SA should recognise Nigerians with means

2015-03-24 15:00

Xenophobia is not unique to South Africa and is a social fact in human history. The making of nations abounds with histories of xenophobia, intolerance and exclusion.

As the second-largest economy in Africa, the increasing emergence of xenophobia in the face of presumed state acquiescence will only take South Africa backwards and demotivate its continental integration and development.

Having faced institutionalised exclusion, xenophobia [in South Africa] has become an unanticipated consequence of national development efforts because resource scarcity and socioeconomic priority amid difficult policy choices for government breed hostility, exclusivist behaviour and antiforeign sentiments.

A downside of xenophobia is that, while it is targeted at foreigners initially, it expands its focus.

So, while illegal aliens and undocumented immigrants are widely assumed to be the cause of unemployment and crime, the subtle and incremental nature of hostility and resentment is gradually shifting to include the corporate sector.

Because of xenophobia’s incremental nature, no one seems to notice poor South Africans increasingly also find themselves objects of hostility, like undocumented immigrants. If allowed to fester, this portends grave consequences for South Africa.

Many writers have ascribed South Africa’s increasing xenophobia to intense competition for scarce resources amid rising unemployment, low purchasing power and poor and unavailable housing.

Africans accuse South Africa of a false sense of superiority because of its developed infrastructure and Euro-proximate exposure. Others blame local businessmen and community leaders who enhance their authority by fomenting resentment against foreigners. Yet others blame seeming state acquiescence, claiming a lack of accountability for those molesting foreigners, insufficient investigation, zero protection of immigrants, apathy by the police and the lack of government public inquiry.

The building of fortress South Africa – in which undocumented immigrants and refugees from African countries are painted as security risks, terrorists and organised crime gangs – portends unhealthy consequences for its continental integration efforts.

The increasing mistreatment of Nigerians has also been a source of concern. My office is replete with complaints of the criminal stereotyping of Nigerians, many of whom are hard-working and law-abiding. Although no statistical evidence exists, undocumented Nigerian immigrants are perceived as criminals, leading to their abuse, including murder, violence and extortion.

Complaints also abound in my office that undocumented Nigerian immigrants cannot rely on the police for protection and have faced mistreatment, stealing, extortion and false allegations. Last year, 116 Nigerians died in South Africa. Of these, 63% died as a result of murder by the police or were killed by South Africans.

Nigeria has made and continues to make fundamental sacrifices and contributions to South Africa’s history and development. It can at least show appreciation by regularising the papers of undocumented Nigerian immigrants with independent and sustainable means of livelihoods.

The way forward is to embark on massive education, enlightenment and awareness programmes and campaigns as state policy at all levels.

Education will contribute to building and strengthening civil society and usher in social movements that will enhance tolerance, integrative nation-building, socioeconomic cohesion and prosperity. It will ... create opportunities for networking, skills acquisition, craftsmanship and entrepreneurship, and promote interaction and relationship-building with migrant groups.

Ajulu–Okeke is consul general of Nigeria to SA. This is an edited extract of a speech she delivered recently at Wits University

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