Ulrich Janse van Vuuren

Nigerians are not our enemies

2017-02-28 08:59

The xenophobic attacks in Gauteng have left me concerned about the level of discrimination from some South Africans towards fellow Africans. 

I am worried about my Nigerian friends and colleagues. Many of these assaults have been against Nigerian citizens legally living and contributing to the economy of this country. With our large markets South Africa and Nigeria is in a unique position to lead the way of equity on the continent. But it’s during times of violence that the most vulnerable become particularly affected and when the most vulnerable are stricken there is no justice.

I was in Nigeria at the time of last week’s attacks. Much like Africans from elsewhere on the continent working in South Africa to survive, I go to Nigeria to work so that I can pay my bills, buy food and afford living in my country. 

While there, I went about my business as usual. I could move around freely without fear and peacefully enjoyed the welcoming Nigerian hospitality. In complete contrast, back at home Nigerians working in South Africa were being victimised, their properties burnt and the looting spree exploded.

Intolerant South Africans can learn a few things about unity from Nigerians. Maybe some need to be reminded of the major role Nigeria played in empowering our citizens and liberating our country.

Nigerians paid from their pockets to support South Africans. In 1976 Nigeria set up the Southern African Relief Fund (SARF). This fund was to be used to alleviate the plight of victims and refugees of apartheid oppression and to promote their education and general welfare. The Nigerian government made compulsory deductions from public servants’ earnings towards establishing this fund. Government employees had to pay directly from their monthly salaries, this was widely known as “Mandela Tax”.

Even the military administration of General Obasanjo apparently contributed USD$3.7 million to this fund. I read in an article published by South African Institute of International Affairs that by the end of apartheid Nigeria had contributed an estimated USD$61 billion towards the anti-apartheid effort.

Nigerian students fought for the rights of South African students. It is well known that following the massacre of South African school children in the Soweto uprising Nigerian students from tertiary institutions formed anti-apartheid clubs. These groups included the Youths United in Solidarity for Southern Africa (YUSSA) and the Nigerian African National Congress Friendship and Cultural Association. YUSSA was seemingly on most campuses of Nigerian universities and other institutions, mobilising students across the country against apartheid South Africa. Young Nigerians would voluntarily contribute from their pocket money, raised funds and through donations supported the Southern African Relief Fund.

South Africans could get free education in Nigeria. The Nigerian government was a key supporter in the anti-apartheid movement by paying for scholarships and fellowships helping many students from South Africa who were displaced by apartheid. For those South Africans who were denied documents to travel out of the country the Nigerian government was said to have issued hundreds of passports. These students could study at Nigerian schools and universities for free.

Nigerian pop artists fought for the equal rights of every South African. Public support against oppression in South Africa was mobilised by Nigerian musicians, poets and entertainers. Musicians like Sonny Okosun used his voice for those suffering in South Africa. In the 70’s he recorded reggae Afro-pop music with anti-apartheid themes in hits like ‘Holy War’ and ‘Fire in Soweto’ featured on the anti-apartheid album ‘Sun City’. 

Nigerian Reggae artist Majek Fashek wrote a song called ‘Free Mandela’ for the movement to release Nelson Mandela from prison. The Nigerian government even sponsored South African musicians like Miriam Makeba and Ipi N'tombi to tour Nigerian cities. These performances helped create anti-apartheid consciousness among citizens and increased public pressure on government.

Nigeria cut oil trade with South Africa to sway the apartheid regime. The country used oil to direct its foreign policy. Nigerian leaders applied the fight against apartheid as a centre point of policy and it provided a rallying point to unify Nigerians. 

Some newspaper articles indicate that Nigeria had lost about USD$45 billion in the space of 15 years for refusing to export oil to South Africa. The official relationship between South Africa and Nigeria dates back to the country’s independence in 1960. Nelson Mandela first visited the country in 1962 to seek support before he was arrested on treason charges in South Africa. For 25 years Nigeria chaired the UN Special Committee against apartheid until 1994 when the regime came to an end.

Discrimination is the ultimate result of ignorance and lack of action. International Zero Discrimination Day is observed this Wednesday, 1 March. If we expect to get rid of discrimination against fellow African citizens an immediate point of departure could be to unite in peace, stand against those responsible for xenophobic attacks and support the victims. 

There is an urgent need for the South African government to address the systemic inefficiencies that lead to xenophobic violence. The Constitution of the Republic of South Africa even affirms that everyone living in this country has inherent dignity and the right to have their dignity respected and protected by the state. 

I believe as human beings we also have a personal responsibility to respect and protect each other’s humanity.

- Ulrich Janse van Vuuren is a humanitarian, anthropologist, social and environmental activist with a passion for people and nature. Proudly South African, he lives in Johannesburg. Follow him on Twitter.

Disclaimer: News24 encourages freedom of speech and the expression of diverse views. The views of columnists published on News24 are therefore their own and do not necessarily represent the views of News24.

Read more on:    xenophobia  |  apartheid  |  nigeria
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