Once a symbol of African solidarity, non-racial discrimination, prosperity, and job prospects, South Africa has fallen into xenophobic sentiment once again. Riots targeting foreign-owned businesses have been followed by violent clashes and random beatings with security forces dispersed and armed with rubber bullets, water cannons, and riot gear.
In 2008, more than 60 people were killed in xenophobic attacks. In April 2016, six people lost their lives to similar attacks. Now, in February and March 2017, violence against non-South Africans has erupted once more, with protesters accusing non-nationals of stealing jobs and bringing crime.
Nigerians, in particular, were the target of this recent wave of attacks. A march into the capital, Pretoria, on 18 February by a group, which calls itself the Mamelodi Concerned Residents targeted Nigerian businesses, among other migrant businesses. On 24 February, protesters holding sticks and pipes marched to the foreign ministry with a petition in hand. Among its contents, its description of non-South Africans was the following: “They are arrogant and they don’t know how to talk to people, especially the Nigerians.”
Mr. Ikechukwu Anyene, the President of the Nigerian Union stated that “The attack in Pretoria West is purely xenophobic and criminal because they loot the shops and homes before burning them.”
Already, these attacks have caused retaliation. In Abuja, Nigeria’s capital, Nigerian students retaliated by marching on South African businesses, stealing goods, and vandalizing equipment. “We are saying that enough is enough as South Africans have openly attacked and bullied Nigerians,” claimed the President of the National Association of Nigerian Students Aruna Kadiri, the protest organizer.
It is important to note as, with the majority of xenophobic attacks, it is a small minority of South Africans engaging in these protests, and many have condemned the attacks. The South African government has itself openly denounced the attacks. Worryingly, however, it also stated that it would “respond to the concerns” of protesters and subsequently deported 97 Nigerians for a number of offences, such as lack of appropriate documentation.
As the African National Congress’ (ANC) glory years of Nelson Mandela and Thabo Mbeki leadership slip by, the ruling party loses more of its original values and identity. In the political environment of non-accountability, xenophobia is more a product of localized South African politics as it becomes the scapegoat for the country’s economic woes.
For many Nigerians, and others, it is the memory of solidarity during South Africa’s experience of apartheid that makes these recent attacks all the more frustrating. The apartheid regime ended 25 years ago, and yet the very rights and freedoms, which were fought for have been violated in no less than a quarter century.
It has long been maintained that cooperation between Nigeria and South Africa, Africa’s two largest economies, is critical for the prominence of Africa’s position on the global stage. Yet, despite Nigeria’s historic relationship with and support of, the ANC during the apartheid struggle, the relationship between the two countries has been defined more by diplomatic quarrels and in-fighting within the African Union (AU).
As the political situation worsens, the best hope for regional diplomacy would be the fruition of Nigeria’s call on the AU and the South African government to take decisive measures to protect Nigerian citizens and other Africans brings positive and decisive action. Otherwise, Africa’s “rainbow nation” could face a humanitarian crisis.
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