It was the illustrious Roman scholar, Pliny the Elder who popularized the expression that ’there is always something new coming out of Africa.’
While the specific context of that remark is to be noted, in a rather sad and painful way, he may indeed have been proven to be prescient in his choice of words when the outburst, once again last week, of another bout of xenophobic violence targeted at Nigerians and other foreigners of African descent in South Africa is put on the pedestal.
Indeed, the outburst has brought to the fore once again the reality that Africa indeed still has many unsettled questions that continue to dog and impede the genuine efforts of many devoted patriots to build a great and prosperous continent that would provide succor and sustenance for the generality of the peoples who live in it.
Many reasons have been adduced for the recent flare-out of animosity by the South African streets against fellow Africans, a condition that the nation’s International Relations and Cooperation Minister, Naledi Pandor, has admitted as being a situation of Afrophobia. They range from resentment over the antics of ‘criminally-minded foreigners’ to the allegedly brash lifestyles of many African migrants and on to envy over the seeming prosperity of non-South Africans at the expense of the indigenous population.
While it is possible that some of these factors could be part of the broader pool of challenges that have been spawned as part of the process of intra-continental migration, it is however also very clear that we have to look elsewhere for the grander causative factors.
It is in this wise then that we note that these acts of Afrophobia do indeed predate the coming into office of the first Black African Majority Rule Government in the country in 1994. From a point of history, the erstwhile apartheid regime through its policies of Bantustans and Separate Development openly encouraged the flourishing of what was then called ‘Black-on-Black violence.’
To sustain the apartheid era mining economy in that season, foreign migrant workers were brought in from several of the neighbouring countries in the Southern African region but deliberately and most mischievously kept apart from, and often, in direct competition with the impoverished indigenous Black populations.
At Independence in 1994, ‘Black on Black violence’ continued and then President Nelson Mandela and the ruling African National Congress, ANC were forced to among other things, negotiate a rainbow government and institute a Government of National Unity to help allay fears of post-Independence marginalization from different segments of the population, including Black South Africans.
But politics being what it is, these acts of accommodation were not to be institutionalized and indeed began to peter off with the leadership changes that were to follow. It is in this wise then that we really have to look at the problem in its broader dimensions.
To be sure, the big elephant in the shop for all that we can see is the continuing poor run of the South African economy. In the past decade or so, even as more and more Africans from the rest of the continent have been attracted to South Africa’s more relatively lavish industrial space (by continental standards), the economy has however had to endure fairly significant blows from factors as diverse as the global economic meltdown and the crash in commodity prices.
There have also been issues like the inherited economic disparities between the hitherto white ‘lords of the manor’ and the teeming mass of the black population, an under-performing educational and skills development sector and relatively unaccountable governance (South Africans call it #StateCapture) in most notably, the Jacob Zuma years.
Added to this is the pressure from many embittered South African nationals who now see the horde of additional African migrants that have presently come into their land as crude and opportunistic competitors who are taking scarce jobs, opportunities and benefits that they insist should be exclusively theirs.
Linked with this is a second major failing from political actors in the nation who, in trying to maintain their own privileges, have found in the foreigner-as-bogeyman rhetoric a convenient deflection point to not take responsibility for their own roles in the compounding of the woes of citizens who have seen the promise of liberation change from ‘a revolution in rising expectations to one of rising frustration.’
It is regrettable also that the current crisis is coming in the midst of two very notable events that should help the cause of African economic development on the broader plane. The first is the launch of the operational phase of the African Continental Free Trade Agreement, AfCFTA at the Extraordinary Summit of Heads of States of the African Union, AU that was held in Niamey, Niger Republic in July, while the second is last week’s World Economic Forum, WEF Africa session that took place in Johannesburg, South Africa.
Xenophobia and Afrophobia are erroneous, dangerous and unhelpful. They solve no problems and only compound existing crisis situations. To engage in it is wicked and to encourage it evil. From the fallouts of the Jews-hating of the Nazi era to the Rwanda genocide of 1994, it has been clearly demonstrated that hating the Other is patently untenable. We must give no room for Xenophobes.
Be that as it may, it is equally reprehensible that some people in Nigeria have also latched upon the crisis of xenophobia in South Africa to this time around, destroy and loot businesses that are presumably connected to South Africa. However, we equally note that part of the environment that very sadly permitted the open recourse to such acts of criminality is not unconnected with the poor comprehension and handling of the events by Nigerian government actors.
Given the sheer enormity of the crisis, and particularly when the consensus from the streets (as evidenced by the several staged demonstrations by the National Association of Nigerian Students even before now) had overwhelmingly been that the Nigerian government was simply not ready to seriously engage with South Africa on the issue, government should have acted more proactively and firmly so as to avoid the later confusion that surrounded its position.
This in our view is one more reason for a total and comprehensive overhaul of Nigeria’s foreign policy mechanisms, particularly as it has to do with the protection of the lives and interests of Nigerian citizens overseas. And the time to do this is now.