Proudly South African-Nigerian

2013-05-19 14:00

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Is there really the kind of unity between Nigerians and South Africans that the presidents of the two countries recently celebrated? Charl Blignaut and photographer Leon Sadiki set off to find out

Flavour N’abania cuts a sartorial figure heading across the parking lot in his ­traditional kaftan, with glam dreads falling down his back. The tall, serious young pop star is running late after ­ getting caught up signing ­autographs.

If this was Lagos or Accra, though, the parking lot would be abuzz. Gardeners and receptionists will have left their work to come and greet. But the insular South African market is only starting to get to know the man who gave Africa its biggest hit of 2011, a banging highlife track, Nwa Baby.

“South Africans even know my lyrics now,” he says. “It’s since the music videos are being played on TV, on MTV Base and others.”

He arrived as part of Nigerian President Goodluck Jonathan’s delegation for his first state visit to South Africa and has stayed on to perform.

He’s been here often and I ask the obvious question: does he experience xenophobia?

He insists he doesn’t, but a few hours later he’s being interviewed on Metro FM and a young man calls in and puts on a Naija accent. “Hey,” he jokes to Flavour, “Why you take our ­money? Why you steal our ­women? We send you back to Lagos!”

It’s the kind of profiling Frank Ayoka knows well. The earnest businessman manages Flavour’s South African interests. He’s married to a South African and lives in Fourways.

“I’ve seen it in the police. I’ve once been stopped and they asked me for my driver’s licence. They see I’m Nigerian and the manner that they handled the whole situation, they were being totally rude to me. They will call you a kwerekwere (a derogratory term for foreigners). When they look at Nigerians, they already have that perspective that Nigerians are into drugs or crime”.

I ask if he experiences this in other African countries and he shakes his head. “Other ­countries know that we are the giants of Africa and we are treated with respect. It’s only here that we’re having that problem.”

Like almost every Nigerian I meet in Joburg – from drug ­dealers to executives – Frank is ­driven by creating business. ­

Nigerians like to run things. If you visit any pocket of little ­Lagos – Hillbrow or Yeoville, or Windsor or Balfour Park – you will find rows of Nigerian-owned shops.

Frank has sold his Rosebank boutique and taken over the ­family business. His father lived in King William’s Town, where he bought wine and exported it to the Congo.

When the sun sets, the ­photographer and I head to the ­Nigerian bars and clubs of ­Hillbrow. It’s a real African city.

Insane with traffic and people and music, and a lethal West ­African drink called mborogo that’s brewed from pineapple and leaves our heads spinning.

In a pool bar where the floors are sticky with spilt beer, West African pop is booming from the TV, and men stand eating ­supper.

“Nigerians travel because we want to see the world,” says Michael, one of the owners. “We want to make our fortune. Most want to go to America or ­Canada, but also South Africa. I saw on the TV it was a beautiful country with impressive ­structures ... You will save up to one or two thousand dollars first. When you are here, you find your brothers.”

“The Nigerians have these committees,” says a Hillbrow ­policeman. “Someone is arrested and the elder brother will come and see you on behalf of the ­others from the same village. They will have collected money to free him, and will come and offer it to you.”

Michael is married but doesn’t have children. “In our culture, it is taboo to have children if you are not financially buoyant. Our fathers never left us on the street.”

Michael’s wife is from the Eastern Cape.

“We call them Home Affairs, the South African wives,” says the cop. “You bring a Nigerian in and ask, ‘Where are your ­papers?’ They say, ‘Here is my wife.’ It’s normally a woman from the Eastern Cape, his Home Affairs. It’s the common story – Igbo guy, Xhosa girl.”

“I think the Eastern Cape must be full of half-Igbo ­children,” laughs Yeoville chef Sanza Tshabalala.

Michael has a theory: “You see,” he says, “Nigerian women are not good like men to go and hustle for money. If you are a girl in my family, the parents take care of you until you have your first job.”

Xhosa women, they say, can look after money and manage your business. And they will fight for you if there is trouble.

He sends money to his wife’s family from the Shoprite across the road. He says that he is ­accepted as family when they visit the Eastern Cape and that he experiences no xenophobia. Nigerian communities are so ­established here that everyone is used to it by now. Life went on.

It’s starting to feel like there are no Nigerian women on the streets of Hillbrow when we run into Lilian Ikechukwu selling food from a cart. She lives with her husband and children in ­Berea, and insists we buy a ­portion of nkwobi, a spicy cow-leg stew. She tells me her food is ­famous, even among South ­Africans.

The Class Nite Club looks like a hole in the wall, but opens to a terraced bar and dance floor. The owner, Obi Egbunam, is a kindly man who I wouldn’t want to mess with. When he arrived in 1997, his first business was mending shoes on the pavement. Now he leads us through metal doors to his office.

Alongside a portrait of Mandela are photos of his five children. “I paid ­lobola for my wife,” he tells me when I ask. “We practise rituals when we are at her home. I was ­surprised to find how similar they are to the rituals in Nigeria. There will be elders, a blessing, a sheep will be slaughtered.”

His kids go to school in ­Saxonwold and are proudly South African-Nigerian.

“The xenophobic attacks ­generally happened in the townships, not the suburbs,” says a spritely, dreadlocked Sanza ­outside his restaurant E@t Arabi, E@t the World in nearby ­Yeoville the next morning.

“The Nigerians are accepted here. They are employers. They liberate our women sexually and otherwise. They are an ­enterprising bunch.”

Across the road is a club called Malalaituka, where the famous DJ Yemite plays a Nigerian set nightly. “Wealthy Nigerians come from all over to display their cars. They also come for the food. Some of the best Nigerian kitchens in the country are here.”

We visit Yoruba and Igbo kitchens all the way up Rockey Street.

Makamjuula Glatumji runs Baskim Restaurant with his mother-in-law. He’s been here for three years and has met a ­Nigerian wife. She is studying through Unisa and they’ve ­started a family. He says he ­experiences no xenophobia.

“But surely you get people who say Nigerians do crime, they sells drugs,” I say.

“Not all trees are bad,” he ­replies. “Some create shade. Just like we have some Nigerians who are bad, we also have some South Africans who are bad.”

After a glass of palm juice, I find the mama in the kitchen. She has been here for over a decade and says she can remember when people would call her “kwerekwere”. “I think apartheid made people like that. Now it has changed,” she says, tossing deep-fried turkey into a ­simmering pan.

At Blessing Catering, chef Lucky Olabode says that visiting stars and dignitaries phone and order takeaways from him. He packs the food up in cooler bags and sends it off to their five-star hotels. It is food that draws ­African communities together – from the South to Sandton. And the church. And football.

Many young Nigerians we meet want to become a soccer star. Many end up making soccer a career – in the supermarket-sized betting totes on every ­corner. Some arrive in the morning with a briefcase and get down to a day of gambling. In the totes every European match has its own TV screen.

Everyone goes to church. The adverts for prophets littering the streets can, in part, be attributed to the rise of Nigerian evangelist TB Joshua and his prosperity doctrine sweeping the continent. Even white South Africans travel to Lagos to see the great man in action.

But Pastor Robinson believes in salvation before wealth. We find him at his small, neat church in Yeoville, Passion of Kingdom Jesus Ministry.

“My face is all over town,” says the 40-year-old former model. “I have been here for 20 years.” He has seen the worst of the xenophobia. To the strains of a ­gospel CD playing on his laptop, he tells me he was beaten three times in the 1990s. At the height of the xenophobic attacks in 2008, his up-market boutique in Rosebank was targeted and looted. “I lost R620 000 in stock. I am still paying off that debt. After that I went to bible school.”

His congregation, he says, is the same as the restaurant ­clientele – a mix of African ­nationals. He eats the finest ­Nigerian food from local kitchens and even he is upbeat when I ask if things are changing. “You’ll be walking down the street and there’ll be South Africans playing D’Banj,” he says.

“John Snow from Channel 4 was here,” says Sanza.

“They were looking at Mandela’s death and xenophobia. The gangsters in Alex said that once the old man is gone, they are going to kick the foreigners out. I brought him to Yeoville and he found no xenophobia. He said, ‘You brought me to the wrong place.’ I said, ‘No. You’re asking the wrong question.’”

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