Xenophobia in South Africa and Nigeria

Nigerians are rightly outraged by the xenophobic attacks committed by some South Africans against Africans from other parts of the continent. The attacks bring shame to the country of Nelson Mandela. In condemning the attacks, there should not be the mistaken belief that all South Africans are xenophobic – the xenophobes are the minority.

It is also justifiable for anyone to criticise the South African government for not doing enough to stem the tide of xenophobic attacks that first started in 2008, because if it had, xenophobic attacks would not be recurring. It would also be right to be critical of the South African media for their reportage of crimes involving Africans from other African countries that profiled such criminals by nationalities. Such reporting fueled hatred against foreign African nationals.

The South African Minister of Home Affairs, Malusi Gigaba, has rightly said crimes should not be associated with nationalities. When people commit crimes, they are not representatives of anyone other than themselves, hence it is wrong to profile criminals based on nationalities as a section of the media tend to do at times. Criminals are criminals, short and simple, and should be treated as such. More important, most Africans from other parts of the continent in South Africa are living legally and are law abiding citizens. And they are contributing to the growth and development of South Africa.  Furthermore, there is no correlation between illegal immigrants and crime. Most illegal immigrants are not criminals. Again, as Minister Gigaba said during his press conference this week, criminality and immigration should be treated separately. The South African media has a role to play in this regard by not profiling criminals by nationalities.

When Archbishop Desmond Tutu proclaimed South Africa as a rainbow nation, he meant that it is not only for those who were born in the country but all those that live in it. Its rainbowness captures its diversity.

Those who are arguing for a stricter immigration regime in South Africa should have a rethink. They need to have a better understanding of the pull and push factors of immigration. It is puzzling that a European backpacker without a cent in his or her pocket can come into South Africa without a visa while Africans, including Africa’s richest person, Alhaji Aliko Dangote, and Nobel Laureate Professor Wole Soyinka, are required to have visas to enter South Africa. Generally, African countries, including South Africa, need to liberalise their visa regimes to ensure free movement of Africans across the continent; and here they could learn a lesson from Rwanda and Ghana that issue visas to Africans on arrival.  It will be a clear manifestation of African integration. African countries cannot continue with immigration regimes that objectify Africans.

South Africans, including political leaders, businesspeople, scholars, religious leaders and representatives of civil society organisations, need to find ways to grapple with the problem of xenophobia that is denting the image of the country across the globe. One thing the government needs to do is to introduce African history as a subject in high schools so that kids can learn the history of the continent. Another issue for consideration is exchange programmes between education institutions in the country and their counterparts in other African countries. This way South Africans from a young age will have a better understanding of the continent. In the same vein, Africans from other parts of the continent will have a better appreciation of South Africa and its challenges.

At this juncture, it is important to point out that xenophobia is not peculiar to South Africa but something pervasive across the African continent. I will use the Nigerian situation to illustrate this point.

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By Omano Edigheji

Picture credit: A resident of the worker’s hostel in Jeppe’s Town neighbourhood of Johannesburg is detained by a South African policeman. Marco Longari/Getty Images.