In this interview with WALE AKINSELURE, one of the 187 Nigerians who returned from South Africa as a result of xenophobic attacks, Mr Bolatito Lawal, narrates his ordeal.
Can you tell us about yourself
My name is Bolatito Oladimeji Lawal. I am from Oyo State, Oluyole Local Government Area. I am 35 years old. I attended Molete Secondary School, Ibadan and college of education, Ikere-Ekiti. I am the last of six in our family. My dad is late, my mum is at Odo Ona/Elewe. I am married to a South African.
Did you get married to a South African to sustain your stay there or it was out of love?
I didn’t marry because I wanted to stay in South Africa. I married because I realized that I was old enough to have my own family. I got married last year 2018.
You are among the first batch of 187 Nigerians returned from South Africa as a result of xenophobic attacks. When did you leave Nigeria for South Africa?
I left Nigeria in 2013.
What prompted your leaving Nigeria back then?
I left to look for greener pastures and to improve upon the knowledge of my job.
What job and was that the same job you were doing in South Africa?
I am into phone and laptop repairs. There was a friend of mine who was into phone and laptop repairs on the Orita-Challenge/Odo Ona Elewe axis who I usually visited whenever I was free. I used to observe him and develop the skill. When I got to South Africa, I met one Pakistani guy who is a friend of mine from whom I learnt more about phones and laptop repairs. As a result, I became a master of phone and laptop repairs even had five apprentices. I had three from Malawi, one Nigerian and the other a South African.
Was the Pakistani guy the one that facilitated your leaving Nigeria?
When I left Nigeria, I did not have anyone in South Africa. I just decided to leave Nigeria in the hope to make things happen.
You must be a hustling guy
(Laughs) As a Nigerian, one has to hustle, one has to be strong.
What was business like over there?
Business was good. There is no way you will set up your business and people will not patronize you. It is a place where you can do your business and make profit. I set up my business in Johannesburg. In my shop, I had laptops, phones and accessories that I was selling. I was doing fine, my wife and I had two cars.
Will your wife be leaving South Africa to join you here in Nigeria?
By next month, she will be joining me here and I am 100 percent sure about that.
You married a South African, how do you describe a typical South African?
Some South Africans are animals while others are good. It’s the same way we have good and bad Nigerians.
What do you mean when you say some South Africans are animalistic in nature?
South Africans don’t care. Look at my hands (shows scar); look at what they did to me. They do not have mercy. They can shoot, kill using guns, knives at any time. That is why I said they are animals.
What was your personal xenophobia experience?
It was a case of the army going to war and returning home safely. That day, I arrived at my shop and found it set on fire. In fact, many shops were torched. On January 4 this year, they came to my shop around 10 in the morning. About five of them pushed me in, and spoke in their language. I tried to defend myself as a strong Nigerian but they brought out knives. While I was trying to fight them, one of them attempted to stab me in the back. I used my hand to block that stab attempt but the knife struck my veins affecting the five fingers of my right hand. They stole all my laptops, phones. One Good Samaritan came in and took me to the hospital. About three doctors worked on my hand then. All thanks to God that I can use my hands again.
Do you think these xenophobic attacks are particularly targeted at Nigerians as against other foreign nationals?
They target all foreigners there even those from Bangladesh, Pakistan. However, Nigerians were targeted in the recent xenophobic attacks. They only used other foreign nationals as cover up but the main target was Nigerians.
There are those who say that the attacks are exaggerated on the social media.
(Laughs) They say that because they are not there, we know what is happening there. I left South Africa on Wednesday yet on Tuesday, they still killed one Nigerian. They stabbed him to death, took his car. They also shot the brother of one of my friends there. There are several others of such instances.
However, Nigerians in South Africa are said to be engaged in illegal businesses.
In this regard, we have to classify Nigerians into Igbos, Yorubas and Hausas. Most Nigerians that are into drug business are from a particular tribe. Eighty out of 100 percent of this particular tribe there are into drug business. I was never attracted to venture into drug business, because I as a Yoruba person believe in doing things that are pure and won’t tarnish my image.
What is the response of the police and other security agencies when you report such attacks to them?
What are they going to do? We are the ones in their country. Imagine a police officer going to the house of a Nigerian married to a South African woman and they covered the man’s face and use teargas there. Is that how to torture a human being? And the South African authorities did nothing about that. About two years, a South African policeman killed a Nigerian, the Nigerian went to the South African police to seek for justice but nothing came out of it. A lot of lives of Nigerians have been cut short by the police but nothing is done about it.
Are you saying the South African government supports xenophobia?
Maybe not all, but some support xenophobia.
What informed your decision to return to Nigeria when the opportunity came?
It got to a point when you realise that you were left with nothing and your family kept asking you to return home. About three years ago, I lost my brother and my mummy has since then been crying for me to come home. I had to honour the call of my family to come home. My mummy was so happy when she saw me. Now that I don’t have anything, my fear was, what would happen when I return to Nigeria. It is really not easy but I just had to come home.
Are there some Nigerians in South Africa who are unwilling to return regardless the circumstances?
There are a lot of them. There are some Nigerians who have been there for about 20 years who don’t want to come back because they are not assured of anything back home. But, you have to come back to your roots.
Is South Africa really a better country compared to Nigeria, such that Nigerians are willing to damn the consequences of staying there?
Nigeria is a better country than South Africa. Here in Nigeria, you can walk freely and do whatever you want to do. In South Africa, you cannot just park your car anyhow. Before you return, they may have taken your car away. There is a lot of theft there; you can’t walk freely there.
Now that you are back, what help do you seek from the Nigerian government for you to continue life?
I want the Nigerian government to help us with anything so that we can start afresh. For me, for example, I want to start up my business again but I need capital to do that.
On your return, what did the Nigerian government give you?
They gave us N25,000 for transport, food and sim card loaded with N200,000 airtime. They said they will contact us on that line but I am yet to be called.
How do you intend to take off?
I believe in myself that as long as I live, I will start from somewhere and make it. I believe in my skill and don’t need to take shortcut. But for me to start from somewhere, I need help.
What is your message to Nigerians still in South Africa?
They should be sure of what they are doing out there and should not forget about home before something unfortunate happens to them there. A lot of Nigerians have lost their loved ones in South Africa and they are buried there. I do not pray that terrible things happen to Nigerians there. They should return home and I believe God will bless what they currently have.
The South African government has apologized to Nigeria and made commitments, do you think an end to xenophobia is near?
Mark my words, it may probably not happen again this year but it will happen next year and years to come. This is because xenophobia runs a lot in the blood of the typical South African.
Would you return to South Africa if another opportunity presents itself?
No. I will rather stay here or go to another country, not South Africa.