Beyond Xenophobia

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Amid depressing reports from South Africa of xenophobic attacks on Nigerians and other immigrants, the Mo Ibrahim Foundation announced yesterday  “no winner” for the 2016 prize for exceptional leadership in Africa.  The announcement that no African leader, who left office in a democratic transition in the last three years, was adjudged fit for the 11-year old prize is in itself another unfortunate tale coming out of the continent.

At $5 million spread over 10 years and  $200,000 yearly for life thereafter for the winner, the Mo Ibrahim Leadership Prize is the largest of its kind globally.  Launched by the Sudanese-British billionaire, Dr. Mohammed Ibrahim, the prize inter alia “recognises and celebrates African leaders, who under challenging circumstances have developed their countries, lifted people out of poverty and paved the way for sustainable and equitable development.”  So   no former president in Africa meets this criterion among others in exceptional terms!  You may wish to ask: what is the link between the two pieces of bad news from Africa? The barbaric violence on immigrants in South Africa is not just an issue of xenophobia; the fundament of the problem lies in the crisis of governance ravaging the continent. Governance is a leadership function.  This is worthy of reflection as the two countries seek to resolve the xenophobic crisis beyond diplomatic talks.

From the responses from two countries to the xenophobic attacks, it is obvious that government officials hardly see poor governance at the root of the problem.  First, take the Abuja reading of the situation.  Does it worry any one in Abuja that citizens of the “largest economy” in Africa are existentially forced to search for opportunities in South Africa, a country infamous for one of the highest rates of unemployment in the world? South Africa is indeed one of the most unequal nations on earth.  Is it worth the while to ponder the condition of Nigerians emigrating in desperate circumstances because they cannot find space at home in this “largest economy”? Established South African companies move northwards to take prime positions in the Nigerian formal sector. Contrariwise, helpless Nigerian traders and artisans move southwards to find a little space in the South African informal sector.  If Nigeria were properly governed, not many Nigerians would be searching for opportunities in the slums of South Africa.  The failure of governance to create an inclusive economy in Nigeria is never blamed for the fate of economic migrants from this country.

The resurgence of xenophobia provides an escapist route for those who mismanage the South African political economy.  Social injustice, class-based inequities and the unresolved Land Question are still some of the issues plaguing the South African economy, society and politics. Wealth is still concentrated in the hands of a tiny minority despite the emergence of a few elements of the black bourgeoisie and petit-bourgeoisie in South Africa. The government is pretending that these problems   do not exist.  You would think that the only headache of the country is the influx of African immigrants. The xenophobes rampaging the streets fail to see themselves as victims of a poorly governed country and that the poor immigrants are not the enemies. Those in power in South Africa have no answers in terms of economic management to the burgeoning poverty. After apartheid, the least you would expect from a country emerging from years of social injustice would be   implementation of social democratic policies just as Germany did after the ruins of World II where market forces operated with some social conscience. However, South Africa has applied all the neo-liberal recipes like Nigeria; yet joblessness and poverty have worsened.  The western rating agencies keep humouring the two leading economies in Africa with statistics of jobless growth. The dominant political force in South Africa, African National Congress (ANC), is at its lowest ebb ideologically and politically. The one-time party of struggle now suffers from the worst leadership deficit in its 105-year history.

On a constructive note, the South African Communist Party, the Economic Freedom Fighters, the socialist party of youth leader Julius Malela, and individuals such as Winnie Mandela, Bishop Desmond Tutu etc. have been drawing attention to this perversion of the struggle of South African people for freedom, social justice and material well being. Now the xenophobes are responding to the unjust system in a historically destructive manner.

The response of the South African High Commissioner to Nigeria, Lulu Mnguni, provides a further illustration of the elite abdication of the responsibility for good governance even at the most basic level. It is easier to prejudicially blame foreigners than to admit systemic failure.  Mnguni has accused the Nigerian victims of crimes. He was reported as putting the matter this way: “We are not condoning violence, but it will be wrong not to reflect the concerns of South Africans, especially with regard to drug trafficking. We must not look at one side … when people go to other countries, they must respect the laws of the country.”  Just imagine this lame rationalisation of the killings of Nigerians in the streets of South Africa!  Are the thugs killing Nigerians now the South African drug law enforcement agents? Do the South African laws prescribe lynching in the streets as a penalty for drug trafficking?  What is expected of a civilised society with a workable justice system is to apprehend the drug suspects and prosecute them. Those found guilty should be punished according to the South Africa laws, and not the laws of the jungle. When MTN violated regulatory rules here, the Nigerian response was not to burn down its office and kill its South African executives. The regulator imposed a fine. By the way, drug trafficking is not the only social problem of South Africa. Johannesburg is, perhaps, the rape capital of the world. Does South Africa also tackle this sociological affliction by lynching those of its nationals who happen to be rapists?

The poor economic immigrants are not the problem of South Africa.  President Jacob Zuma and the ANC should rather take a critical look   look at a political economy that has failed to meet the needs of the majority of South Africans. They should resolve the crisis of governance bedevilling that otherwise promising country!