Africa Watch

Xenophobia costing South Africa in Africa

Nigerian target after xenophobic attacks

Nigeria is effectively exploiting the South African government’s ambivalent approach to xenophobia in the country.

South Africa’s reputation in Africa which has been in decline in recent years, received another body blow from the latest upwelling of xenophobic attacks on particularly African migrants.   

Sometimes the truth hurts, as it does in a Simon Allison article, South Africa has become the Bad Guy in Africa.  

“It’s not so great being a South African in Africa any more. Things have changed. Brand SA is at an all-time low, with no sign of recovering soon.”

South Africans are longer perceived as the good guys. If anything, the opposite is true, she wrote.

There are many reasons for this state of affairs, but the South African treatment of foreigners has become the trademark one.


A backlash from the latest xenophobic attacks has already begun, with more likely to follow.

The most scathing reaction came from South Africa’s main rival for dominance on the continent, Nigeria.

Taping into the widely held Nigerian perception of being specifically targeted during  xenophobic attacks, the latest incidents were handy opportunities to discredit SA in Africa and globally.

Emotions are running high in Nigeria, manifesting itself in physical retaliation, targeting South African businesses.

Most prominently, MTN was forced to shut its Nigerian headquarters after protesters invaded and ransacked its building. Media reports claimed it happened in full view of 30 police officers, who took no action.

Nigerian politicians also warned of further retaliation against SA business interests: “The South Africans must be careful. Any more attacks on Nigerians may be met with retaliation and reprisals against their companies here,” warned former minister Femi Fani-Kayode in a tweet.

As Nigeria discontent grows, calls on Nigeria’s government to expel the SA High Commissioner and take over South African-owned businesses, including MTN and Shoprite, became louder and stronger.

At political level, Nigeria’s National Assembly reportedly resolved to send a delegation to the SA parliament to request measures to stop further xenophobic attacks on Nigerians, and Africans at large.

Nigeria’s Senate threatened to expel MTN and several other SA corporations, including retail chain Shoprite and TV service provider DStv. Additionally, it resolved to send its own delegation south to discuss the matter.

Nigerian media also reported that the Senate plans to ask the Nigerian government to reconsider its diplomatic ties with SA.

In a contentious move, Abike Dabiri-Erewa, Senior Special Assistant on Foreign Affairs and Diaspora to the Nigerian President, revealed that the UN and African Union (AU) would be requested to investigate xenophobia in South Africa.

For the AU to again intercede, as it did in April 2015, would be a major embarrassment for South Africa.

Dabiri-Erewa also proclaimed that Nigeria’s government will no longer ignore violence against its citizens in South Africa.

She described South African Home Affairs minister, Malusi Gigaba’s, response to xenophobia ”as smirking  of insensitivity, and therefore very reprehensible, if not unacceptable.”   

She also claimed Gigaba appears as if he would rather dwell on, and entertain himself, with diplomatic niceties when the welfare of Nigerians resident in South Africa are at stake.

Nigerian anger is, however, not restricted to government and parliament. Members of the National Association of Nigerian Students staged a protest at the South African High Commission in Abuja, burnt the SA national flag and issued a 48-hour ultimatum to South African nationals to leave Nigeria.

Even a coalition of Niger Delta militant groups pounced on the opportunity to attract attention and redeem their tattered reputation with a statement telling 18 South African companies and their personnel, to leave the region within a month or risk attacks.

The coalition is a hodgepodge of different groups, opportunists and criminal gangs that have terrorised the oil-rich region for years.

They are venting, not totally without merit, their terror campaign against international oil companies and Nigeria’s government for exploiting the region at the expense of the local people and the environment.  

One of their more popular strategies is the kidnapping of foreigners and demanding outrageous ransoms.

With the present angry anti-South African mood, they might argue that the kidnapping of South Africans would be less controversial and even be met with silently approval from law enforcement agencies. 

Nigeria’s media gave wide coverage to the latest xenophobic attacks and the Nigerian response to it – particularly prominent was the negative public response, criticising the South African government’s alleged failure to prosecute its perpetrators, claiming they received “a license to kill foreign nationals.”

Much attention is also given to the popularly held view that South Africa, particularly former liberation movements, are ungrateful for significant Nigerian contributions and support in the struggle against Apartheid.

More blame

However, Nigeria is not the only angry nation.

Marc Gbaffou, chairperson of the African Diaspora Forum (ADF), representing African migrant communities in SA, also warned that the SA government does not realise what African embassies are quietly reporting back to their capitals about the attacks. Others are simply less vocal than the Nigerians.

After the 2015 xenophobic attacks, there were reprisals, including expulsion or boycotting of South African businesses, in several countries whose nationals had been victims, including Zimbabwe, Mozambique, Zambia, Malawi and Ethiopia.

Experienced journalist Peter Fabricius, expressed concern that if South Africa’s standing in Africa continuous to falter, ”it poses a risk both to Pretoria’s ambition to influence political and security affairs and to its critical economic investments on the continent”.

Act now       

Despite legitimate criticism, South Africa’s government is not the only one to blame.

Last week The Intelligence Bulletin argued that Nigeria should recognise that what has been happening in South Africa is also an indictment against themselves.

“The question they need to ask themselves is: ‘Why do so many of our people find it necessary to face a dangerous situation in South Africa in the hope of finding a better life?’”

The dilemma, however, is locked up in the perception – perhaps more than a perception - that South Africa’s government is not doing enough to combat xenophobia.

The time for just talk has passed.

by Garth Cilliers

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