I had barely spent 10 minutes on South African soil when I knew that Nigerians were unwelcome. Arriving at the O R Tambo International Airport, an immigration officer irritatingly asked me how long I was staying, despite seeing clearly on my passport that I had a visa to stay up to 30 days.
“Just five days,” I replied slowly, as confidently as I could. “And that is because I cannot wait to be back in my country.”
Taken aback, the middle-aged woman reclined and removed her glasses before saying: “That is very surprising. There are a lot of people from your country in here and we keep telling them to go, but they won’t.”
That was in March 2013. So it was unsurprising to hear the rumours last week that “South Africans were killing Nigerians.”
Impact of anti-migrant attacks in South Africa
Five years ago during a visit to Cameroon, a friend and I lost our way inside an expansive hotel in Yaounde. That was the day I discovered it was a crime to lose your way in a strange land, even if all your travel papers were intact.
Threatened with deportation
First, we ended up at the security post, then we were threatened with deportation, and finally, with imprisonment. For a moment, my friend and I wondered if we were Africans in an African country; if it was still the same country famed for its spirit of brotherhood and camaraderie.
From time to time, my Kenyan friend tells me how Nigerians troop into their country to “take over their women and their businesses” – in that specific order. While Kenyans have proven to be far more civilised than South Africans in their unhappiness with the Nigerian presence in their territory, the truth is that they would rather have a Kenya shorn of Nigerians.
When I first heard on April 13 that South Africans were “killing Nigerians”, it was untrue at the time. But with xenophobic attacks confirmed, I knew it was only a matter of days before we’d hear about the first Nigerian casualty. As of April 22, seven people had died from the attacks, all non-Nigerians. But a few Nigerians had lost their businesses and were severely injured; eight of them are now on their way out of South Africa.
I can understand the frustrations of the average club-wielding South African street urchin who thinks the best way to secure gainful employment is to hack down a black immigrant. What I can hardly understand is the veiled irresponsibility of the South African ruling class.
Goodwill Zwelithini, the Zulu king who triggered the current wave of attacks by saying “black immigrants must take their bags and go where they came from”, claimed his comments were taken out of context. But he quickly added: “If it were true that I said foreigners must go, this country would be up in flames.”
By interpretation, Zwelithini feels he wields the power to inflict savagery on foreigners, but he magnanimously would not exercise it.
Like Zwelithini, President Jacob Zuma has condemned the attacks. In his first public comment on the tragedy, Zuma urged his countrymen to understand that “no amount of economic hardship and discontent will ever justify attacking foreign nationals”.
He implored them to “treat those who are in our country legally with respect and Ubuntu”. What Zuma says implicitly is that illegal immigrants could be murdered or killed. Some days later, he would go on national television to say that “people are taking other people’s jobs” and the phenomenon needed to be fixed.
Zuma’s sentiment betrays the government position and is the clearest indication yet that the attacks are far from over.
When Sam Monalisa, South Africa’s consul-general in Nigeria, shut his country’s consulate in Abuja, fearing reprisal attacks, he blamed Nigerians for “using social media to blow an already tense situation in South Africa out of proportion and stoking emotions”. He had no single word of reprimand for his countrymen who had killed seven and wounded dozens.
Meanwhile, as Monalisa was busy blaming everyone else but his countrymen, it was being reported that 15 Zimbabweans had disappeared in Musina, the northernmost town in the Limpopo province of South Africa.
Some Nigerians have been threatening to bite South Africa if the attacks do not stop; others have called for extreme actions to hurt South African businesses, such as MTN, Multichoice, and Shoprite.
The Nigerian senate would later warn that it would act if the attacks continued. Its president, David Mark, wore a black armband in solidarity with South Africa-based Nigerians.
To Nigerians, this is the time for calm – the type that made us all fall in love with INEC Chairman Attahiru Jega after his assured reaction to the crude protestations of Goodluck Jonathan’s boy, Godsday Orubebe. It is the time to confirm that the Nigerian people are far more mature than the South Africans.
To the likes of armband-wearing David Mark, this is not the time to play to the gallery. This made-in-South-Africa adversity should force Nigerian leaders to think deeply about why Nigerians are always looking to “escape” from their country.
I have been told of the “impressive” population of Nigerians in Lesotho, which, with a size of 30,000 square kilometres, is one of Africa’s smallest countries. How do we say we are the Giant of Africa and we keep spilling our people to the rest of the continent? But small and thinly populated as it is, a Lesotho loti is approximately equal to 17 Nigerian naira.
The first Nigerian to be attacked in South Africa owns a mechanic workshop. Most Nigerians in South Africa own businesses that they should be running back home. And this is what the Nigerian government must focus on: To render more support to small-scale business owners, revitalise the education and health sectors, open up the economy – halt all manner of needless tourism.
The Nigerian government simply has to make Nigeria more attractive to Nigerians, and watch how quickly the arrogance of South African leaders would diminish.