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Xenophobic Attacks in South Africa: A Threat to African Unity?
Xenophobic Attacks in South Africa: A Threat to African Unity?
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By - Makinde Ebenezer

Posted - 13-09-2019

African intellectuals and scholars have written extensively on the idea of African unity mostly in relations to a buzzword: Pan-Africanism. Due to certain historical peculiarities and uniqueness, Africans within their different national contraptions have often been regarded as a unified body of people with common set of ideas and values. There is therefore the idea of African personality such that Africa is said to have its own history and its own culture markedly different from that of the western developed countries.

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More importantly, this idea of African personality is expected to create a sense of unity and togetherness among Africans such that regardless of their nationalities- Ghanaian, Nigerian, and Tanzanian etc. Africans would forge cordial relationships for their collective benefits. It is often in this sense that African intellectuals talk about Pan-Africanism. It is also in this sense that many African countries have cooperatively created entities and organizations like African Union for example to further the interests of the African continent.

However, the recent deadly xenophobic attacks in South Africa have created a rupture in the whole idea of Pan-Africanism. In the midst of these deadly attacks on foreign nationals in South Africans who are mostly Africans, to what extent can we begin to talk about African personality? Or if there is anything like that in the first place? And if there is anything like Pan-Africanism, what effects would these ongoing attacks on foreign nationals who are mostly Africans in South Africa have on African unity?

Pervasive Xenophobic Attacks in South Africa
Xenophobic attacks in South Africa are gradually becoming pervasive occurrences in the country. Indeed, these fear and attacks on foreign nationals have been going on for a long time. That being said, while xenophobic violence is not a new development in the country, several factors have been attributed to have caused the latest violence in South Africa. Commentators have pointed accusing fingers to the failure of the government to advance an inclusive society devoid of poverty, high rate of unemployment, and inflation. Subsequent governments in South Africa have been indicted for their failure to provide essential services for the people and ameliorate the negative effects of socio-economic hardships.

Furthermore, it has been said that xenophobic attacks in South Africa have systemic undertones such that political leaders in the country are themselves privy of the ongoing attacks. Meaning that, the attacks on foreign nationals in the country are not necessarily frown at by the country`s political leaders.

There are reasons to believe that security institutions in the country like the police, and the immigration service are themselves xenophobic in that they show no compassion to black foreigners from other African countries. In this sense, xenophobia has been identified as an institutionalized and systemic problem in South Africa.

More so, in some instances, the political leaders in South Africa have engaged in false solidarity with the victims of xenophobia by condemning the attacks in strongest terms like South African President Cyril Ramaphosa who had said that “there can be no justification for any South African to attack people from other countries.” But in many other instances, the body languages, dispositions and utterances of opinion and political leaders in South Africa reflect covert engineering of the attacks on black foreign nationals such that in the midst of their condemnations, they have failed to reprimand and stringently punish perpetrators, while victims have been demonized as drug pushers, thieves and illegal migrants. This has emboldened bad eggs among South Africans to regroup and carry out further attacks on foreign nationals in the country.

Danger of Xenophobia on African Unity
The recent xenophobic attacks which began sometimes in late August and early September, 2019 are very unique when compared to others that have occurred in the past. They are unique precisely because they are reactive wherein several African countries whose nationals are victims of xenophobic attacks in South Africa have made attempts to antagonize relations with the Rainbow nation. More appropriately, they have made attempts to pay evil with evil or pay intolerance of South Africa`s citizens with intolerance of their own against anything South Africa. Currently, there are poor relationships between South Africa and many African countries. It would be recalled that in the midst of xenophobic attacks in South Africa, several “perceived” South Africa`s businesses in Nigeria have been attacked and raided by Nigerians who believe in reciprocity.

Zambia did cancel a schedule friendly football match against South Africa team citing attacks on foreign nationals in the country. Madagascar also withdrew from a similar fixture because of concerns over the pervasive xenophobic attacks in South Africa. Zambians were also reported to have protested on the streets thereby affecting business activities in the capital city of Lusaka. A popular radio station in the country was also reported to have decided to not play songs by South African artists until further notice. Like in Nigeria, protesters in the Democratic Republic of Congo attacked and attempted to destroy the South Africa`s consulate in Lubumbashi, while several South African owned businesses were raided and attacked.

More so, several other diplomatic measures have been taken by African countries whose nationals are attacked in South Africa. In the midst of the xenophobic attacks, African countries notably Nigeria pulled out of the World Economic Forum that held in South Africa on September 4-6, 2019. There were also reports that Malawi, Rwanda, The Democratic Republic of Congo had absented from the Forum to show solidarity with the victims of xenophobic attacks in South Africa.

The implication of this is that, while World Economic Forum on Africa, 2019 was essentially organized to foster further relations among Africans especially in the areas of free trade, open borders, and strong collaboration among African countries, the attacks on black foreign nationals in South Africa revealed a different reality of what relations between African countries are especially in the light of reprisal attacks on perceived South African businesses in other African countries. It has made a charade of the whole idea of African unity.

It is particularly instructive to mention the fact that these continued xenophobic attacks in South Africa have dangerously engender hostile relations between Nigeria and South Africa- the two Africa continental powers to say the least. There are reports and insinuations that Nigerians are the hardest hit in the spate of attacks on foreign nationals in South Africa whereby Nigerians and the Nigerian government have reacted the most to these attacks.

However, there are feelings that hostility between the two continental powers will have grave consequences on the unity of the African continent as a whole. And recent events between South Africa and Nigeria have shown that the two countries are already in dangerous uncharted waters. As we write, the Nigerian government has commenced the evacuation of willing Nigerians from the Rainbow nation, a scenario that is more or less revealing the beginning of further antagonism and rancor between the two nations. Of course, the danger of any hostility between Nigeria and South Africa for the unity and development of the African continent cannot be over-emphasized. There is therefore insinuations that breakdown of relationship between the two countries, will be detrimental to the progress of other African countries and the continent of Africa.

For example, there are insinuations that the recently inaugurated Free Movement of Persons Protocol in Africa (2018) which seeks to foster relations among all African countries by ensuring the rights of all AU members to enter, stay and move freely and exit the territory of another member state in accordance with the laws and regulations cannot be successfully implemented if South Africa and Nigeria do not join hands to make it a reality- but how can they join hands when they are not in good terms?

There is also a sense to which the much flaunted African Continental Free Trade Agreement (March, 2018) which seeks to allow African goods to be traded without restraint throughout the continent cannot be a success without the generous support of Abuja and Pretoria. Furthermore, the fact that both South Africa and Nigeria are of the largest contributors to African Union`s cause is a reminiscent of the importance and significance of two countries to the continent of Africa such that any hostility between them will be very injurious to development of the continent of Africa.

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What this reveals is the fact that while hostility between Nigeria and South Africa will definitely affect both countries politically, economically, and even socio-culturally, there is a sense to which it effects will go beyond them by even affecting the unity and development of the African continent. Indeed, xenophobic attacks in South Africa on black foreign nationals who are mostly Africans have only one enemy and the enemy is the African continent.

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