If you grew up in my generation in Nigeria, you could not fail to know about apartheid South Africa. At school we learnt about Nelson and Winnie Mandela, Amandla, Oliver Tambo, the 1976 Soweto killings of fellow school children and the brutal effects of the apartheid regime. Our parents were asked – and many did not object – to having money deducted from their salaries to help fund the work of the anti-apartheid movement. On TV we learnt about how men, women and children were reduced to second class citizens in their own country. The image of Soweto as a horrible slum where many black people were restricted after dark was etched on our memories. Nigeria of course was at the forefront of pushing for economic boycott of South Africa in solidarity with the oppressed blacks and as a way of forcing the apartheid regime to relent. Former President Obasanjo, desperate and exasperated even came up with the idea of using “African juju” to fight the racist Pieta Botha and his ilk. If there was ever any demonstration of “Ubuntu” – “all for one” in action, the key role that many African countries like Nigeria played in supporting and pushing for change in South Africa was a key one.
But aside this, the struggle for freedom in South Africa was also etched on my mind as part of my personal growth and educational development. As an undergraduate at the University of Benin, I was opportune to have strong “Marxist” lecturers like Tunde Fatunde and Frank Dimowo who mentored so many students. I still remember Tunde Fatunde’s office. It had a huge poster of the young Nelson Mandela. That memory of the poster was so engrained on my mind that I was a bit lost when Mandela was released from prison – he looked so much older than in the poster!
Nigerians therefore did not just financially support South Africa. Their pain was our pain – all for one. Many South Africans who managed to escape the apartheid regime were given a home in Nigeria. I have friends who named their children “Mandela” or Amandla” – all signs of support and solidarity with the anti-apartheid movement. Even though I had left Nigeria in 1990 when Mandela was released from prison, it was such a joyful moment to see him walk hand in hand down the street with the great Winnie Mandela – my hero!
This little bit of a background is essential to provide an insight into the mind of an average Nigerian like myself in relation to the recent xenophobic attacks and killing of foreigners by black South Africans in the country. Of course this is not the first time such violence would occur. The first outburst of violence was in 2008 when Thabo Mbeki was President (Thabo Mbeki also spent time in Nigeria in exile during apartheid). The attitude and response by the government was delayed and tepid – very much like now. I was so appalled by the images I saw on TV, I decided not to visit the country and only made it last year in 2014.
However, five years down the line and those images are back – but this time more brutal, more gruesome and more deadly. It seems like black South Africans who for about a century had been oppressed, suppressed and hurt are now waking up to their pain with a relentless attempt at vengeance. Only the vengeance is misdirected. The new victims of South Africa’s brutality are the black African foreigners and the non citizens like the Nigerians, the Zimbabweans, the Malawians. The people being targeted are those perceived to be weaker and more vulnerable – a sort of pedagogy of the oppressed, the weak oppressing the weaker.
It is not difficult to understand some of the factors responsible for the anger most black South Africans feel. Years after the end of apartheid and the instalment of black majority rule, most of them still live in abject poverty. So many jobs that cannot be filled by citizens have been opened up to foreigners. It is said that over 40% of the medical doctors in the country are of Nigerian origin.
Unfortunately, what South Africans don’t realise is that attacking foreigners is not in any way going to solve their problems. Indeed, while this is a wake-up call for the South African government, the consequences of these xenophobic killings and attacks are far reaching. The bond between South Africa and the rest of the continent – built and sustained by the spirit of “Ubuntu” in the fight against apartheid is well and truly broken. In retaliation for the attacks on their citizens, South Africans and South African businesses in other countries are being targeted. There are diplomatic rows between Zimbabwe and South Africa. Robert Mugabe who also played a key role in supporting exiled members of the African National Congress during apartheid is of course mightily disappointed by how his country is now being repaid by so called “brothers”.
It will take a long time for the wounds caused by this great betrayal to heal. For now, the spirit of Ubuntu is no more, killed no less by those who birthed it.