Nigerians who took up the offer of evacuation from SA say they will never come back because ‘it is clear that we are not wanted’
‘You should definitely be sure that you want to leave. If you leave now, you need to understand, it won’t be easy for you to return to South Africa.”
This was a stern warning from a man who seemed to be an official at the Nigerian consulate in Illovo, Johannesburg, this week.
The man was speaking to his fellow citizens who were waiting to be processed and make it on to the first free flight home on Wednesday.
Later, the same day, a 34-year-old Nigerian mother of three found herself seated on the steel benches in the departure terminal at OR Tambo International Airport.
Cutting a forlorn figure, with her face showing gloom and disappointment, Comfort Akpan softly rocked her one and half year old son, whom she had wrapped cosily in a towel, back and forth.
A luggage trolley next to her was loaded with a blue-and-red plastic woven bag with a brown tape wrapped around it to prevent theft. A baby bag and a bottle sat on top of her only piece of luggage.
She had probably earlier nodded her head with certainty when the man at the consulate warned them to be sure they wanted to leave South Africa. She could not wait to see herself and her children on the Air Peace airline flight offered to evacuate Nigerians for free from South Africa at the height of xenophobic attacks.
Little did she know what was in store for her. She felt the world crumbling around her and the great sense of relief which had overwhelmed her earlier vanished in a second. Her check-in was smooth. But she hit a snag at the immigration gates. Her youngest child’s travel documents were not in order.
“His name was not on the list because of that missing document, which meant I could not leave. Now I must go back and get him a passport … some document has to be arranged for him to be allowed to leave the country because he does not have a passport,” she said, looking grim.
She sat there calculating her next move. Akpan was worried and was thinking about her and her children’s safety.
Akpan said she could not go back to her rented room in Jules Street, Malvern, one of the areas hit two weeks ago by xenophobic attacks and the looting and vandalising of business properties.
She was among the foreign nationals whose stores were torched.
“I do not have a choice but to go back to the consulate,” she said with a distant look on her face.
Having missed out on the first flight back home the anxious mother said leaving the country could not come soon enough.
“I am hoping to be on the next flight. I was promised that I would be assisted with the necessary documents for my child,” she said.
Having fallen victim to the recent spate of attacks by South Africans on foreign nationals, Akpan said: “I have to run for my life now. I had a life here in South Africa for eight years running a business where I cooked and sold food, but my shop was burnt down. That was my business ... my life – I cooked and sold food.”
She has seen it before, but Akpan said the recent violence was the “worst xenophobic attacks I have ever experienced in the country”.
Akpan vows never to set foot in South Africa again. “After all that has happened, what is left for me to do? I have to go back because I must run for my life first and foremost because only then can I think of other things like money and livelihood,” she said, shaking her head in disbelief.
“I am sure I will never come back here because it has been made clear that we are not liked or wanted. So why would I come back?”
Akpan was surrounded by fellow Nigerians who were waiting to make it on to the next flight.
Several Nigerians could not go through immigration because their papers were not in order. They were turned back even though they had been cleared to leave by their embassy.
Staying behind was Olas Jimmy, a husband and father whose wife and child were passengers on the waiting list of the delayed aircraft. They had been waiting for more than three hours.
Jimmy was anxious and distressed.
“I am sending my family home. We sorted all their things with the Nigerian consulate in Arcadia and we were told the flight was going to leave at 9am today,” he said.
Jimmy, who has lived in South Africa since 2011, said he could not leave the airport until the plane with his family had taken off from the “country that does not want us here”.
The family man decided not to join his family this time and hopes to stay here to make a living to support them while they are separated. He said he would remain for “a while”.
“I will probably leave next month. When I am ready, I will go,” he said.
Only 178 Nigerians went home
Home affairs said it would take time for some Nigerians who flew back home this week to be allowed back into South Africa because they had overstayed and became undocumented before they were repatriated.
The department confirmed that some Nigerians could not be allowed to board the free flight to Nigeria because they did not have proper travel documents.In the end, as confirmed by Nigerian Foreign Affairs Minister Geoffrey Onyeama on Twitter, only 178 out of the anticipated 300 people landed at Murtala Muhammed International Airport in Lagos on Wednesday evening.
Meanwhile, home affairs spokesperson Thabo Mokgola has denied Nigerian media reports suggesting that a travel ban to South Africa, of up to 10 years, was imposed on those who were repatriated.
“There was no travel ban imposed on anyone, we’re only aware of those declared undesirable persons. The Nigerian consulate confirmed citizenship of each person and issued once-off travel documents so we could process those willing to be repatriated,” he said.
“We had people who were declared undesirable persons because they overstayed beyond their permits. They will therefore not be welcome in South Africa for some time, that is the law. Each case is different, and we can’t treat someone who overstayed by two days [the same way as someone] who overstayed by 10 years.” – Poloko Tau