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ANALYSIS: A storm in a tea-cup march divides the country

By Thobile Hans

The unabated crisis of growing unemployment rate, drugs and human trafficking has forced some South Africans to find scapegoat in other nationalities, with Nigeria and Zimbabwe being singled out.

Buti Nkonki is a South African man in his late forties who came to Johannesburg from Indwe, a small rural town in the Eastern Cape, for greener pastures. When he came to the City of Gold in 2002, Nkonki said he thought he would stay comfortably in Hillbrow – that is now a shadow of its former self – and worked as an interpreter.

Nkonki is an opinionated regular radio-caller and a promising goalkeeper when he was growing up. Since the day he learnt about the advocacy group #PutSouthAfricansFirst, Nkonki threw himself behind its cause and he enthusiastically shares his ideological views on his Facebook account. The declining state of South Africa and his intolerance of foreign nationals are dominant topics. We differ vehemently but we respect each other. Naturally, when #PutSouthAfricansFirst announced its planned march to the Nigerian Embassy in Pretoria on September 23, Nkonki did not only endorse the idea, he also encouraged his followers to do likewise. 

It will be misguided to label Nkonki a xenophobic person, especially when he speaks emotionally about his lived experience in Hillbrow and Turfforntein where he was constantly robbed by people he identified as foreign nationals, and was forced to relocate to Protea Glen far from work but a much safer area (but a quick Google search told me in Gauteng Province, areas Honeydew, Protea Glen and Roodepoort were high on burglary of residential premises in 2017). 

The “march has xenophobic undertones”  

A few days before the planned march to the Nigerian Embassy in Pretoria last week, the Nigerian High Commissioner to South Africa, Kabiru Bala, took to the media to raise his concerns about his country being singled out by #PutSouthAfricansFirst. Bala told Sunday Times the march had xenophobic undertones.

In agreement with Bala, Human Rights Watch South African director, Dewa Mavhinga, said the march could fuel xenophobic violence and the biggest problem is that when people have xenophobic sentiments and target foreign nationals, law enforcement has often failed and unwilling to stop the attacks.

Mavhinga said law enforcement in the country is unavailable to protect foreign nationals and that exacerbates problems.

Unfortunately, the reprimanding sentiments from Bala and Mavhinga, and many others who showed opposition to #PutSouthAfricansFirst’s approach (not necessarily denying its agency) did not stop the march from happening last week Wednesday – a day before Heritage Day in South Africa.

Some claims of #PutSouthAfricansFirst have the support of ANC’s MP Bongani Bongo who chairs the Portfolio Committee on Home Affairs in Parliament.  A month ago, in a virtual conference, Bongo told journalists attending the Internews Workshop on migration that areas such as Hillbrow, Yeoville and central Johannesburg “are no go areas for the locals” because foreign nationals who are dealing in drugs have taken them over. This was the claim Nkonki later reiterated in our conversation.  

JMPD and SAPS raid in Johannesburg CBD, 2018. PHOTO: Mdu Ndzingi

“Forty percent prison population are migrants in South Africa,” Bongo further said.

Bongo, as confident as he was, could not furnish data to support his exaggerated claim. On the contrary, in 2017, Minister of Correctional Services, Ronald Lamola, told Parliament that foreign national prisoners were 13 437. The minister also added that there were 2 052 undocumented foreign national prisoners in the entire country. The numbers could have not have jumped up so high in less than three years.

Back to the march. Before the Nigerian Embassy stood High Commissioner Bala in front of the irate members of #PutSouthAfricaFirst, Action for Change, and other partners that were not mentioned by names. A well-built man, Mario Khumalo, who signed the memorandum of demands before he handed it over to the slightly perturbed Bala, accused the Nigerian government of complicity to the alleged crimes committed by its citizens. He also said Nigerians were “running amok in South Africa”.

The Constitution of South Africa was not spared by Khumalo when he addressed the more than 50 marchers who first assembled for the march. He said Section 32 of the immigration act strictly advocates for the deportation of anyone coming to the country illegally. “The government and Home Affairs have not only ignored the law, they have circumvented it.”

An ultimatum of three months was given to the Nigerian Embassy to clean up its act or else. But as one Democratic Alliance leader, Phumzile van Damme, opined that the anger against the immigrants was “misguided”, I wish to add that the demands made to the Nigerian embassy were also misguided. They barked the wrong tree. Hint: #FeesMustFalls marched to the Parliament to demand free education.

As he accepted the memorandum of demands, Bala gained his composure and replied: “It saddens me the most for my country to be singled out of more than 170 countries represented in this beautiful country. I will not accept that all Nigerians are criminals in this country. I will not and Nigeria will not accept that. We do not accept the profiling of Nigerians in this country.”

Bala, who was interrupted a few times by the crowd, concluded by saying many Nigerians are doing good for the country and that those accused of being criminals should be dealt with through legal system.

I could not have said it better. That statement was in a subtle way putting the ball in the court of South African government to do its job.

The next on #PutSouthAfricansFirst’s agenda were the marches to Zimbabwean Embassy and Home Affairs of South Africa not later than September 28. That promise has not been kept. But could it be that within 48 hours after the march to the Nigerian Embassy, Gauteng Premier David Makhura, announced a controversial “Township Bill”, that he said if approved, will limit where foreign nationals can set-up businesses. In a radio interview the Premier’s spokesman, Vuyo Mhaga confirmed that the Bill was at the advance stage.

“It is not really something new, it is something that emanates from post-2019 elections,” he said.

The South African law must take its course  

On the day the Nigerian Embassy reluctantly received its unwelcomed visitors, Mercy was busy plaiting hair of people who were preparing themselves for heritage celebrations. She was unaware of the action in the capital city. Mercy, who is better known as Madame to her clients, runs Able Beauty Centre at the corner Oxford and West streets in Ferndale (in Randburg). Madame came to South Africa in 2011 to work in the hair salon business sector as she had been running one back home in Nigeria.

For three months she worked for someone in Mthatha, in the Eastern Cape, to get used to the local business before she ventured on her own. In 2015, Madame packed and moved inland to the City of Gold where high number of population of South Africa resides (Gauteng Province accounts for 15.2 million people, and the majority is in Joburg). In her small establishment Madame works with a Zimbabwean barber Elvis, and on quiet days she would be seen outside sharing banter with Lillian who is from Lesotho. Lillian has a nail bar in the front corner of the hair salon.

Before the Covid-19 lockdown regulations were relaxed and many businesses allowed to operate, Able Beauty Centre had a South African employee who has not returned to work. Although not knowing for sure, Madame thinks her former employee has opened her own business. Many of her former employees have done so before. That makes her proud than being bitter. Madame instead sees it as a pay-it-forward to the country that embraced her and gave her a second-chance in life.    

Madame is one of those Nigerians that High Commissioner Bala said are doing good for the country. Many others are lecturing and learning in South Africans universities.

However, the residents of Jonaley Court, where Madame lives and works, are in constant fear for the lives of their children and themselves. Everyone on Oxford Street talks about the Nigerian men who are hanging around the flats – they are often playing a cat and mouse chase with the local police. A few times there have been arrests and drugs were found on them or in the building. But a few months down the line, those arrested will be back in a different spot in Randburg continuing where they have left. It is everybody’s guess how those were arrested with drugs in their possession got out and not even deported. 

Back in 2012, the Nigerian Ministry of Foreign Affairs issued a statement indicating that the then High Commissioner had summoned his South African counterpart to receive a protest against the spate of deportations of Nigerians to the South Africa. This followed the arrest and detention of 125 Nigerian nationals including a Senator, at the OR Tambo International Airport, for attempting to enter the country without valid Yellow Fever cards. The statement concluded that both the Permanent Secretary and the High Commissioner agreed that the matter should not be allowed to get out of hand in the interest of warm and cordial relationship that exist between the countries.

According to Aurelia Segatti’s and co research paper titled Nigerians in South Africa: Fact and Figures, in 2011, 99.9% of Nigerian asylum cases were rejected compared with 86% of asylum seekers generally. There are no indications regarding what becomes of the rejected Nigerian asylum seekers, and the number of deported Nigerians has remained low over the years. 

A police station counts 50 arrests in one week   

A day after the Pretoria march, the Honeydew Police Station (under Randburg) released a crime report that claimed 50 people were arrested over a period of a week. Captain Balan Muthan said they could not say how many were foreign nationals in that 50 arrested. But on August 30, the same police station arrested five men who were wanted for murder, house robbery and hijacking, among other crimes.  

Captain Muthan said all five men were undocumented foreign nationals between the ages of 22 and 48 years. According to Muthan, the suspects were known to drive around the area in a vehicle that they used as an e-hailing taxi service during the day and a vehicle of crime at night. 

Last year Honeydew Police increased their presence in the area as there were threats of xenophobic violence, with Honeydew Police Sector 3 manager Captain Karen Jacobs stating that they are “monitoring Zandspruit and Cosmo City frequently, especially areas occupied by foreign nationals.”

These areas have in the past experienced friction between South Africans and foreign nationals which led to violent demonstrations and looting incidents.

Although the march went on without incidents of violence and a week has passed without xenophobic attacks, we cannot be too comfortable. The South African government needs to show firm hand in fighting crime and providing work opportunities, among other things.

Was the unresolved murder of Ndubuisi-Chukwu xenophobic?

The death of Nigerian national, Elizabeth Ndubuisi-Chukwu, at the Emperors Palace Hotel and Convention Centre in Joburg in June 2019 raised tensions between the two countries. Students organised picketing of South African-owned businesses in Nigeria, and they called for firm action by South African government.

Abike Dabiri-Erewa, the CEO of Nigerian in Diaspora Commission, addressing a presser in Abuja on August 7, said that 118 Nigerians had been killed in South Africa as of 2016. And presently an additional 88 Nigerians had been killed in this country.

A question came from Danladi Dandue who is a criminology professor at the University of Jos in Nigeria. “How many countries in the world would sit by and continue to lament while their citizens are killed, as we are witnessing in South Africa’s xenophobic agenda.”

In response to the students’ picketing, both the Minister of International Relations and Cooperation, Naledi Pandor, and Police Minister, Bheki Cele, said there was no targeting of any group of Africans in South Africa.

A year later, both the South African and Nigerian authorities have not made any arrests, and there has been no evidence the crime was motivated by xenophobia as was earlier claimed in Nigeria. As Ndubuisi-Chukwu was a high profile person her case was touted as the priority matter in both countries. 

Xenophobia or not. There is no end in sight to the African problems until the African governments put people first. As the South African government says Batho Pele (mere ink on paper).

One thought on “ANALYSIS: A storm in a tea-cup march divides the country

  1. My faceFace friend Thobile Hans asked me some few questions and I answered. Read the link below and hear for yourself!

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