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South Africa must rein in its xenophobic beast – Punch

By The Citizen
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Citing unfounded claims of stealing their jobs and undermining their business interests, South Africans have, for the past one month, been up in arms against black immigrants, including Nigerians, unleashing on them an orgy of violence that is fast becoming the defining feature of the relationship between Africa's most industrialised economy and the rest of the continent. The series of violent attacks has already resulted in the death of eight people, some of who were stabbed, lynched or even set ablaze right in their places of abode. About 1,000 others have been displaced.

The economic cost to the victims has also been huge. Many immigrants have been forced to flee their homes with practically nothing, leaving behind all that they had laboured to accumulate over the years. One of the victims who fled her home, Samantha Benessa, spoke of the savagery: 'We left our TV, our clothes. I couldn't even take my bag.'

The situation has, consequently, created room for massive looting and destruction of the property of the fleeing foreigners. To make sure that they achieve total success in their evil mission, the assailants are said to be conducting house-to-house searches for their quarries, and warning landlords of the grave consequences of harbouring them.

Although no Nigerian death has been recorded, it has been reported that they have suffered injuries and have lost property worth millions of naira after their shops were looted. The Minister of Foreign Affairs, Aminu Wali, was quoted as saying that the Federal Government was prepared to bring them home if they were found to be under any threat of attacks.

South Africa's frequent romance with xenophobia is well known and documented. Starting from December 1994 and stretching into January the next year, where violence in Alexandra Township and Johannesburg provinces saw two Senegalese and a Mozambican thrown off a moving train, a recurrence in 2000 also resulted in deaths, including those of two Nigerians. There were also xenophobic incidents in 2008, 2009 and 2013, of which those of 2008 were by far the deadliest. Some Nigerians were among the 62 persons that died. Unfortunately, of the 350 prosecuted during the 2008 xenophobic bloodshed, only one has resulted in a murder conviction.

So far, it has been a most horrendous experience, such that nobody ever envisaged when, some decades back, the country was under the grip of apartheid rule, a form of institutionalised racial discrimination where the minority whites lorded it over the majority blacks. Then, most of the countries whose nationals are now being targeted made sacrifices and harboured the freedom fighters that were hounded out of their homes in South Africa.

Nigeria, particularly, spent a lot of money to fund the anti-apartheid struggle, ensuring that many South African students enjoyed scholarships in Nigerian universities. So deep was Nigeria's involvement that the country acquired the status of a frontline state - a term used for South Africa's immediate neighbours - despite not sharing geographical borders with the then apartheid enclave.

Yet, the relationship between South Africa and Nigeria since the end of apartheid in the early 1990s has been that of contempt by the former towards the latter. This has been particularly so in the manner in which Nigerian citizens are treated in that country. A good example was the humiliation of Nigeria's renowned literary giant and human rights activist, Wole Soyinka, by immigration officials in 1995. Even though the Nobel laureate was in that country as a guest speaker at Nelson Mandela's birthday, he was denied entry and kept at the airport for hours on end, until some high ranking government officials intervened to let him into the country. Soyinka later vowed never to visit South Africa again.

There was also the incident in which some 125 South Africa-bound Nigerians were turned back at the Oliver Tambo International Airport for allegedly attempting to enter the country without valid yellow fever vaccination papers. Naturally, this attracted a retaliatory action, as Nigeria also turned back about 130 South Africans after their plane had touched down at the Murtala Muhammed Airport in Lagos. The face-off was later resolved after an apology from the South African authorities.

Despite the fact that South African business and investments in Nigeria are yielding billions of dollars, and Nigerians are also contributing to the economy of that country, the people have always behaved condescendingly towards Nigerians. They tend to ignore the fact that, in the event of a face-off, South Africa is likely to be hurt much more than Nigeria.

What is even most shocking is the tacit support that the actions of the South African mobs seem to enjoy from that country's authorities. For instance, it was baffling to hear that the Zulu king, Goodwill Swelithini, actually inflamed the attack when he reportedly said, to a resounding acclaim by many that listened to him, that foreigners were 'lice' that should be 'plucked out and left in the sun.' He went on to say, 'We are requesting those who came from outside to please go back to their countries. The fact that there were countries who played a role in the country's struggle for liberation should not be used as an excuse to create a situation where foreigners are allowed to inconvenience locals.'

As if Swelithini's views are not appalling enough, Edward, the son of the country's president, Jacob Zuma, was also quoted as saying that the foreigners were taking over the country. He said 'they need to leave,' because they posed a threat of plotting a coup. Although the South African government has started talking tough, it is belated and it seems like an afterthought.

The chauvinistic criminals must be made to face the law. There should also be full compensation paid to the victims. It is argued that the country's Equality Act allows for prosecution in cases of hate speech and incitement to violence, while Article 3 of the UN Convention against Genocide also criminalises 'direct and public incitement to commit genocide.' South Africa should not be allowed to get away with another hate crime.