South Africa: Apology Down, Compensation To Go
“To hit the nail on the head, South Africa will have to follow up its apology with paying adequate compensation to victims of what it has itself acknowledged as wrongful deportation.....
“For these reasons, it will take more than apology for South Africa to even out its ill-conceived damage to the plans of 125 people, and the international disrepute to Africa’s most populous country. One by one, South Africa will have to quantify (even if only approximately) the losses incurred by the 125 Nigerians, and compensate them in whatever way it deems most suitable. But to sit in Pretoria and address a press conference is outright playing to the gallery. Yes, South Africa has swallowed its ego by apologising, but it remains to be seen whether it is humane enough to deal comprehensively with its indiscretions by appropriately addressing the losses of the ‘Unlucky 125.’”
A certain Ebrahim Ismail Ebrahim was arguably the world’s most unenvied envoy of the past week. For all the courage he must have stolidly racked up in his trauma-replete six-decade political career, this was one task Mr. Ebrahim must have secretly detested.
His puffed country, South Africa, had on March 2 deported 125 Nigerians who arrived at its Oliver Tambo International Airport, for allegedly possessing fake yellow fever vaccination card. South Africa lacked the courtesy to explain its actions to the Nigerian government. An incurably docile (in the context of diplomatic relations) Nigeria responded harshly with the rushed deportation of subsequent South African travellers. In less than a week, the two countries had altogether deported 256 travellers.
While the figures accrued, a diplomatic row brewed. Nigeria’s irked National Assembly summoned the country’s equally peeved Foreign Affairs Minister, Mr. Olugbenga Ashiru, who point-blank dismissed South Africans as “xenophobic” and promised unfettered retaliatory measures.
The pervading mood in South African diplomatic spaces conveyed reckless arrogance and information doing the rounds suggested the improbability of an apology. The undocumented argument was that Nigerians were incorrigibly accustomed to faking the yellow fever document, and the recent chance to obliterate that anomaly would not be passed up.
But for unclear reasons — perhaps Nigeria’s uncharacteristic retaliatory repatriations or its correspondingly atypical promise of hostility to South African companies that were already earning cult unpopularity for their corporate parsimony — South Africa made an about-face. An apology was to be tendered to Nigeria. And the lot of the dirty job fell on Ebrahim.
One could imagine the defeat-ridden faces of the top hierarchies of its Ministry of International Relations and Cooperation. The Minister, Ms. Maite Nkoana-Mashabane, must have found the recant too demeaning to undertake. “I am unavailable on Thursday; so Ebrahim, please address the press conference. You don’t have to talk much; just apologise. Simple,” she must have told a helpless Ebrahim. Or, she might have said something like: “I will not glorify Nigeria’s victory in this brief dispute by allotting the apology to the office of the Minister. Mr. Ebrahim, please bear with me, but it’s you who would announce our apology. You must understand that your choice is strategic.”
Either way, an apology is an apology. "We wish to humbly apologise to them, and we have," Ebrahim told journalists in Pretoria, referring to the 125 Nigerians who were first deported. “We are apologising because we deported a number of people who should not have been deported.”
Blaming South African airport authorities for improper conduct of the process of establishing the authenticity of the cards, he revealed that the reopening of a health clinic at the airport was already on the cards, in order to forestall future deportations.
"We apologise for this unfortunate incident and we hope this matter will not in any way affect our bilateral relations," he added. "We've put into place certain mechanisms to ensure this doesn't happen again, and we believe that this matter is closed. We are in contact with the embassy in Nigeria to see that there are no longer problems, and that any difficulties over vaccination certificates are dealt with before a visa is issued."
Although he said more, the statements quoted above were enough to assuage a sympathetic Nigeria that has continued to shower its southern African brother with love since its apartheid era; and so no case of deportation has been reported since Thursday, March 8. Yet, the apology is not exactly the end of the matter.
Except someone is forgetting that a hundred and twenty-five Nigerians scattered all over the country are currently seething with rage for the various, infinite consequences of their denial of entry into South Africa, an apology is as well just the little beginning. Okay, one or two examples.
Now, imagine a professor at the University of Lagos who was scheduled to deliver a paper at a conference at the University of Witwatersrand in north-eastern South Africa. Perhaps the professor had spent weeks or months conducting researches with the hope of mesmerising his international audience with the brilliance of the average Nigerian despite stifling learning and teaching conditions. His Doctorate and Masters students must have been commandeered to work as research agents while he coordinated the task. He must have spent hours upon hours scribbling some meaningless notes on some plain A-4 size paper, and his secretary must have spent the best part of her working hours typing away. She must have worked overtime, at times running from pillar to post to get round the seemingly incurable menace of frequent electricity outages. Her husband might have been the victim of some scuppered eagerly awaited ‘nightly matrimonial collaborations’ while she worked to meet her principal’s deadline. But in one day, by the single act of some overbearing health port officials, everything came to naught. Now, to all these people in this chain of complex injustice, what does an apology to Nigeria represent?
Or consider the Ibo man, renowned for his dogged flair for business, who was enthusiastically itching to hit Johannesburg to seal a long-sought business deal now cancelled following his inability to arrive in the country at the time that mattered most. A smarter, readily available businessman might have toppled him. Or even if the unlikely option of deferment had been the scenario, what then happens to the much-celebrated (in economic terms) time value of money? Were such a person at the venue of Ebrahim’s apology, would he have offered a pat in the back?
Suppose that an Ijebu grandma whose daughter was to get married in Pretoria had been on Arik’s pariah-flight to Jo’burg, would the wedding ceremony have been restaged simply because Grandma Kuye missed out. And if she had never travelled outside the country before, was there any assurance that her chance hadn’t been dealt the coup de grace? By the way, could there ever be an alternative to the joy of reunion with her extended family? Trivial as these examples seem, it is undisputable that these are some of the very reasons why people travel.
To hit the nail on the head, South Africa will have to follow up its apology with paying adequate compensation to victims of what it has itself acknowledged as wrongful deportation. Imagine the costs of non-refunded air tickets, cancelled hotel bookings and botched conferences and meetings. Consider the psychological costs of the embarrassment, the denial of access to food and water for a whole day and the sheer torture of the futility of their missions in South Africa.
For these reasons, it will take more than apology for South Africa to even out its ill-conceived damage to the plans of 125 people, and the international disrepute to Africa’s most populous country. One by one, South Africa will have to quantify (even if only approximately) the losses incurred by the 125 Nigerians, and compensate them in whatever way it deems most suitable. But to sit in Pretoria and address a press conference is outright playing to the gallery. Yes, South Africa has swallowed its ego by apologising, but it remains to be seen whether it is humane enough to deal comprehensively with its indiscretions by appropriately addressing the losses of the ‘Unlucky 125.’
The government of South Africa must pay compensations to the victims of its cruel and shameful conduct it if wants Nigeria to accept its apology.