Around 200 Nigerians have left South Africa amid fears of xenophobic violence. There has recently been a wave of violent attacks on foreign people, their businesses and property. Riots started in early September, where several stores owned by immigrants were targeted across Johannesburg, Pretoria and surrounding areas. At least 10 people, including two Nigerians, were killed in the days of violence. The attacks have also sparked diplomatic protests from several African governments, with some retaliatory attacks also taking place in Nigeria against South African-owned brands.
The President of Nigeria, Muhammadu Buhari, sent a delegation to South Africa to assess the situation, and later announced plans to repatriate 640 Nigerian citizens from the country. The private airline operator Air Peace said it would provide two flights for Nigerians who wanted to leave, while a Nigerian real estate firm offered to pay for those who wanted to return home. Nigeria’s Diaspora Commission Chairwoman Abike Dabiri-Erewa told CNN that the first group of 187 people had arrived at Lagos airport on Wednesday, and more Nigerians will be evacuated in the coming weeks. Dabiri Erewa complained, however, that many passengers are still stranded and were not allowed to fly with the contingent from Johannesburg due to documentation problems. President Cyril Ramaphosa of South Africa condemned the attacks on Monday, and said that the violence was frustrating government efforts to showcase South Africa as a country of equal opportunities. Ramaphosa said foreigners have the right to own and operate businesses in the country without having to fear attacks from criminals. “Government will not allow sporadic lawlessness and violence to disrupt the safety and livelihoods of millions of South Africans and the majority of foreign nationals in our country who are law-abiding and have the right to conduct their lives and businesses in peace,” Ramaphosa said. Nigeria’s foreign ministry is urging citizens in South Africa to remain calm and patient, adding that officials are working with relevant authorities to find ways to end xenophobic attacks on their nationals.
Unfortunately, this is not the first case where anti-Nigerian sentiment has been demonstrated in South Africa. Similar xenophobic attacks on African migrants claimed dozens of lives in 2008 and 2015 in poor neighbourhoods in Cape Town, Durban and Johannesburg. Liza Essers, the owner of South Africa’s Goodman Gallery, says that the xenophobia is another expression of encroaching worldwide ultra-nationalism, driven by collapsing economies. Esser says “conditions like economic recessions and employment difficulties are triggering violence against refugees and foreigners because there is a perception that jobs are being taken away from nationals.”
Studies reveal that the insertion of foreign migrants into vulnerable communities suffering from high unemployment can be a catalyst which often sparks violence against migrants, who are seen as easy targets of people who feel that their circumstances have not been addressed by the government. However, lack of police resources has also provided an opportunity for xenophobia to flourish. A few days after the Johannesburg attacks started, the national police spokesman admitted that the police were running out of resources to manage the violence. The inability to respond to threats to property and livelihoods has meant that people have been forced in some occasions to take the law into their own hands. Reforms are needed to create a better-resourced police service who can support communities.
There is much work to be done by Nigeria and South Africa, and xenophobia must not impact the long term relationship between the countries, as this will make the management of future possible tensions difficult. Calls for Ramaphosa and Buhari to take the lead regarding immigration policies have been made, particularly as the newly-inaugurated AU Free Movement of Persons Protocol (African nationals granted entry without the requirement of a visa) will not be implemented if South Africa and Nigeria do not join hands to make it a reality. Nigeria has boycotted the recent World Economic Forum (WEF) meeting in Cape Town, and recalled their ambassador. Economic connections, however, must not be sacrificed through retaliatory action e.g. the WEF meeting in Cape Town addressed ways to boost intra-African trade, which could have been beneficial for Nigeria to attend. Buhari is scheduled to visit South Africa next month, and we hope to see more discussions to tackle the problems head on, with joined efforts between the countries.