SA government must apologise to the continent for afrophobia, Nigerian politician tells WEF


South Africa's leadership must take stronger steps in de-escalating tensions that have led to violent attacks on foreign nationals, a prominent Nigerian politician said.

At a "last minute" media briefing at the World Economic Forum for Africa on Friday, Oby Ezekwesili shared views on steps that must be taken by the leadership of the continent's two biggest economies in tackling xenophobia. She was previously Nigeria's minister of education, as well as of solid minerals, and emerged as the principal spokesperson for the campaign to help secure the release of the majority of the 276 Chibok girls kidnapped by Boko Haram in 2014. It earned her a Nobel Peace Prize nomination.

The WEF kicked off on Wednesday and saw business leaders and government officials converging in Cape Town to discuss economic-related issues on the continent.

However, given the recent spate of violent attacks of foreign nationals in Johannesburg, the Nigerian government pulled out of the forum, Fin24 previously reported.

WEF spokesperson Olivier Cann who was moderating the briefing, asked Ezekwesili why she chose to attend the forum. Ezekwesili said she felt it was important that "when there is a failure on the part of governmental systems", citizens must step up and make sure they do not fail in their part.

"It was important for me to put my voice out here that South Africa must do the right thing and my country must do the right thing. The two countries must come together immediately and de-escalate this," she said.

Ezekwesili explained that the violence reverses the gains of economic integration which have happened so far, such as the free trade agreement which will allow the free movement of goods and people on the continent. 

Ezekwesili spoke frankly on the attacks and referred to it as afrophobia and not xenophobia. "I have not seen any Italian or other Europeans, I have not seen any Chinese or Indians being harmed or maimed, being killed or losing property. I have seen a targeting of people especially from my country – Nigeria."

Afrophobia is a fear of African cultures and the African diaspora, while xenophobia is a prejudice against people from other countries.

She believes the South African government must make a "sincere apology" to the rest of the continent. "The [SA] president and government must state clearly that there will be speedy and conclusive prosecution of those arrested so far for the latest violent upheaval," she said.

Secondly the government must actively engage with the victims of violence. "There is almost a sense that there is no link and connection between the government right now and the victims," she added.

The lack of engagement sends a signal of "tacit approval" of the violence, which she labelled as a "serial act amounting to savagery".

By engaging with victims it would give them a social licence that they require to feel welcome in the country. "There is a failure to act and that needs to change." Leadership must also take steps in correcting misperceptions of nationals.

Ezekwesili said the Nigerian government should be accepting of an overture from South Africa.

When asked about her thoughts on President Cyril Ramaphosa's remarks on xenophobia in a publicly broadcasted message on Thursday, Ezekwesili said it was "not strong enough".

In his message, Ramaphosa condemned the violence and noted 10 people had been killed in recent attacks, two of which have been identified as foreign nationals. "No amount of anger and frustration and grievance can justify such acts of wanton destruction and criminality. There can be no excuse for the attacks on homes and businesses of foreign nationals. There can be no excuse for xenophobia and any form of intolerance," he said.

Ramaphosa said that South Africa relied on African states to overcome apartheid and achieve democracy.

"We value our relations with other African countries and their people. We need to work to strengthen political, social and economic trade ties if we are to develop our own economy and the economy of our neighbours," he said.

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