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Reuben Abati: Nigeria, Xenophobia & Ramaphosa’s Apology

It may be in keeping with diplomatic traditions to do this, but Africans in unison must make it clear that the hate-driven attack on immigrants in South Africa is totally unacceptable. What we know is that there is a tacit acceptance and promotion of a culture of hate by the South African authorities.



We are told that South Africa’s President Cyril Ramaphosa apologised on Saturday for the xenophobic attacks against foreigners living in South Africa, particularly persons involved in business who are seen by the ordinary South African as enemies. He reportedly did this in Harare, Zimbabwe, at the funeral ceremony of former president Robert Mugabe of Zimbabwe. Most appropriately, the South African President was booed. He was offering too little too late, and other Africans have every reason to think that South Africans having behaved badly deserve to be booed and even shut out of the African Union, or reported to the International Criminal Court (ICC), as has been recommended in certain quarters. More than a week after the attack on foreigners on the streets of Johannesburg and elsewhere, it has now occurred to the South African President to send envoys to Nigeria and six other African countries. Jeff Radebe, South Africa’s Minister of Energy, has visited Abuja to apologise to the government and people of Nigeria.

It may be in keeping with diplomatic traditions to do this, but Africans in unison must make it clear that the hate-driven attack on immigrants in South Africa is totally unacceptable. What we know is that there is a tacit acceptance and promotion of a culture of hate by the South African authorities. That is precisely why it took so long for the South African President to take the matter seriously. Before now, South African Minister of Foreign Affairs Grace Naledi Pandor told the world that Nigerians in South Africa are criminals, drug dealers and human traffickers. Deputy Police Minister Bongani Mkongi said no other country would tolerate 80% of its businesses being dominated by foreigners as is the case in South Africa. South African Defence Minister Nosiviwe Mapisa-Nqakula boasted, irresponsibly, that there is nothing South Africa can do about the xenophobic attacks because South Africa is an angry nation.

These were the disturbing messages that came out of South Africa as immigrants were attacked, their shops were pillaged and plundered and Africans from other parts of the continent fled in all directions. Rwanda, Nigeria, Zambia, Madagascar, Democratic Republic of Congo – government and nationals – expressed their anger in various forms but South Africa was studiously in denial. The only voices of reason in the midst of that crisis, as far as I could see, were Julius Malema of the Economic Freedom Fighters who condemned the deplorable conduct of South Africans; Mangozuthu Buthelezi, the Zulu Chief who gave a useful speech in which he reminded his compatriots of the sacrifice made by other Africans to free the black South African from apartheid. Then, of course, there is the testimony by many South African women, on social media – bold women who rose in defence of Nigerian men, who have been accused in this xenophobic crisis that they are taking over South African businesses and also marrying South African women to the discomfiture of the average South African male.

Xenophobic attacks in South Africa have been so regular and so persistent since 1994, after apartheid. Objection to white rule and domination has been replaced by resistance to the presence of immigrants on South African soil, and this has played out as black on black violence, the hegemony of hate and intolerance, a kind of reverse, umbilical apartheid with the immigrant as victim. The matter is serious. It is disturbing. It is unacceptable. President Cyril Ramaphosa’s apology does not solve the problem. His decision to send envoys across Africa is belated. Is he sincere? I don’t think so. Has he shown required leadership and sincerity of purpose. No. The South African authorities have a responsibility to protect foreigners on their soil. They have failed woefully. Accusations of xenophobia may be difficult to accept, and indeed embarrassing, and hence all that talk about criminality coming from South African officials, but the truth is that South Africa must see this crisis as an opportunity for reflection, review and penitence, and to ensure that these xenophobic attacks do not happen again.

President Ramaphosa’s apology can only make sense if he goes further to take concrete steps to put an end to the growing culture of hate in South Africa. He must match his apology with action. What programme(s) does he intend to put in place to heal a South African nation whose people appear so alienated, confused and disturbed? Are there any concrete ideas on the table to address an issue that goes straight to the heart of South Africa’s relevance, and may be Ramaphosa’s eventual legacy? I doubt if there are any. It seems to me that the big problem is not necessarily the outsider but the failure of the post-apartheid African National Congress (ANC) leadership in South Africa and the emergent black middle class. The apartheid regime was constructed to dehumanise, de-personalize, and violate the black South African.

The end of apartheid in 1994 has not made much difference. The emergence in power of a black-dominated African National Congress, the ruling party, after apartheid may have given the impression of a power shift, but in real terms, the black South African has not yet seen the dividends of a post-apartheid South Africa. In the last general elections, the African National Congress (ANC) recorded its worst performance since 1994. The party is divided. It is led by corrupt people who cannot agree on ethical standards either within the party or outside of it. Unemployment rate is over 28%. The people who have benefitted from the end of apartheid represent a very small percentage of the black population. Many black and colored South Africans live under conditions worse than what they faced under apartheid. Nelson Mandela, the first post-apartheid President of South Africa was a universal icon who gave everyone hope. He talked about a rainbow nation and preached unity and reconciliation. Years after Mandela’s death, the average South African can no longer see the rainbow clearly. Most of the young people wielding pangas and sticks and burning down shops belonging to foreigners do not have a sense of history. Many of them were born after the Mandela era. Their hate is borne out of sheer ignorance. Those who know the history have refused to teach them. They just do not know that once upon a time in that same South Africa, a black man was the equivalent of nothing.

The first task before Cyril Ramaphosa is to build a truly rainbow nation on a foundation of unity, reason, justice and service delivery. He needs to do this because the inheritors of Mandela’s legacy are clearly running South Africa aground and giving a bad name to the black man in Africa. This is the original source of the bad conduct of those South Africans who are killing their fellow Africans. They are busy blaming outsiders for the problems that have been created by their own leaders who don’t even have the decency to say the right things and who utter nonsense habitually. They have more or less disappointed the Madiba, with perhaps the only exception of Thabo Mbeki, whose Pan-Africanism contrasts sharply with the insularity and clownishness that we have witnessed from Jacob Zuma to Ramaphosa.

South African blacks are complaining that foreigners are taking their jobs and women because post-apartheid, no sustainable, productive effort has been made to enlarge the black middle class in South Africa. Social mobility remains a problem. Educational standards for blacks have not improved significantly. The few who have crossed the social mobility line are selfish. They have imposed on their own kinsmen such terror and wickedness worse than that of the white architects of apartheid. Those young South Africans venting their anger on Africans and other immigrants in their country are nonethe4less picking on the wrong target. Their problem is not the man from Mozambique, Zambia, Tanzania, India, Italy, Rwanda, Nigeria, Uganda, Angola, or Democratic Republic of Congo, let them look for their enemies in the South African parliament, the Presidency and government departments across the country. Those are the real enemies of South Africa not the Mozambican who runs a corner shop in the suburb of Johannesburg; not the Nigerian who believes that a South African woman is the sweetest thing since the apple in the Garden of Eden.

Apologies alone will not be enough. The South African government must embark on a national healing process. The Black South African is not done yet with the anger or the pains of apartheid, and the slowness of post-apartheid recovery. When he finishes chasing the outsider away, he will turn his gaze and anger on his own compatriots, and the Mandela legacy would have been ruined. President Ramaphosa must take South Africa through a new process of healing and reconciliation, South Africa needs an anger-management programme for its citizens on a very large scale. It is bad enough for an individual to slip into depression; it is worse for an entire country to be depressed. South Africa is in the grips of an obvious clinical depression. History may well help. The young South African who is attacking foreigners needs to be taught the history of his own country and present reality. South Africa is a free country today because liberals and progressives across the world stood up to condemn the evil of apartheid: a system that treated the black South African as a non-person on his own soil. The black man in South Africa today can go to a mall, sit in the same bus with a white person, inter-marry freely, in fact feel like a human being because other Africans supported the liberation heroes of South Africa. Here in Nigeria, civil servants had to surrender part of their salaries to support the anti-apartheid struggle. Many musicians: Fela, Bongos Ikwue, Sonny Okosun, Majek Fashek, Onyeka Onwenu, the Mandators, Ayinla Kollington, Sunny Ade waxed records to condemn the dehumanization of the black man in South Africa. Ghanaians, Zimbabweans, Ugandans decried the maltreatment of our brothers and sisters in South Africa. Today, the same South Africans whose parents and grandparents were saved from the clutches of white oppression are proving to be a generation of ingrates. History saves a nation. South Africa must teach its young population the history of their country.

Cyril Ramaphosa should not just send envoys to other African countries. He should personally embark on a diplomatic shuttle across Africa. He should also have a national address devoted to the challenge of xenophobia. He must resist the push by the hawks within his own administration who nurse xenophobic ideas and who in particular convert their sentiments to state policy. His Minister of Foreign Affairs, the Defence Minister, and Deputy Minister of Police should be fired. They may be good people ordinarily, but they have proven to be very bad diplomats and spokespersons. Ramaphosa must make it clear that these persons do not speak on this subject for either the government or the people of South On Monday, September 16, Cyril Ramaphosa is said to have sent Jeff Radebe, Minister of Energy to apologise to his brother, Muhammadu Buhari for the attack on Nigerians in South Africa. Radebe reportedly told President Buhari that 50 suspects have so far been apprehended and that the South African government will not tolerate xenophobia. Radebe is a very experienced politician. I have no doubts that he would manage to convince Buhari. But as he returns to South Africa, after what is clearly a reciprocal exchange of special envoys, Buhari must tell him that the matter between Nigerians and South Africans is now beyond the Presidential Villas in Abuja and Pretoria. This is one mismanaged case in which international relations has gone from official corridors to the streets. Mr. Radebe should also tell President Ramaphosa not to listen to those advisers who believe that Nigeria is over-reacting. The only solution is that no Nigerian or Nigerian business should ever be harassed or attacked again in South Africa. It is within South Africa’s rights to determine and enforce its immigration laws but if any foreigner manages to set up home or shop in South Africa, then the country itself has an international responsibility to protect all persons within its territory. Cyril Ramaphosa and his team must take that duty seriously.

I should end this commentary by commending the outflow, in fact the overflow, of patriotism by Nigerians over the attack on Nigerians in South Africa. This is not the first time the attacks would happen. There were cases of xenophobia in South Africa in 1994, 2008, 2015, and now 2019, but this time Nigerians have set aside political differences, and ethnic and class sentiments and insisted that an attack on one Nigerian is an attack on all Nigerians. If the Nigerian government had declared war and called out volunteers, there would have been a ready army of citizens ready to fight the South Africans. Nigerians don’t always praise their governments. But there seems to be a consensus of opinion that President Muhammadu, Nigeria’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Nigeria’s Diaspora Commission got it right this time by making it clear that every Nigerian life matters, including the lives of those Naledi Pandor and her likes regard as criminals. The hero in all of this melodrama, however, is Allen Onyema, the CEO of Air Peace, a Nigerian airline, which provided aircraft to evacuate Nigerians, free of charge from South Africa. He deserves a Presidential handshake and a national honour.

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