Rather than its policy of demonising African immigrants, the South African government can reassure its people through relevant legislation, identifiable progressive policy and by simply doing the job it was elected to do.


In his Unpopular Essays, first published in 1950, Bertrand Russell says: “Collective fear stimulates herd instinct, and tends to produce ferocity toward those who are not regarded as members of the herd”. The British philosopher’s words come to mind today in 2019, 69 years after, as September has come with more ferocious attacks against foreigners in Johannesburg, Pretoria and other parts of South Africa. It is reported that more than 50 shops and businesses belonging to non-natives were burnt down, while several people have been killed in the renewed attacks.

This should not surprise anyone. Violence of this kind has been going on in South Africa for decades. The Nigerian victims have been comparably high. And it is beginning to look, again, from this side, like a targeted attack against Nigerians. We need to find a solution soon, because the domino effect of the xenophobic attacks on foreigners in South Africa is already being felt in Nigeria. Last week, businesses with ties to South Africa were caught up in retaliatory attacks in Lagos, Akwa Ibom and Oyo States, leading to the closure of South African businesses and two South African Mission buildings in Lagos and Abuja.

There are many things to be said about these attacks and about the role of South African government officials, the Nigerians and others living in South Africa, as well as other African governments affected. What must never be said, if we can help it, is that other Africans are gradually picking up the hatred and animosity that appears to be growing in black South Africa. For instance, there have been peaceful protests in Zambia and other places, and we must all mirror that reaction, instead of descending to the same depths as the perpetrators of hate crimes in South Africa.

The most telling part of the xenophobic attacks is that the South African government, aided by insufficient pressure from its African counterparts, has been lazy about addressing the root causes of the attacks. This means that the question of “why” has not really been addressed, which foretells more attacks in the future. One Nigerian interviewed after the attacks began last week, told reporters that all the South African government has done, through the episodes of xenophobic attacks in recent times, has been to compile the data of deaths, and losses. It does not seem like the Nigerian government, or any other African government, has done much else.

But the need for urgent action cannot be reiterated enough in these times, when even the most subtle coaxing of emotions towards the destructive path is enough to lead to carnage. Although irresponsible public figures and government officials in South Africa are using exactly this technique to the detriment of other Africans in South Africa, it does not justify a crass reaction along that same path from the rest of us. For instance, Naledi Pandor, South Africa’s minister of International Relations and Co-operation, made insensitive comments about Nigerians and involvement with crime after last week’s carnage.

The talk in Nigeria now is focused on boycotting brands linked with South Africa – MTN, DSTV, ShopRite, Stanbic IBTC, etc. – which will hurt Nigerians more in the short to medium term. These businesses are not only deeply entrenched into the Nigerian system and economy, they also hold significant Nigerian interests that cannot be disregarded.


Her comments remind one of Zulu King Goodwill Zwelithini’s unmasked call for xenophobia in 2015. Also, a 2017 video of a South African former deputy police minister, Bongani Mkongi, where he made reckless comments against foreigners, resurfaced online in Nigeria last week. Whether intended or not, the effects of that video and many more posts and comments like it, rehashed in an unproductive manner has generated reactionary animosity against everything South African here and in other places. Mind you, duplicating the hatred will not help any of us.

The talk in Nigeria now is focused on boycotting brands linked with South Africa – MTN, DSTV, ShopRite, Stanbic IBTC, etc. – which will hurt Nigerians more in the short to medium term. These businesses are not only deeply entrenched into the Nigerian system and economy, they also hold significant Nigerian interests that cannot be disregarded. Thousands of working class Nigerians are employed directly or indirectly through these businesses. Foolhardy attacks and looting can only benefit the vandals doing the looting, for a short time. The fall-out of South African intolerance can lead to untold chaos because of the dearth of leadership from African leaders.

Now, let us do what our governments have failed to do by trying to understand exactly what is triggering xenophobic behaviour in black South Africa. South Africa came out of apartheid less than 30 years ago. While the country has been theoretically freed of oppression, there are signs that the same oppression persists under the bubble of South African success. Between black and white South Africa, economic polarisation seems to have taken the place of administrative separation.

Added to that polarity, some say a third section of South African society has been quartered-off by people who are culturally and racially Indian, but have become native to South Africa through a centuries-old history of forced migration. By evidence, this similarly smaller, third section, is said to have knocked black South Africa further down the economic pecking order. Although these are theories, there seems to be a murderous resistance to any build-up of ‘outsiders’ who could supplant black South Africa and push it further down the economic food chain.

Responses to similar economic fears in other places have not quite followed the murderous pattern. Zimbabwe responded with a brutal and aggressive land reform programem; Britain responded through prioritising employment for Britons and, subsequently, the on-going divorce from her continental partners. South Africa, like a certain West European country in dark history, appears to be gunning for a murderous purge.

As for the fear of economic displacement and whatever scars of apartheid are contributing to the violence against foreigners in South Africa, there is no antidote apart from honest work and an open economy. This can be backed by legislative and policy guarantees. Above all, Africans have to work together if the continent is to ever find its place in the world.


Rather than its policy of demonising African immigrants, the South African government can reassure its people through relevant legislation, identifiable progressive policy and by simply doing the job it was elected to do. Police officers standing by while businesses built with several years of toil and sweat are vandalised, are not doing their job. Paying lip service while careless statements are being made, even by the president himself, is not a good job either.

For the Nigerian government and other African states caught in the trajectory of the fear-possessed South African masses, collecting data and sending envoys every time there is a major incident is not a good job. In the past three to five years, up to 200 Nigerians may have been killed in South Africa from blatant hate crimes or through other controversial circumstances. Yet, no diplomatic confrontation has ensued between Nigeria and South Africa about this. Ironically, the last time there was a ‘confrontation’, Nigeria picked a quarrel because South Africa was not giving visas to Nigerians.

The other day, Femi Gbajabiamila, the speaker of Nigeria’s House of Representatives, appeared to be talking tough when he canvassed for ending all ties with South Africa. That is no solution either. There is a need for circumspection. The two countries are locked at the hip in Africa like Siamese twins, as the two largest economies, feeding off each other. A firmer approach by Nigeria, mixed with fine diplomacy, is required to build a diplomatic relationship of consequences that can push payment of compensation to Nigerian victims. At this stage, also, there needs to be a truth and reconciliation committee of both governments, where restitution can be made on the Nigerian and South African sides.

Geoffrey Onyeama, Nigeria’s foreign minister did make one good suggestion: A joint task force of South African and Nigerian law enforcement officers working together to address the question of crimes committed by Nigerians. While we can be patriotic, the country makes no excuse for the bad behaviour of some of its citizens. Thousands of Nigerians live in South Africa. One assumes that majority of that number are legitimately employed, and South Africa only stands to benefit by accepting Onyeama’s proposition of mutual benefit, if the country has nothing to hide.

As for the fear of economic displacement and whatever scars of apartheid are contributing to the violence against foreigners in South Africa, there is no antidote apart from honest work and an open economy. This can be backed by legislative and policy guarantees. Above all, Africans have to work together if the continent is to ever find its place in the world.

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Picture credit: AFP.