An Opinion Peace on Afrophobia/Xenophobia in South Africa

The Nigeria/South Africa Palava
Adekeye Adebajo

I was recently visiting Lagos – the city of my birth – when I found myself feeling a sense of déjà vu as I watched South African mobs on television looting and attacking shops owned by Nigerians and other Africans. We have been here before. Nigerians were among those hurt in the horrific xenophobic attacks of 2008 when 62 people – mostly Zimbabweans, Mozambicans, and Malawians – were killed, and 100,000 displaced. More recently, in March 2017, South African vigilantes burned and looted scores of homes and businesses belonging to Nigerians in Rosettenville, Mamelodi, and Atteridgeville in Gauteng province, which they alleged were drug dens and brothels.

Having lived in South Africa for 16 years, one my biggest frustrations is the failure of so many of its citizens to embrace an African identity and of the government to attract more skilled Africans to its shores in order to create an “America in Africa”. America’s genius has, of course, been its ability to attract the best and brightest from the rest of the world – trained at huge expense by these countries – and to turn them into American citizens or green-card holders.

The United States thus skims off the cream of the best entrepreneurs, engineers, and economists for its own direct benefit. South Africa – with Africa’s most industrialised economy – is the only country in Africa that could provide the same Western lifestyle to African professionals living abroad. The country has, however, lacked the vision over the last two and a half decades to convert this advantage to the development of its economy and society, while simultaneously inculcating a Pan-African identity into its population.

The typical response to these attacks from South African officialdom – who themselves often fan the flames of Afrophobia – has been to engage in “xenophobia denialism”. Then Home Affairs minister, Malusi Gigaba, sought in 2017 to portray rampaging mobs as mere “criminals”, while mouthing unhelpful platitudes about most South Africans not being xenophobic. Current police minister, Bheki Cele, similarly insisted the current attacks were a result of “criminality rather than xenophobia”, as if crime could not simultaneously be xenophobic, misogynistic, or homophobic. The prejudiced mayor of Johannesburg, Herman Mashaba, has often demonstrated a crass nativism in equating foreigners to crime, as if South Africa did not have its own home-grown criminals. Even the usually sensible Gauteng premier, David Makhura, has recently joined in this “dog whistle” populism of linking foreigners to crime. The demonization and dehumanisation of migrants as drug-lords and pimps by opportunistic politicians makes it easier for self-hating pyromaniac mobs to attack them. Scapegoating foreigners also takes away attention from the failings of these politicians.

South African reactions to xenophobic attacks is often astonishing, as attempts are made to use “third forces” and “fifth columnists” to explain away the brutality or hiding behind phrases such as “black-on-black violence,” as if this in itself were some kind of insightful revelation. Others have tried to condone these attacks by portraying them as poor people killing other poor people. Yet, xenophobia is widespread in South African society from politics to business to academia. Still others have sought to explain how poor and violent South African society is. But there is poverty and violence in other African societies, some of which – like Nigeria – have also expelled foreign nationals. However, these frequent attacks on fellow Africans in South Africa, including maiming and burning people alive, seem – outside of civil war and domestic strife contexts – to represent an area of South African “exceptionalism” on the continent.

The recent attacks in Tembisa, Alexandria, Hillbrow, Cleveland, Jeppestown, Malvern, Germiston, and the Johannesburg and Tshwane central business districts, saw eight deaths (though no Nigerians), scores injured, and hundreds of Nigerian and other foreign-owned shops burned and looted. The South African government’s plan to combat xenophobic attacks decisively – unveiled only in March – did not survive the first contact with arsonist mobs.

Nigeria demanded compensation from the South African government for the damaged property, and cancelled its participation at the World Economic Forum in Cape Town. Nigeria’s foreign minister, Geoffrey Onyeama, accused the South African police of turning a blind eye to some of these attacks, and of failing to protect the lives and property of Nigerians. Its Consul-General, Godwin Adama, also noted the failure of South Africa’s criminal justice system to convict perpetrators of these attacks. For example, there were hardly any convictions for the murder of 62 foreigners in the 2008 attacks. The fact that people can literally get away with murder has made it easier for these acts to continue. An estimated 350 foreigners were killed between 2008 and 2015.

Ordinary Nigerians reacted to the recurring attacks on their citizens with seething anger. Social media has been abuzz with much disinformation and fake news inflaming passions on both sides. Many Nigerians already angered by what they see as president Muhammadu Buhari’s lackadaisical response to the attacks by Fulani herdsmen on local communities across the country, have used the failure to protect Nigerians abroad as another stick with which to beat the president. Parliamentarian, Orji Kalu, called for South African businesses in Nigeria to be shut down if Nigerians were not protected, while former culture minister, Femi Fani-Kayode, called for sanctioning South African companies, accusing Tshwane of treating Nigerians like “filth and killing them for sport.” Artistes like Tiwa Savage and Burna Boy announced boycotts of scheduled concerts in Johannesburg, while Wizkid lamented the failure of South Africans to demonstrate Pan-African solidarity. Nigerian mobs also attacked South African businesses in Nigeria such as Shoprite, Pep Stores and MTN, forcing some of these businesses to shut down their operations. South African Airways staff felt the need to use heavy security to transport their flight attendants to the airport in Lagos.

About 50,000 Nigerians annually visit South Africa, while over 120 South African businesses operate in Nigeria. While South Africans attack Nigerian citizens, Nigerians tend to attack South African companies. Both sides, however, have much to lose if the bilateral relationship continues to deteriorate. The Nigeria/South Africa relationship is essential for Africa’s socio-economic transformation. Both account for about a third of Africa’s economic might; bilateral trade was estimated at $4.5 billion in 2018; and Abuja and Tshwane have undertaken much of the continent’s major conflict management initiatives over the last two decades. The bilateral relationship has however deteriorated since the “golden age” of Olusegun Obasanjo and Thabo Mbeki between 1999 and 2007. Visa issues remain a major bone of contention. Despite the Binational Commission between both countries having been elevated from vice-presidential to presidential level in 2016, it has not met in six years, and elections in both countries earlier this year have taken up much of the political energy. It was not a good sign that neither president attended the other’s presidential inauguration.

President Buhari’s planned – but not confirmed – visit to South Africa next month should go ahead, as it would provide an early opportunity to reset this relationship. Four recommendations are critical to achieving success. First, Abuja and Tshwane must immediately revive the Binational Commission and ensure that regular meetings occur. Second, the early-warning and mediation systems – involving Nigerian and South African civil society and government representatives – agreed after the 2017 attacks against Nigerians, must be urgently established and made to function effectively by both sides. Third, “track-two” initiatives involving civil society, academia, and the business sectors of both countries must work with the two governments to improve people-to-people relationships and ensure ongoing dialogue between key actors on both sides. Finally, South African politicians must stop fanning the flames of xenophobia and show genuine leadership in promoting grassroots anti-xenophobic movements in local communities, as well as educating their population on the contributions that Nigeria and many other African countries made to the liberation of South Africa during the dark days of apartheid.

Professor Adekeye Adebajo is Director of the University of Johannesburg’s Institute for Pan-African Thought and Conversation in South Africa.


Business Day (South Africa), 9 September 2019; Guardian (Nigeria), forthcoming

Professor Adekeye Adebajo
Director, Institute for Pan-African Thought and Conversation
University of Johannesburg

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