By Joseph Ushigiale
The gale of xenophobic violence that swept through the two major South African provinces of Pretoria and Johannesburg has left many in utter consternation and questioning how did the situation get to this latest lowest level?
In President Cyril Ramaphosa’s own account, about 10 persons were killed and property worth millions of rand belonging to foreigners were looted by criminal gangs.
As global condemnations against what seemed like a recast of the 1976 Soweto massacre, continue to pour in from the UN and other friends of that country, these latest attacks which started August 28, climaxing on September 3 did not come as a surprise to those who have keenly followed the unfolding xenophobic weapon of choice by these South African criminal gangs masquerading under the garb of nationalism.
Without any fear of contradiction, South Africa has been home to some of the worst xenophobic attacks recently. In 2008, about 60 persons were reportedly killed and over 50,000 forced from their homes in the suburbs of the former apartheid colony.
In 2015, seven people died in xenophobic related violence. In all of these figures, it is recorded that at least 127 Nigerians have died from xenophobic attacks in South Africa in the last three years. Out of this number, 13 of those were documented to have been killed by officers of the South African Police Service (SAPS).
The latest attacks by whatever names the South Africans would call them only underlines the complicity of both the government of South Africa and their traditional leaders who spread very inciting rhetorics against foreigners and provoking the jobless South Africans to take up arms against innocent foreign nationals whose only crime is to seek greener pasture to that country.
From the videos that have so far surfaced on the Internet, a sample of such dangerous rhetoric was spewed by a highly placed security chief, a certain Bongani Mkpongi who is currently the South African Deputy Police Minister.
In that video apparently captured at a press conference and called at the behest of the xenophobic attacks, Mkpongi emphatically kicked against the idea that Hillbrow, a suburb in South Africa has over 80 percent of its population made up of foreigners arguing that it is against the law of their country.
While calling for a national debate to discuss foreign domination and arguing that there is no country that you would find such a huge number of South Africa citizens dominating a city; he went on to insist that if nothing is done now to stop this dangerous trend, the whole of the country would one day not only be taken over by foreign nationals but also produce a president.
Amidst claps and cheers, Mkpongi who said the violence is not xenophobia insisted that “we fought for our land from a white minority and can not surrender it to foreigners which is a matter of principles. We fought for this country not only for our generation but also for the generations of South Africans.”
He accused foreign nationals of gun-running and preparing to take over power adding that “the question of dominance of foreign nationals in illegal trade and commerce in Hillbrow is economic sabotage against our people.”
It is simply ironic that a people for whom Nigerians sacrificed for with their sweat and blood to free them from racial discrimination and foreign domination (which was what apartheid stood for) would now turnaround to point accusing fingers at Nigerians.
First, let us address the accusation of foreigners taking over businesses from South Africans. If you know South Africa very well, you would agree that it runs a very closed economy that shuts out foreigners from the wheels of its major commerce. By stirring up the fear of domination by foreign nationals whom he claims are dominating businesses and taking over power from indigenous South Africans, Mkpongi has exhibited nothing short of crass ignorance about the history of migration.
Even in South Africa, where did the Boers who ruled them for several decades come from? Are they not the product of migration? All over the world, migration has remained a very dynamic mechanism that has created little cities inside countries as peoples of different races move into those countries. Thus you have little Sicily, Chinatown, Brazil quarters in the United States and Nigeria respectively. Businesses owned by Nigerians in South Africa are petty businesses and can not hurt the South African economy nor contribute a percentage to Nigeria’s GDP in terms of repatriation of profits back home. In other words, the country that should sustain that fear of domination should be Nigerians. South Africans have over 120 profitable businesses including MTN, Standard Charter and Standbic IBTC etc from which huge profits are repatriated to grow the South African GDP.
The land Mkpongi claims they fought for is only a mirage. A recently released study showed that the South African economy is still being run by its white minorities who constitute about 8.9 per cent of their population comprising of 6000 white families who still hold over 85 per cent of that country’s landmass and controls its entire agriculture value chain.
The truth really is that those in power in that country have mismanaged the economy fueling widespread inflation, unemployment, abject poverty, and crime wave as a result of the frustration and hopelessness. Therefore, to find an escape route, South African politicians have found it convenient to blame foreigners who constitute just 2.9 percent of the population for job losses and their failing economy.
Although the federal government has taken some steps to address the unfolding violence, I believe this row has presented a golden opportunity for Nigeria to finally put the South Africans squarely where they belong. If we must have any form of relationship with the South Africans, it must be one guided by mutual respect for each other and not the current scenario where South Africa constantly undermines Nigeria’s efforts at forging brotherhood and mutual co-existence.
While leaving room for diplomatic maneuvers, the federal government should nationalize all South African businesses in Nigeria. Issue an ultimatum to all South Africans to return to their country within 72 hours ditto all our citizens in South Africa to return home; cause South Africa to pay a minimum of $1bn compensation for the loss of lives and property belonging to Nigerians and going forward sign an undertaking to be accountable for the lives of Nigerians living legally in that country.
When South Africa recently announced its visa waiver for some countries excluding Nigeria, it was a clear statement loaded with a very strong political undertone. In waiving visa acquisition for Ghanaians over Nigerians, the South Africans were subtly telling Nigeria ‘we do not want your people here’. It is also shameful for the South African authorities to elevate the profiling of Nigerians as criminals to the level of state policy which is being used by the law enforcement agencies to hound Nigerians on the one hand and orchestrate falsehood which they to their ignorant populace. This is what Nigeria must resist.
Another area the South Africans have failed to take full advantage of is in the area of its immigration. Most Nigerians living in South Africa, live there legally and traveled there with valid visas. But assuming some of them no longer have valid visas, is it not within the jurisdiction of immigration to remove and deport them back to Nigeria? Why are the authorities complaining of illegal immigrants in their country? It is as if their hands are tied from removing such illegal immigrants and the only option open to them is to profile them as criminals and exposed them to xenophobic attacks.
It has to also be mentioned that the South Africa authorities must undertake judicial reforms to ensure that criminals are punished according to the crimes they commit. The current trend should be reformed so as not to treat criminal activities with kids gloves and then turn around the next minute to engage in the extrajudicial killing of Nigerians.
In all, we believe that the two countries stand to gain more from a mutually beneficial relationship than the current toxic disposition where they tend to engage in competition and unnecessary shadow boxing and muscle-flexing. When the dust, kicked off by this xenophobic attacks has settled, the two countries should return to the table and agree on a suitable approach of institutionalizing early warning systems that would forestall a recurrence of incidents of this nature in future.