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Phobia or Scapegoatism? The Nigerianization of Crimes in South Africa

The rivalry between South Africa and Nigeria has affected the relationship between citizens of both countries to such an extent that they see themselves as being in a perpetual competition.

Earlier this month, another series of attacks against African migrants in South Africa resurfaced. Since an earlier outburst in 2008, xenophobic violence in South Africa has remained a shocking experience for the continent because of the reality that the attacks specifically target black Africans—the same people that supported South African movements for liberation from the horrendous regime of apartheid. Although a lingering issue, the recent wave of attacks featured more anti-Nigerian sentiments, repeated claims that Nigerians are promoters of crimes fast destroying South African communities. For example, amid the attacks, Foreign Affairs Minister, Naledi Pandor, remarked that there is ‘…the belief and the reality that our people have that there are many persons from Nigeria, who are dealing in drugs in our country, who are harming our young people by making drugs easily available to them.’ Thabo Mbeki, the former president and respected African statesman, was similarly quoted as saying that ‘the truth of the matter is that there are Nigerian criminals, who are involved in drug dealing, and that’s true. There are Nigerian criminals who are involved in prostitution and that’s true.’

Clearly, the foregoing narratives about Nigerians in South Africa propel a general criminalization of people of Nigerian origin. Regardless of their status, in South Africa, Nigerians often encounter a great deal of suspicion from their host communities. On many occasions, some of us who have lived (or are living) in South Africa have had to struggle to prove our innocence during interactions with friends and colleagues who apparently do not feel convinced about our being there. I can recall an occasion while I was waiting for a flight at the OR Tambo Airport in Johannesburg. A Cape guy walked up to me and asked about my nationality, apparently to start a conversation. Once I informed him that I am Nigerian, he quickly asked in a hushed tone, ‘you got some Coke?’ I felt embarrassed and at the same time angry that I responded immediately, ‘do I look like someone who uses drugs?’ Jokingly, although not funny enough, he said as a Nigerian he expected me to understand what he meant.

My story represents one of the many examples of the terrible stereotyping Nigerians face in South Africa. Nigerians struggle to be accepted there, and grapple with a serious social integration problem. This problem is worse for younger Nigerians in the  schools. Younger Nigerians are socially excluded by their schoolmates who have been influenced by negative stories about Nigerians from the larger society. Similarly, Nigerian men who try to marry South African women encounter serious difficulties in the hands of the families of their spouses. After the marriage—for those who are successful—the South African wives encounter another series of discrimination and repugnance from their people. In 2013, an association of South African women married to Nigerians, United Nigerian Wives in South Africa, had to protest against series of discrimination and hateful speech they experienced at the Department of Home Affairs (DHA). The women complained that they were usually referred to as ‘prostitutes’ in the presence of their children by officials of the DHA whenever they visited to renew papers for their husbands.

Nigerians have become so undesirable in South Africa that living there may be synonymous with a struggle for survival in a war zone. In 2017, Nigeria’s Senior Special Adviser to the President on Foreign Affairs and Diaspora, Abike Dabiri, stated that ‘in the last two years, 116 Nigerians have been killed in South Africa and according to statistics, 63% of them were killed by the police.’ Although the statistics were not substantiated with any empirical evidence, it is true that Nigerians have quickly become primary subjects of xenophobic attacks in South Africa, which are not usually reported or, if covered, are misreported by the South African media. It is the Nigerian Union in South Africa (NUSA) that has reliably kept tabs on the issue and given credible reports about the rising number of violent attacks and killings of their fellow nationals. At the moment, eight police officers are reportedly undergoing prosecution for extra-judicial killing of a Nigerian, Ibrahim Olamilekan Badmus, in October 2017.

While it is undeniable that there are Nigerians involved in criminal activities, reliable evidence nullifies the claim that they are the chief perpetrators of crimes in South Africa. Based on the 2017 United Nations data on the population of migrants in South Africa, Nigerian migrants constitute the 20th on the list with a population of 27,326 (although, this may only represent the number of documented migrants). Top five countries on the list include Zimbabwe (649, 385), Mozambique (381,386), Lesotho (312, 537), Namibia (174,043) and the United Kingdom (123,764). South Africa’s 2011 official census also confirms that Africans outside the Southern African sub-region only constitute 7.3 per cent of the total 75 per cent African immigrants in South Africa. Official reports from the Department of Correctional Services  indicate that Nigerians constitute a small number of the prison population in South Africa. In fact, foreign nationals only constitute 6.3 per cent of the total number of inmates in the prisons. Of the total population of 162,162 in the 2011 report, foreign nationals are 8,580 inmates with Zimbabweans and Mozambicans in the majority and only 426 Nigerians featured in the list. Of these Nigerian inmates, 242 were still in the awaiting-trial category.

Studies have demonstrated that drug trade and trafficking had been a major problem in South Africa before the end of apartheid. Here, some useful scholarly works include: Oosthuysen, G.’s 1997 essay, ‘The Illegal Drug Trade in Southern Africa’; Atkins A.’s 1997 book, The Illegal Drugs Trade and Development in South Africa: Some Observations; Gastrow, P.’s 1998 ‘Organized Crime in South Africa’; the Sciences Research Council’s 1991 monograph, Alcohol and Other Drug Use by Black Residents in Selected Areas in RSA; and Leggett, T. 2001’s Rainbow Vice: The Drugs and Sex Industries in the New South Africa. It is instructive to note that the influx of African migrants to South Africa is a post-apartheid phenomenon, particularly after the 1994 elections that heralded a new (democratic) South Africa. In fact, Nigerians only started becoming more visible in the major cities of South Africa after the millennium. According to the African Center for Migration and Society of the University of the Witwatersrand, South Africa began to experience a sudden increase in the number of Nigerian migrants in 2004 as 2,000 entries were recorded every month.

In a 1999 report by the UN Office for Drug Control and Crime Prevention (UNODCCP), analysts revealed that South Africa was already becoming another Columbia following a growing rate of drug violence in the 1990s. Three years later, the same UN agency reported that ‘drug trafficking and organized crime has unquestionably grown in a symbiotic relationship in South Africa since the mid-1990s. In 1997, SAPS [South African Police Service] conducted a survey which demonstrated the existence of 192 organized crime groups operating in South Africa of which 92 were focused primarily on the international smuggling of drugs.’

In his 1997 report published by the South African Institute of International Affairs, Glenn Oosthuysen noted that ‘South Africa has the dubious record of being the world’s largest consumer of methaqualone (commonly called Mandrax)’ and ‘…most of the cocaine found in South Africa originates in Brazil and to a lesser extent in other Latin American countries. Initially, South Africa was used as a circuitous route to send both cocaine and heroin to the well-established European and North American markets.’ According to the UNODCCP, while Cannabis (Dagga) was popular among the black community, Mandrax was more popular in the Indian and Coloured communities, and the white population commonly used Wellconal (dipipanone hydrochloride). In response to the increasingly overwhelming crisis of drug crimes in the 1990s, a vigilante group, People Against Gangsterism and Drugs (PAGAD) emerged in 1996, which used extreme measures to fight the menace. The PAGAD approach further contributed to killings and gangsterism in the Western Cape.

Contrary to the stereotype that Nigerians are drug and human traffickers, evidence suggests Nigerians are more likely to be victims of police extortion and robbery in South Africa. In major cities such as Johannesburg, Pretoria, Durban and Cape Town, Nigerians have a popular saying that they are the ‘ATM’ (Automated Teller Machine) of the police and immigration officers. Research by Nahla Valji in 2003 confirmed that Nigerians are two to three times more at risk of robbery, assault and murder than other nationals in the country.

Besides the façade of drug and human trafficking stories, three major reasons account for the horrendous treatment of Nigerians in South Africa. First, South Africa just like many other African countries is facing the challenge of leadership failure, which is responsible for an alarming rate of poverty and unemployment. The black population, especially the youth segment, is exploding in anger following failed promises of economic freedom and prosperity at the end of the long years of the apartheid regime. South Africa has one of the highest levels of socioeconomic inequalities in the world, largely defined in racial terms. The unemployment rate has been rising, according to Statistics South Africa, with more than half of the population living in poverty as at 2015.

The African National Congress (ANC), which has enjoyed political dominance since 1994 on the strength of its history of liberation struggle, has been mired in corruption scandals, in recent years. Rather than admitting their failures, political leaders have characteristically adopted the usage of anti-immigrant rhetoric to shift blame, to distract the people and to find excuses for the downward trends in the economy.

The second reason for anti-Nigerian sentiments in South Africa is the notion of Nigeria’s ‘exceptionalism’. The average Nigerian has an orientation that Nigerians should naturally be in the position of leadership in any African setting because they pride themselves as having the largest population of black people and producing most of the successful Africans in the world. Indeed, it is this exceptionalism that informs the Afrocentrism in Nigeria’s foreign policy, which stems from a post-independence belief that Nigeria’s duty to Africa is to be Africa’s ‘big brother.’ This belief informs some ostentatious behaviours that have come to be understood as the ‘Nigerian domineering attitude’ which is so repulsive to other Africans. For South Africans, in particular, who have arguably experienced more terrifying years of settlers’ dominance than other Africans, the fear of another round of domination by foreigners may not be out of place. These fears may also explain claims that Nigerians are snatching their women and taking their jobs, which Nigerians interpret as the result of an inferiority complex and envy.

Finally, there is the political angle informed by a seeming rivalry between Nigeria and South Africa over the leadership of the continent. Since its independence, Nigeria has taken it upon itself to provide leadership for Africa by committing huge resources for the promotion of peace, development and liberation across Africa. On the other hand, post-apartheid South Africa emerged on the scene with a great leadership potential and an open globalist agenda in its foreign policy. At the centre of this foreign policy was a perceived moral responsibility to promote peace, human rights and democracy not only in Africa but also around the world as an expression of gratitude for the global support it received during the days of liberation struggles.

Propelled by a large economy and supported by an extensive infrastructure base inherited from the white-led government, the rise of South Africa set it on a somewhat collision course against Nigeria, although both countries remain diplomatic about their rivalry. At the African Union (AU), Nigeria and South Africa have created opposing camps in the decision-making processes. For example, Nigeria and South Africa supported different candidates for the chairmanship of the AU in 2012, which eventually saw the emergence of South African politician, Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma, as the chair against Nigeria-backed Jean Ping of Gabon, in a highly competitive election. And at the level of the United Nations, they have both contested intensely for the slot of Africa’s representation at the Security Council.

The rivalry between South Africa and Nigeria has affected the relationship between citizens of both countries to such an extent that they see themselves as being in a perpetual competition. For example, when his country’s team Bafana Bafana lost to the Nigerian Super Eagles in the Quarter Finals of the 2019 African Cup of Nations (AFCON) South African rapper, AKA, tweeted  that  ‘…This match was bigger than football. The biggest rivalry on the continent. Why do we always have to lose against Naija at EVERYTHING. It’s a hard pill to swallow man. We keep on losing to Nigeria in every way. We should have just lost to Egypt … rather than Nigeria.’

The South African government needs to stop looking for scapegoats for the huge problem bedevilling their society, which is largely a reflection of gross leadership and system failures. The government must be serious about addressing the persistent problem of xenophobia by putting in place practical measures for re-orientation of its citizens about accepting other Africans, especially Nigerians. Most especially, South African media must engage in responsible reporting and stop the negative portrayal and stereotyping of other Africans. On the part of the Nigerian government, there is a need for more practical measures to address the push factors that drive Nigerians away from the country. At the same time, the South African experience has shown that Nigeria needs to overhaul its foreign policy to centre citizen welfare within its foreign policy goals, and to thoroughly reassess its national interests in its ongoing relations with other African states

This piece is an excerpt from the author’s working paper entitled, ‘Naijaphobia: Xenophobia against Nigerians in South Africa.’