The xenophobic attacks in South Africa

ON Sunday, September 1, nationals from various African countries came under attack as a new wave of xenophobic violence hit South Africa. According to reports, the violence was triggered after a taxi driver in Pretoria, one of South Africa’s major cities, was allegedly killed by a Tanzanian drug lord on Tuesday, August 27, when he confronted drug dealers and police officers allegedly involved in selling drugs. This incident then led to protests by taxi operators which eventually morphed into the customary aggression against foreigners accused of fuelling the drug trade and sundry crimes in the country. While the police responded swiftly to the violence in Pretoria, arresting at least 18 vandals, violence broke out in Johannesburg and surrounding areas. Protesters looted and vandalised foreign-owned shops and businesses and on Friday, September 6, the South African Police Service (SAPS) announced that a total of 11 people had been killed, adding, however, that only seven deaths had been directly linked to the xenophobic violence. It also arrested a total of 497 suspects for violence-related offences in Gauteng.

Naturally, the attacks drew reprisals in many African countries, including Nigeria, Zambia, Mozambique, Kenya, the Democratic Republic of Congo, among others, with South African-owned businesses and embassies coming under attacks by protesters outraged by the grievous maltreatment of fellow Africans by the South African xenophobes. Among other developments, some African countries annnounced the boycott of the World Economic Summit billed to take place in South Africa while Nigerian artistes billed to perform in South Africa later this month called off their engagements. Amid the backlash across Africa, Zambia called off its earlier scheduled friendly match with the Bafana Bafana, while Madagascar, called upon by the South African Football Association (SAFA) to replace Zambia, followed in the former’s footsteps, saying that it could not proceed with the exercise following the mindless violence unleashed on fellow Africans in South Africa. Organisers of the 16th edition of the Abuja International Film Festival and the Africa International Film Festival announced the immediate suspension of all South African films submitted for the festival scheduled to hold from October 22 to October 25. Air Tanzania suspended flights to Johannesburg.

In Nigeria, many called for a boycott of South African businesses, while mobs attacked and looted Shoprite, MTN and PEP, and the South African embassies in Lagos and Abuja were forced to temporarily shut down operations. President Muhammadu Buhari sent a special envoy to South African president, Cyril Ramaphosa, to register his concerns over the attacks. Nigeria’s Ambassador to South Africa, Kabiru Bala, was also recalled by the Federal Government. On his part, the Minister of Foreign Affairs, Geoffrey Onyeama, stressed that the Nigerian government remained firm in its resolve to ensure that Nigerian losses were fully compensated by South Africa. “We have made it clear that what has happened in South Africa is totally unacceptable. Enough is enough. We are going to draw a red line here. We are not going to accept it again,” he said. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs also announced that it would immediately commence the evacuation of Nigerians willing to leave South Africa and return to Nigeria.

Truth be told, the xenophobic attacks in South Africa are unfortunate. They portrayed the country as a lawless fiefdom and a blight on the African continent. The attackers, miseducated and misguided into believing that their economic misfortunes were caused by foreigners rather than their own government, pounced on fellow Africans and butchered them in cold blood. Automarts, mechanic workshops, electronic shops and other businesses providing jobs to South Africans were razed in a fit of bestial rage while their defenseless owners scampered for safety. The protesters looted shops with glee. This has sadly spawned anger across Africa, with many citizens of countries that once stood in solidarity with South Africa during the struggle for freedom vowing to shed South African blood at the slightest available opportunity.

To say the least, this is an unfortunate development because if the African continent has ever needed unity and cooperation, this is certainly the time. There should be no black-on-black or indeed any other form of violence anywhere in Africa, let alone in South Africa, its second largest economy and one of the leading lights. Circumscribed by poor leadership and pervasive poverty, Africans continue to die in droves on the Meditteranean Sea as they embark on the perilous journey into Europe in search of a better life, and there is a sense in which it is right to say that the journey towards redemption has not even begun. African leaders need to come together and forge a common front against poverty and underdevelopment. This is why the latest incidents of xenophobia in South Africa are much more than a double tragedy.

In just 25 years of nationhood, the country has witnessed a terrible slide in leadership. As we noted in previous editorials, as the self-described Rainbow Nation found it increasingly hard to deliver on the promise of economic prosperity for all after independence, frustration mounted, especially among the poor in the townships and urban areas. With the hospitality of the early post-Apartheid days virtually forgotten, the poor turned their anger on foreigners who became an easy scapegoat even as a new black middle class gorged itself on the riches of the country. It is equally saddening that a country once ruled by the noble, courageous and erudite Nelson Mandela now has the baggage of being ruled by Ramaphosa, whose thinly-disguised tendencies has arguably fuelled the lawlessness perpetrated under his watch. Like South Africa’s High Commissioner to Nigeria, Bobby Moroe and the Minister of Police, Bheki Cele, Ramaphosa has been playing down the ongoing  barbarity, mouthing the alibi that South African businesses have also come under attack.

But if the South African response to the ongoing xenophobic attacks is less than noble, the response of the Nigerian government also leaves much to be desired. In the face of the attacks against Nigerians in South Africa, the Nigerian government slithered and dithered, and it was not until massive outrage by Nigerians on the social media and strident protests by prominent Nigerians that it swung into action. Instead of immediately drawing a line in the sand, the Buhari administration chose to dispatch an envoy to South Africa. That is not what serious governments do. Indeed, had the Nigerian government not given the impression that foreign governments could trifle with Nigerian life at will over the years, the South African government would not have been emboldened to continue its lax attitude to the protection of the lives and properties of Nigerians. Nigerian life has meant little to the Nigerian government over the years and this  is why Nigerians continue to be subjected to harrowing treatment around the world with no response, let alone a robust one, by the Nigerian government.

Lamenting the killing of 116 Nigerians in South Africa, we wrote on February 15, 2017: “In our view, any country that could treat the loss of 116 citizens in a foreign land with levity is simply a basket case. To say the least, the attitude of the Nigerian government to the killings in South Africa is disgraceful. A serious country would have extracted more than facetious promises of action in similar circumstances. The Nigerian government should have made it clear in the diplomatic circles that there would be very grievous consequences for the callous murder of its citizens. The murder of Nigerians in South Africa and elsewhere will continue as long as the government maintains its cavalier attitude to the lives of its citizens.”

Sadly, we have again been proved right in our prognosis and it can only be hoped that the government will wake up from its self-induced slumber and rise to the defence of Nigerian interests anywhere in the world.

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