The Political Economy of Xenophobia

“No one is born hating another person because of the colour of his skin, or his background, or his religion. People must learn to hate, and if they can learn to hate, they can be taught to love, for love comes more naturally to the human heart than its opposite.” – Nelson Mandela.

It was in 1994 that South Africa gained independence from the unconscionable white minority rule, infamously referred to as Apartheid. Before then, Nelson Mandela had been in jail for 27 years, being the perceived cutting edge of the black struggle. Amongst the major countries that supported South Africa in the struggle against apartheid was Nigeria; as the country was actually in the forefront, supporting diplomatically, militarily and financially.

In spite of the fact that South Africa, in geographical terms is thousands of kilometres away from Nigeria and had no boundary contact whatsoever, Nigeria declared herself a ‘Frontline’ state just like other frontline states of Southern Africa. I recall that even as a young undergraduate about 35 years ago, I belonged to a formidable group called Youth Solidarity On Southern Africa and Nigeria (YUSSAN), contributing our little quota to the fight against apartheid and pressing for the release of Nelson Mandela, after whom our hall of residence was named.

In the African tradition, we are usually grateful to those who show empathy and provide support in times of need and tribulation. A local Nigerian proverb has it that the chicken never forgets who plucks its wet feathers in the rainy season. In that context, Nigerians should be the last people that the South Africans would like to upset, not to talk of raising their finger against like they have been doing for about a decade now. It is on record that South Africa’s xenophobic frenzy has been occurring since about the year 2000. While it could be argued that it is not only Nigerians that are affected in these attacks, nor do they constitute the largest number of immigrants in South Africa, it is also true that the baleful rhetorics and optics, seem to target Nigerians.

During the apartheid regime, foreigners, particularly blacks, faced discrimination and violence in the hands of the white settlers of South Africa. Surprisingly, these despicable acts have taken a new and heightened dimension under black rule, which we all fought for and had seen as victory for equity, fair play and justice. There has been a legion of analyses and commentaries on the ongoing violence in South Africa. In its wake, there have been various perspectives taken, in order to properly situate the enormity and implications of the matter. Views vary and it is bound to be so. It is on that basis that we have decided to take a perspective today and what we bring into the discussion is a political economy dimension.

One sad reality is that successive South African governments have run down the economy, just like their counterparts in Nigeria. Corruption and incompetent economic policies have contributed to wreck the once-vibrant economy. The immediate past President, Jacob Zuma who was seen in a recent viral video mocking South Africans and his own successor, was accused of very high level corruption and very poor management of the economy. There was a collective sigh of relief when Cyril Ramaphosa, a man with seemingly intimidating credentials from the pro-business school, assumed office as President. Everyone who was concerned about the fortunes of the South African economy welcomed him with very high expectations. The reverse has been the story since he assumed office.

He doesn’t seem to have a handle on the economy as all the indices point southwards. With a GDP of $368b (South African official sources put the number at $375b) and population of 54.5m people, growth seems to be a mirage for Ramaphosa’s economy. Economic growth in 2018 was a miserly 0.8% as against 1.4% in 2017. In fact, the economy technically slipped into recession in 2018. Given that the population is not reducing, GDP per Capita has naturally continued to fall as population growth continues to outstrip economic growth. With a declining economy more people are thrown out of jobs.

Slower economic activity cannot support job creation, rather company shutdowns and adjustments are commonplace. In spite of Ramaphosa’s promise to attract investments in South Africa given his business pedigree, what has happened is that while there was increase in Foreign Direct Investment flows from $1.3b in 2017 to over $7b in 2018, fixed investment has actually declined, according to the United Nations Conference on Trade Development. Unemployment rate touched 30% early this year; an uncomfortable comparison with Nigeria’s official unemployment rate which officially stands at 23.1%. According to a Johannesburg Think Thank group, the Institute of Race Relations, the economy needs to grow at the rate of 5% to 6% per annum for the next 20 years in order to reduce unemployment to 10% from its present 30%. To worsen matters, owing to high cost of governance and poor tax collection and administration strategies, South Africa has piled up a debt profile of $216b which translates to a whopping 60% of its GDP. For purposes of raw comparison, note that Nigeria’s debt stock is presently $81b and our debt to GDP ratio stands at 19.03%. I believe that straight comparisons may not make sense given the population differences and some adjustments that may be required.

For instance, I do not believe that the local currency debts of South Africa and the debts of States and Municipal governments are accounted for in these data. Any how you choose to slice and dice the data, the debt situation is so high that even the IMF had to warn the South African government recently that its debts are getting into ‘unsustainabilty’ levels.
Even the once robust stock market is not left out in the decline as it has been recording depressing performance and in addition, over time, the value of the rand has continued to depreciate against other major currencies and inflation has been rising.

The result of all these have been worsening economic crises. Poverty levels have assumed a dangerous dimension. One of the troubling outcomes of this is that inequality has continued to widen to unprecedented levels. Jobs have disappeared as corporations, which hitherto employed people, are either shutting down or on life support as their own survival is predicated on the fortunes of an ailing government. Public health facilities have deteriorated dramatically and public infrastructure generally has been decaying as a result of poor funding.

Social safety nets are equally under attack. The South African poor have come face to face with hunger and starvation; the same fate they faced under the Apartheid system. As these social and economic ills grow, they find expression in banditry. The blame game begins and the first victims are people they perceive to be taking their jobs. The likely people are those who look like them.

However, the truth is that statistically, these people who are seen as the source of their travails may look like them physically, but many of them are not like them. For instance, majority of Nigerians who are under attack are self-employed, running their own small businesses and simply engrossed in looking for their daily bread. The other issue, undoubtedly, is that of petty jealousy. Anyhow you look at it, on account of the fact that some of these immigrants seem to be relatively well-off, the black South Africans see them as people who stand between them and their dinner. When things like this happen, it is not just Nigerians that will be affected. Statistics have it that there are about 3.5m immigrants both documented and undocumented who live in South Africa. Out of this number, only 30,000 are from Nigeria. This is not such a large number.

We, however, see a deliberate attempt to target Nigerians for attack. To our people who have come under attack, I shall quote Bangambiki Habyarimana, who, in his book, Pearls Of Eternity, said “They hate you not because of what you have done but because of who you are; you are different from who they are, and you are occupying the ground they want for themselves.”

We also feel very enraged not just because our people are attacked, but because of our role in securing independence for that country. Our position is justified on the face of it, but in reality that’s the way life is, even in Nigeria. It may look like it is not acceptable behaviour to bite the finger that fed one, but just take a look around you, if you had helped someone one way or the other. In a lot of cases, the people you helped turn round to challenge you and sometimes they become your number one enemies. So, as a country, we must learn to live with it.

There are a few more things to say. Everyone must roundly condemn the response of the South African authorities to these xenophobic attacks. Successive South African governments end up giving mere slap on the wrist on these serial offenders and that’s why the violence keeps recurring. The South African Police doesn’t seem to be prepared to deal decisively with it, quite unlike the way the Nigerian Police, in spite of all we say about them, moved swiftly to stop the spontaneous reprisal attacks and we are told some people are already in custody.

In fact, it was said that a protester or two actually paid with their lives for daring the Nigerian Police protecting South African interests. Meanwhile, there is no record of any arrests by the South African Police even though a lot of lives of foreigners were lost. This leaves one with the only conclusion that the South African government, having failed to perform, uses this distraction as an alibi. This fact needs to be highlighted and as President Buhari visits his counterpart in South Africa shortly, he should tell him in clear language that Nigeria will no longer tolerate the madness of Xenophobia.

I cannot conclude this piece without paying tribute to the Managing Director of Air Peace, whom this column had celebrated a few months ago for his magnanimity in offering to bring back our compatriots who desperately needed to leave South Africa. One was shocked to learn that the South African authorities would not let many of them leave as they put all sorts of blocks on their path. This is the first time that one is being told that someone who wanted to leave a country was being arrested for failing to show how he entered the country. As a result of this action, only 187 people were cleared to make the flight.

I felt very sad as I watched the video of the returnees. For the first time, it dawned on me that these people were returning from uncertainty to another uncertainty. Nigerians who are in a position to help are called upon to render assistance in the resettlement of these returnees. It was also touching to see Mr. Onyema become emotional as he received the returnees who in unison sang the National Anthem demonstrating their love for Nigeria.

Finally, let us look inwards and make a few observations about our own country. We do not need a soothsayer to tell us that we have a lot to do to make our country safe, secure and attractive for our people to stay back home. Like we had observed earlier, our country remains risky and uncertain. Some of the problems haunting South Africa are the same problems haunting us here. Hunger and poverty are even worse here.

We must collectively find solutions to them. While some may vigorously argue against it, it will not be out of place to state that there is already brewing, some form of internal xenophobia in the country. Those who are observant will tell you that it has already started creeping in, even though silently. Some people manipulate our fault lines to preach hate and intolerance. When this situation boils over, there may be nowhere for people to run to. It is a slippery slope and there are no winners; only losers.

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