an over generous Big Brother who feeds other countries till they constipate, while its own citizens wallow in severe hunger and malnutrition. The ambiguity of our government’s responses in previous attacks never receded. And in the extant case, there is nothing to show, so far, that things would be different.

So, what are we supposed to do? Before I answer that, let me state categorically that the an-eye-for-an-eye response being canvassed by the National Association of Nigerian Students (NANS), a moribund body that has just found its voice in the current gale of violence, is not an option. Indeed, NANS’ prescription of “curing malaria with malaria” is akin to attempting to “cure madness with madness”. That’s a recipe for disaster. It won’t work. I urge the NANS president, Kadiri Aruna, and his colleagues, to koolu temper and hold fire. They should not attack South Africans or South African businesses in Nigeria. Such rushed war would yield only one thing: unmitigated disaster.

Rather than pay violence with violence, let’s press our government to be forceful in making certain demands from the South African authorities who seem to have forgotten the enormous sacrifice Nigeria and Nigerians made in leading other African nations and, indeed, the rest of the world, to kill apartheid. First, the South African Government must be told to behave responsibly at all times and in all matters concerning Nigeria. That country has treated Nigeria and its citizens with so much disdain for too long; and this must stop. If the government itself behaves responsibly, the citizens would fall in line.

…we would be on good ground if we insist that in order to continue to maintain a healthy balance in trade and investment between our two countries, the Rainbow Nation must make its citizens to respect and show more tolerance to our people. Hell will not descend on Nigeria if we decide to review bilateral relations with South Africa.


The Jacob Zuma Administration has failed miserably in this regard. Recall the embarrassment its immigration officers inflicted on our country in 2012 when they deported 125 Nigerian travellers at the Oliver Tambo International Airport in Johannesburg for purportedly having ‘fake’ yellow fever vaccination certificates. Though the Federal Government promptly retaliated by expelling 56 South African businesspeople, the scars of that global disgrace is still there.

As in 2012, in the extant matter, President Zuma must be told in unequivocal language to halt the oppression and negative profiling of Nigerians, especially by law enforcement and other agencies of government, as “criminals”, “drug pushers”, “job snatchers”, “prostitutes”, etc. That’s not who we are. There are thousands of highly skilled Nigerians in South Africa, like doctors, engineers, economists, professors, etc. contributing far more than most South Africans to that country’s development. This is not to mention the scores of good Nigerian entrepreneurs who are creating wealth for South Africans.

Another positive: despite the embarrassment and unwarranted hounding of our people, Nigeria still maintains healthy bilateral trade and investment with South Africa. The trade volume between both countries soared steadily from N488 billion (or 20.6 billion Rand) in 2010 to N1.5 trillion (or 62 billion Rand) in 2015. The steady increase, as the South African authorities have admitted at different fora, arose from Nigeria’s demand for automotive parts, South Africa’s export cars, vehicles, structures and parts of structures, uncoated paper and paperboard.

Way back in 2009, Dangote Group invested a record $378 million in South Africa’s cement industry, and this has been rising steadily ever since. This is not to mention Oando and other Nigerian businesses doing great business in that country. We can go on and on. However, and perhaps due to occasional diplomatic rows between the two nations, trade volume dipped to N1.3 trillion (or 55 billion Rand) last year. Therefore, we would be on good ground if we insist that in order to continue to maintain a healthy balance in trade and investment between our two countries, the Rainbow Nation must make its citizens to respect and show more tolerance to our people. Hell will not descend on Nigeria if we decide to review bilateral relations with South Africa. Or would it? Wouldn’t that be a better and more civilised option than attacking South Africans and South African businesses in Nigeria, as the NANS leader tried to suggest? I hope and pray that the students would not have executed their threat by the time you read this.

Bottom line: the Federal Government must act fast and decisively. The administration must hit while the iron is still red hot. Failure to act decisively would mean that Nigerians in South Africa, like other migrants in that country, will continue to live in an open prison.

Shola Oshunkeye is the MD/CEO of Omnimedia Nigeria.

Image credit: Buzz South Africa.