Chief Obafemi Awolowo, God rest his soul, once said: “There can never be peace in a kennel where there are three bones to four dogs.” Simple but profound analogy. At the heart of many communal tensions and conflicts — such as the latest attacks against Nigerians and other foreigners in South Africa — is the issue of “scarce opportunities”. One group thinks another is enjoying an undue advantage. Foreigners are often accused of “taking our jobs” and “using up our social services”. They are almost always held responsible for crimes. This inevitably leads to resentment and xenophobia. Some politicians, wanting to win elections, often play the populism game to hold their support base. This, in a nutshell, is my broad reading of the rise of xenophobia across the world.
The motivation for Brexit is basically the perception that foreigners are “taking our jobs and using up our social services”. Nigel Farage, leader of the Brexit Party, pointedly named Romanian and Polish immigrants as pests on UK social services. US President Donald Trump has played the game very well with tight immigration controls and tariff wars against Canada, Mexico and China “to protect our jobs”. These measures resonate very well with the street, the voting base. Nationalism has been on the rise in Europe; populist or right-wing politicians are winning elections by simply campaigning to curb immigration, protect “our jobs” and “take back our country”. If there were four bones to four dogs, as Awo would have said, we could expect some level of peace in the kennel.
Nevertheless, we have to understand the persistent attacks on immigrants in South Africa within certain contexts. One, black South Africans were socialised under an apartheid system that treated them as foreigners in their motherland. They have a “We vs Others” mentality. Two, they were deprived of human dignity for nearly 100 years, so they themselves cannot really value human lives. Three, they were denied quality education. This further pushed them down the socio-economic ladder — compared to other Africans who had enjoyed independence and evolved a culture of entrepreneurship before them. Unable to address these disadvantages and unable to decode the sources of their misery, South Africans have embraced xenophobia as a weapon of development.
More so, South Africans have a sense of entitlement. After the end of apartheid and the take-over of the country by the African National Congress (ANC), they were infected with the mentality of “this is our homeland, after all, and we own everything”. They have a skewed worldview. They see themselves as the warriors, the freedom fighters, the chosen ones, the special ones. They think all other Africans must worship at their feet. This has placed a generational chip on their shoulders. They lapsed into self-deception, denying the role other African countries, particularly Nigeria, played in the prolonged struggle to end apartheid. They do not understand why African immigrants would be more prosperous than they are in their backyard. After all, they own the world.
Years ago, I read an excellent article by a black South African writer who was analysing the perennial xenophobic attacks. She opined, rather honestly, that black South Africans consider themselves superior to other black Africans. I wouldn’t know what gave rise to this delusion but I would guess that since South Africa looks like Europe and immigrants are flooding in from neighbouring countries, it makes them feel really special, like the only girl in a village. They became very territorial, very arrogant and very hostile in dealing with other Africans. They somewhat forget that they did not build modern South Africa. If anything, the South Africa they inherited is going down. They are now experiencing water shortages and power outage, previously unimaginable.
Wisdom should dictate that they need everybody — the diversity of peoples and races — to sustain the country they inherited. Their lack of quality education did not help them either: only a fraction of the population would get white-collar jobs. The black empowerment programme, which sought to cede some control to blacks in white-owned businesses, only created a few potbellies. The empowerment programme is essentially a failure. With poor entrepreneurial skills, many of the businesses set up by them with state funds did not do well. Yet immigrants would come in and build businesses from the scratch and begin to prosper. This is too much for South Africans to understand. Rather than look inward, they employ resentment as a defence strategy.
As for the latest xenophobic attacks, we need to get something right: Nigerians are not the only target. Black Africans have been marked for attacks for decades. They just resent any immigrant doing well in business. At various times, Mozambicans, Malawians, Tanzanians, Congolese and Somalis have been attacked. Since March 2018, they have killed over 200 truck drivers, mostly Mozambicans, for “taking our jobs”. They accuse Nigerians of claiming social benefits, selling stolen goods, peddling drugs, engaging in prostitution and committing all kinds of crimes. While these accusations are apparently correct, there is yet no official statistics to suggest that Nigerian immigrants commit more crimes than locals. If anything, the jails are filled with South Africans.
In a fit of rage last week, Ms Naledi Pandor, the South African minister of foreign affairs, alleged that many Nigerians in her country are involved in drug and human trafficking “and harming our young people”. She could well be right. But I thought they also inherited a justice system, didn’t they? Why not arrest the suspects and charge them to a proper court of law rather than tacitly unleash the lynch mob on them? What happened to civilisation? When a top politician like Pandor makes such an impolite statement brazenly and openly, we do not need to ask if there is political backing for the mobsters. Blaming immigrants for their poverty takes away attention from the failings of their leaders. This is not a moral war against Nigerians — it is a political-cum-economic war.
Those who think this is a moral war have clearly been sold a lie. Nigerians may be involved in drug and prostitution, but South Africans still rank high up in terms of rape and murder. A South African robber will kill you just to rob you of a tiny mobile phone. In 2014, they killed the national team goalkeeper, Senzo Robert Meyiwa, just to steal his mobile phone! Day-old babies are kidnapped from hospitals and raped under the belief that such a bestial act will cure the perverts of HIV/AIDS. These are heinous crimes that are peculiar to South Africans and not associated with Nigerians or other immigrants. Unfortunately, many Nigerians are gleefully sharing messages on social media that tend to paint Nigerians as only paying for their crimes in South Africa.
Clearly, envy is fuelling the resentment and provoking these attacks. Nigerian shop owners are prospering where South Africans are struggling! A Nigerian would take a small shop which would also initially serve as his home. He would wake up at 6am, quickly shower, open his shop at 8am and close at 8pm or even much later. The South African will open for business at 10am and close at 4pm to go and drink umqombothi till midnight. He is expecting the same returns as the Nigerian! As the Good Book says, “A little sleep, a little slumber, a little folding of the hands to rest, and poverty will come upon you like a robber.” Rather than introspect to discover why they are failing where Nigerians are succeeding, they allow bitterness to take control of their thinking faculties.
The Nigerian, leveraging on delayed gratification, is expanding his business, turning over millions and opening more shops. This is where the resentment starts. There is a new housing estate where flats are being sold. The Nigerian can afford to buy a unit but his South African counterpart cannot afford it, having squandered his resources on umqombothi. The resentment heightens. But even if they chase Nigerians away and take over the shops, I can bet that they will run the businesses aground except they change their ways. They need to reflect on the causes of their poverty. President Cyril Ramaphosa and his fellow politicians can encourage xenophobia as much as they like, but that will not solve their misery. After the immigrants are chased away, what next? That is the real challenge.
Many Nigerians argue that if our leaders were doing the right thing, we would not be emigrating. They argue that Nigerians are moving out because of the state of our country. I concur to an extent — insofar as we all agree that Nigeria can be much better than this. However, immigration is a fact of life; people will always move to other lands no matter how good their own countries are. The Chinese are all over the world doing business, despite the prosperity of the Chinese economy. The same Nigeria that people are running away from is where foreigners are coming to make billions. We should not make excuses for xenophobic South Africa; after all, we did not make excuses for its precursor — apartheid South Africa. Xenophobia is just apartheid in disguise. Troubling.