Expectedly, the fever of xenophobia in the Rainbow nation continues to send shock waves across the African continent. And at the risk of sounding like a broken record, this creepy event has shaken the foundation of brotherhood in Africa and brought the already tenuous relationship between Nigeria and South Africa into dire straits. Gripping and grisly do not come close to describing video images of xenophobic attacks on social media.
According to South Africa’s police, no fewer than 100 people ransacked shops in Johannesburg overnight in a fresh wave of xenophobia attacks in South African cities. Anti-immigrant violence has flared sporadically in the country against a background of near-record unemployment, with foreigners being accused of criminal activities and taking jobs from locals.
Xenophobia which manifests as a strong feeling of dislike or fear of people from other countries is not new to South Africa. Before democracy came alive in Mandela’s country in 1994, immigrants in South Africa have always had a raw deal in the hands of their hosts as they have faced discrimination and even violence with the first wave of xenophobic attacks occurring in 2008. After then came the 2015 attacks which was said to be purportedly inspired by the utterances of the Zulu king. And when we thought that the horror had passed, 2017 with its fresh xenophobia-inspired attacks has proved that the horrendous chapter is not totally over. Suffice to say, xenophobia is different from other crimes because it targets foreigners or outsiders for violent attacks.
Much troubling and disturbing is the fact that much of South Africa’s anti-foreigner sentiment is aimed at Black Africans. The last decade has witnessed attacks on Somali street traders in Cape town, Congolese migrants in Pretoria and Nigerian people in J’burg. Even South Africans deemed ‘too dark’ have been rounded up on the street and treated terribly. According to the Special Adviser to the President on Diaspora, Hon Abike Dabiri, Nigeria has lost about 116 of its citizens living in the rainbow nation.
As it is often said, there is no smoke without fire. Unemployment and economic distress may be the motivators for the protesters but is it true that unnecessary envy also plays a part? And it is hard to believe, the rumour in some quarters that some South Africans were chagrined by the competition offered by foreigners as well as the spectacle of Africans who are more successful than they are. As some people have opined, the South African culture of entitlement coupled with the entrepreneurial spirit and hard work so evident in immigrant communities has become a source of resentment. This might seem far-fetched.
But there is no denying the fact that local residents in these areas have become increasingly convinced that foreign nationals are to blame for all their socio-economic ills and hardship including poverty, unemployment, poor service delivery, lack of business space and opportunities, crime, prostitution, drugs and even alcohol abuse.
Like him or hate him, ex-president Olusegun Obasanjo has hit the nail on the head when he lambasted the South African government and leaders for their insincerity. He also berated the youths of the country for displaying immaturity.
At a time when a coalition of Niger Delta militants threaten to blow up 16 major South African investments in Nigeria unless the Federal Government shuts those companies down within one month, the words of Obasanjo becomes more pointed and poignant. The militants further gave one more ultimatum to South Africans living in Nigeria to relocate elsewhere within one month.
It is indeed a good thing that the Senate has sent a high powered delegation to South Africa to investigate the on-going xenophobic attacks in the country. But is this effort enough?
Indeed, drastic times require drastic measures, then it behooves on the Nigerian government to make sure this will be the last time Nigerians will suffer this dastardly act. After all, the protection of lives and property shall be the number one duty of government.
Towards this end, this is the perfect time to recall the Nigerian representatives in the Rainbow nation. This recalling of envoys –temporarily or permanently as the situation might warrant- will further put pressure on the South African country just as they will take us more seriously in the future.
In a similar vein, Mr Lulu Aaron-Mnguni, South African High Commissioner to Nigeria needs to be sent back home also. At a time when Nigerians are bemoaning the shabby treatments of its citizens, that was a very wrong moment for the envoy to accuse some Nigerians of drug peddling just as it was wrong for his government to deport 97 Nigerians during the crises as it smacks of insensitivity to the mood of Nigeria
Going forward, compensation should be paid to all affected Nigerians and foreigners. This is because what happened is first and foremost a failure of government to maintain law and order and to quench the fire of xenophobia hastily before it became this huge conflagration.
Even more, the arrowhead of this anti-immigrants protest should not only be charged but also convicted so as to serve as deterrent. There should be clear departure from what obtained in times past when few perpetrators were charged and fewer still were convicted. No wonder some observers have accused state agents of actively protecting those accused of anti-foreigner violence.
Going forward too, the African Union needs to step up and play a more decisive role when issues like this happen among member nations. The lackluster approach of the body could suggest that the body has outlived its usefulness.
Perhaps, more importantly, Nigerians in foreign lands must try as much as possible to obey the laws of their host countries. They need to behave in ways that positively promote the image of our country abroad.
It is also pertinent to admonish angered groups and individuals in Nigeria that two wrongs do not make a right. Though the feet-dragging of the South African government is provocative and unbecoming, but we are duty-bound and honour-bound to take the high roads and thus model a good example for our African brothers.
The whole world is watching and waiting to see if South Africa, once a leading moral force in the world has the will to take decisive and definite measures to put an end to this xenophobic saga which has become a recurring decimal in its short but checkered history. Right now, Nelson Mandela and other founding fathers of South Africa must be turning in their graves. Pity!
Omisore is of the Features Unit, Lagos State Ministry of Information and Strategy, Alausa, Ikeja, Lagos