‘The attack is not good for South Africa and the brotherhood of black people’

Prof. Osita Agbu

Despite past efforts by governments of Nigeria, South Africa and other nations in the Black continent to nip in the bud the xenophobic attacks by South Africans on other Africans residing in the country, Nigerians have been repeatedly harmed, killed or maimed and their property and means of livelihood destroyed by the nationals. The recent was last weekend’s case in which many Africans and their property were attacked. A professor of International Relations and Head Department of International Politics, Research and Studies, Nigeria Institute of International Affairs (NIIA), Lagos, Prof Osita Agbu, spoke with VICTORIA OJUGBANA on the impact of this attack on the relationship between the two countries, how to contain it, among other issues.

Why is this xenophobic attack occurring often?
With the South African situation, we have seen that the xenophobic attack has been on and off for several years. Just before this latest incident, we thought that somehow the situation was beginning to improve. But surprisingly, we have this one still taking the same pattern. It means that something is wrong in the society or that South Africans feel that something is wrong. In this case, they claim they want to rid the country of drug cartels around the neighbourhood and prostitutes. And behold, what do you have? They go attacking the businesses of non-nationals in South Africa.

It is a very worrisome situation because we have thought that by now, between the South African government and the various non-governmental organisations in South Africa, they should have enlightened South Africans on the need to stop attacking foreigners in their country. It doesn’t augur well for the country and the brotherhood of black people around the world.

While listening to a snippet of what happened in the news, a Nigerian was lamenting that his shop was attacked, when he is not a drug baron or prostitute. Often, Nigerians are targets in South Africa and we have complained several times to the government about this incident. We thought that they have taken measures against it, but it has happened again.

What impact will this xenophobic violence have on the relationship between South Africa and Nigeria?
It does not augur well at all. It depends on the sector of the government that is in power; it will have its ramifications. Under former President Goodluck Jonathan, it is one thing, but under President Muhammadu Buhari, it could be a different thing. That is why we all have to be careful because the relationship between Nigeria and South Africa is a love-hate relationship. They love us, we love them; they hate us, we hate them for different kinds of reasons. We have been trying to mend the relationship so that we can both have cordial tie, especially against the backdrop of Nigeria’s effort to ensure that apartheid ends in South Africa.

But often, we have this targeted attack on foreigners and Nigerians in particular. In International Relations, there is what is called “reciprocity,” treat me the way I treat you. I hope it doesn’t get to that stage this time around.

What do you think could lead to frequent occurrence of the situation?
It is a simple psychological explanation. There is what we call frustration aggression theory. When you cannot get something and you are frustrated, you start looking for a scapegoat. In this case, it is Nigerians and other foreigners in South Africa that are their scapegoats. You need to look deep into the South African environment. They may be going through some problems like economic, unemployment, among others. They take it out on the weakest link in the society and in this case, it is Nigerians and foreigners.

How can the governments of the two countries manage the situation so that it does not escalate?
They just have to find a way within the existing mechanism between the two countries to find how to address this problem. Like I said earlier, it is a recurring problem, which they have caused in the past. And I am very sure there must be some modalities on ground to address the issue. One on the part of South African government and on the part of Nigeria to make sure that its citizens going to South Africa are legal migrants so that those who are illegal are not allowed into the country.

That apart, I don’t think that that justifies the frequent attacks we have on foreigners in South Africa. I am aware that there is a bi-national commission between Nigeria and South Africa. Within the ambit of the bi-national commission, I’m sure that such issues have been addressed in the past. Both countries can find a way to address such issues to minimise the damage it can cause whenever such xenophobic attack arises.

Why are Nigerians and their property the targets of such violence in South Africa?
I do not agree that it is only Nigerians that are targeted. In the previous incidences, it is not only Nigerians that were targeted.

It is foreigners, especially the low-income foreigners who do some of the menial jobs that are in the country, which ordinary South Africans did not want to do. Nature abhors vacuum. When you have a vacuum, which South Africans do not want to fill, it is the foreigners from Zimbabwe, Mozambique, Nigeria and others that come in to fill the gap and supply those needs in the society.

It is frustration and that is something that the South African government will have to look into. With the end of apartheid era, there was much expectation that the economic welfare in South Africans would improve drastically.

Unfortunately, the goodies from post-aparthied era seem not to be coming as they expected and that may not seem enough in the eyes of South Africans. It is out of frustration that they have this xenophobic attack that targets foreigners who seem to be progressing in their country.

Unfortunately, some that appear to be making visible progress financially are Nigerians as the attacks are targeted at them. They drive the flashy cars, because many of them who travel to South Africa are engaged in trading and businesses. Some shops and cars owned by Nigerians are visible as they are fixed assets. Probably, some other Africans living in South Africa may not have made this visible progress and when this attack comes, it comes on Nigerians.

What advice do you have for Nigerians living in South Africa?
The Nigerian government should ensure that people who leave the shores of this country are those with clean means of livelihood, so that they do not go to other countries and become a nuisance to them. The South African government should know how to address their own people in terms of tolerance of other Africans who have come to their country to improve their lives, in a way that they do not continue to be victims of the frustrations of South Africans and their environment.

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