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Monday, April 27, 2015

Understanding South Africa’s Xenophobia. By: UCHE EZECHUKWU

After my first eye-opening journalistic trip to South Africa in 1993, before their independence, I had stayed in touch but did not visit that country for another 16 years, during which period epochal developments had taken place there. The fast-forward evolution was mostly on account of Nelson Mandela’s rule as the first democratically elected Black leader of what was being put out to the world as a rainbow nation. 
But more than a rainbow nation, the Black rule in South Africa had become like the picture of Oliver Orwell’s Animal Farm, where the Black political elite, rather than pursuing socio-economic policies that would uplift and enhance the lives and welfare – and even the psychology - of their oppressed Black hoi poloi, was rather seeking economic and social shoulder- rubbing with the whites who have continued to hold firm to all the economic levers in the country. Without any form of grip on the economy, the so-called independence for the Blacks was mere fluke.
A fact that is most often overlooked, especially by outsiders, is that the worldwide encomium lavished on Nelson Mandela was not necessarily for the wonderful life-changing things that he did to enhance the living conditions of fellow Blacks, but rather for his ‘forgiving’ spirit against the whites. Many had envisaged that when the Blacks took over, there would be a binge of vengeful acts against the whites that had placed them under sub-human condition for centuries. Under Mandela, that did not happen. But then Mandela’s stay at the Union Building, as well as that of his other two successors – Mbeki and Xuma – have not brought such meaningful fundamental improvement of life for most Blacks as would have been expected in a nation with the type of endowments of South Africa.

The collapse of the Apartheid opened up the country in all ramifications and created enormous new opportunities which caused a stampede of other African nationals into the country, in search of these greener pastures. Others also flocked in to escape domestic turmoil in their own countries. The near-total collapse of the Zimbabwean economy was a clear case in point. Furthermore, most Black African migrants psychologically claimed South Africa as their collective heritage, and an independent such Africa a reward, in the knowledge that even kids in Black African nations had made material contributions to the liberation of the enclave from the white minority rulers – Nigerians more so.

Nigerians of my generation would easily remember how we had to give up a percentage of our fees and scholarships to cater for the South African students, especially their hard-drinking youths who were fellow undergraduates. Civil servants were forced to ‘donate’ part of their salaries monthly to fund the liberation struggle in South Africa, Namibia and Zimbabwe. Even kids in primary and secondary schools were not left out. Nigeria and Nigerians had always felt that South Africa’s problems were Nigeria’s problems and that their joys should also be theirs. Yet, Nigeria had always received raw deals for these giant efforts. (I will have the opportunity to relate our practical experience in Zimbabwe, someday). Prof Akinyemi, former foreign affairs minister recently put these issues in sharp and sad context in his recent TV interview.
Yet, on most occasions, if you have an encounter with Black elites in South Africa, you would be amazed at the type of venom and hatred they exhibit towards you. Incidentally, you do not experience similar emotions from the whites whom we had fought with all that we had and more. Most Black South African officials see a Nigerian as game. The stories of disgrace of our dignitaries, like those involving our senators and Prof Wole Soyinka are legion. Not to talk of the fact that to most Black law enforcement officers in South Africa, every Nigerian is a criminal until he, at great pains, proves himself otherwise.
My personal example was indicative and paints a picture of what less privileged Nigerians go through on a daily basis. In March 2011 I was invited to South Africa to deliver a paper to the first ever convention of Nigeria Union in South Africa (NUSA) in Cape Town. A full complement of Nigerian diplomatic team came to receive me and get me through the Immigration posts at the Oliver Tambo airport in Johannesburg. The Nigerian officials were well known to the South Africans, with proper accreditation identification pinned on their coat lapels, not withstanding, a Black official was so hostile to me for no reason to the extent that he set a dog to sniff me. The experience was so humiliating that I felt like turning back at the airport and returning to Lagos with the same Arik flight that had brought me.

Obviously, the Black government in South Africa sees and treats every Nigerian as a drug pusher. During that particular trip, a relevant official at the Nigerian Consulate drew my attention to a Social Studies text book issued by the Education Ministry for use for fifth grade pupils that states somewhere that Nigerians are drug dealers! I still have a copy of that book in my possession. I learnt that Nigeria made an official protest about the book but I have no way of knowing the outcome.
So, it is not hard to see that the hostility against Nigerians, which is the precursor of the on-going xenophobic violence against them, is being programmed right from the topmost echelons of the Black administration and implanted in the psyche of the ordinary South Africans. The Blacks in South Africa still worship and are in awe of the Whites, so if they must blame somebody for their lives which have remained brutish, short and forlorn, it could not be blamed on the whites that had placed them under sub-human conditions, nor on their Black leaders who had neither improved their lives nor provided them with education, but on Nigerians, who as they are being told, are taking away all the huge opportunities that would have been available to them.
Let me digress a bit. As the preparation for Nelson Mandela’s funeral was taking place in 2013, I had the single privilege of bringing to the notice of Nigerian authorities, through Amb. Okey Emuchay, the information that before Mandela was jailed in 1963, he had been smuggled into Nigeria where he was secured and hosted by Dr. Nnamdi Azikiwe. In fact, Zik had given one of his ‘boys’, Chief Mbazulike Amechi, the responsibility of taking care of Nelson Mandela who Chief Amechi kept and looked after in relative comfort and obvious safety in Enugu, for six weeks till Mandela, opted on his own to go back. He did and was jailed for life. When Mandela visited Nigeria after his release from prison in 1992, he also went to Enugu to meet with Chief Mbazulike Amechi and his family and continued to communicate with him till the heavy duties of running a state made it no longer impossible.

This information was quickly processed and a visa was obtained for the old politician and his son to proceed to Johannesburg, where, accompanied by our Consul General, Amb. Okey Emuchay, he proceeded to Mandela’s house to lay a wreath and sign the register. But subsequently, he was snubbed and was not even given any access to the funeral at Qunu. In addition, Nigeria’s official delegation was also snubbed and consigned to the corner of the hall. Only Alhaji Atiku Abubakar and his entourage were given a pride of place. Of course, Atiku is President Zuma’s business partner. The truth is that it gives a great pleasure to Black South African officials each time they get an occasion and opportunity to insult and humiliate Nigeria. Such occasions have been many in the distant and recent past.

This digression is mainly to lend credence to the fact that as the Black political elite in South Africa has absolutely no respect for history, their body language encourages the ordinary Black South Africans to hate other Africans, especially Nigerians. Those hateful things that Black leaders have managed to utter in the open, like the recent xenophobic statements of the Zulu king and the son of President Zuma, which sparked off the latest violence against migrants, are not just a one-off thing. One should, therefore, imagine the other things they say in secret against their fellow Blacks. King Goodwill Zwelithini is so well regarded and is in the rank of the like of our Sultan of Sokoto, and with the likes of Zuma Jnr, definitely represent the mind-set of the Black elite in South Africa across the board, no matter how much they might want to deny it.
The ordinary Black there has been led to believe, like an article of faith, that their jobs and other opportunities are being taken away by the migrants that have flooded their country and have failed to make distinction. Yet, as the Greek philosopher, Heraclitus said, a people’s character is their fate. In that way, the historically inherited and institutionalized behavioural patterns of the Black South African men have made them to be more laid back than the other Africans who they claim are taking away their opportunities.
I have often wondered, but have not seriously investigated the factors in their culture that make the Black female South African more focused and more hard working than their male counterparts, and definitely as aggressive as the Nigerians who flood to their country. They are better educated, work harder and are attracted to the Nigerians and their culture of hard work. While most of their men relax at home and at pubs waiting for their women to come home, provide money for meals and for their drink, the women labour from sunrise to sunset to cater for their homes. Naturally, during their outings, they encounter the ‘hustling’ Nigerian men, most of whom they fall in love with. Do not also forget that one of the key grouses of South African Black men against the Nigerian kwerekwere is that they take away their jobs and their nubile women, too.

As for the officials, it has become too convenient to visit cruelty on many Nigerians, on the flimsy and often false pretext of criminality. It is undeniable that many Nigerians and other African immigrants are involved, at different levels of crime in that country. But it would be ridiculous to create the impression – as the South African officials are often wont to create – that a preponderant population of the Nigerians there are involved in crime, while their own people are immune, forgetting that even today, criminality in South Africa remains about the highest in the world. The truth is that many low level immigrants from Nigerians came almost with nothing and are therefore involved in harsh daily struggles they call ‘hustling’. Many make it, many more do not.
Not even the high number of Nigerians locked away in the prisons across South Africa proves or justifies the impression of high criminality among them, as I found out during my work with the Nigerian mission and immigrants there. Most are held on flimsy and questionable pretexts. My interview with NUSA executive members and my interaction with Nigeria’s consular officials were very revealing.

                                                                                                                         By: UCHE EZECHUKWU

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