SA must fix xenophobia or face losing key partnerships

Professor Adekeye Adebajo is Director of the University of Johannesburg’s Institute for Pan-African Thought and Conversation. He recently penned an opinion piece published in the Business Day on 9 September 2019.

I was recently visiting Lagos when I found myself feeling a sense of déjà vu as I watched South African mobs on television looting and attacking shops owned by Nigerians and other Africans. We have been here before. In March 2017, South African vigilantes burned and looted scores of homes and businesses belonging to Nigerians in Rosettenville, Mamelodi, and Atteridgeville, which they alleged were drug dens and brothels.

Having lived in South Africa for 16 years, one my biggest frustrations is the failure of so many of its citizens to embrace an African identity and of the government to attract more skilled Africans to its shores in order to create an “America in Africa”. America’s genius has, of course, been its ability to attract the best and brightest from the rest of the world, trained at huge expense by these countries. South Africa has, however, lacked the vision over the last two and a half decades to convert its advantage as Africa’s most industrialised country to the development of its economy and society.

The flames of these xenophobic attacks have been fanned by prejudiced politicians like mayor Herman Mashaba who has complained that foreigners were “messing up Johannesburg.” Even the usually sensible Gauteng premier, David Makhura, has recently joined in the “dog whistle” populism of linking foreigners to crime. The demonization and dehumanisation of migrants by politicians makes it easier for self-hating pyromaniac mobs to attack them. Scapegoating foreigners also takes away attention from the failings of these politicians.

South African reactions to xenophobic attacks have often involved blaming invisible “third forces” and “fifth columnists” to explain away the brutality, or hiding behind phrases such as “black-on-black violence,” as if this in itself were some kind of insightful revelation. Others have tried to portray these attacks as poor people killing other poor people. Yet, xenophobia is widespread in South African society from politics to business to academia. These frequent attacks on fellow Africans in South Africa – including maiming and burning people alive – seem to represent an area of South African “exceptionalism” on the continent.

The recent attacks in Tembisa, Alexandria, Hillbrow, Cleveland, Jeppestown, Malvern, Germiston, and the Johannesburg and Tshwane central business districts, saw eight deaths, scores injured, and hundreds of foreign-owned shops burned and looted. Nigeria demanded compensation for the damaged property, and cancelled its participation at the World Economic Forum in Cape Town. Abuja also accused the South African police of turning a blind eye to some of these attacks, while noting the failure of South Africa’s criminal justice system to convict perpetrators of xenophobic attacks.

Ordinary Nigerians reacted to the recurring attacks on their citizens with seething anger. Social media has been abuzz with much disinformation and fake news inflaming passions on both sides. Nigerian mobs also attacked South African businesses in Nigeria such as Shoprite, Pep Stores and MTN, forcing some of these businesses to shut down their operations. South African Airways staff felt the need to use heavy security to transport their flight attendants to the airport in Lagos.

About 50,000 Nigerians annually visit South Africa, while over 120 South African businesses operate in Nigeria. Bilateral trade was worth $4.5 billion last year. Both sides thus have much to lose if the bilateral relationship continues to deteriorate. Visa issues remain a major bone of contention. Despite the Binational Commission between both countries having been elevated from vice-presidential to presidential level, it has yet to meet, and neither president attended the other’s presidential inauguration.

Nigerian president Muhammadu Buhari’s planned – but not confirmed – visit to South Africa next month provides an early opportunity to “reset” this relationship. Four recommendations are critical for success. First, Abuja and Tshwane must immediately revive the Binational Commission and ensure that regular meetings occur. Second, the early-warning and mediation systems agreed after the 2017 attacks, must be urgently established. Third, “track-two” initiatives involving both countries’ civil society and business sectors must work with the two governments to improve people-to-people relationships. Finally, South African politicians must show genuine leadership in promoting grassroots anti-xenophobic movements in local communities, and educate their population on the contributions that Nigeria and other African countries made to the liberation of South Africa.

*The views expressed in the article is that of the author/s and does not necessarily reflect that of the University of Johannesburg

prof adekeye adebajo
Professor Adekeye Adebajo
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