We’ve been here before.
I suppose that’s why the international response to the latest attacks on African nationals in South Africa has been more visceral than ever before. Celebrities have boycotted the country, protests have been held at South African embassies across the continent, ambassadors recalled, football matches called off, and even reprisal attacks at South African-linked businesses in Nigeria. As usual, recriminations and counter-recriminations have been flying around the place.
I wrote about this issue back in 2015 and, unfortunately, a lot of what was true back then remains true today. In some ways, it’s just gotten worse. At the end of that article, I expressed hope that the South African authorities were beginning to acknowledge the faultlines and taking proactive measures to curb the violence. As opposition politician Julius Malema said back then, “Our people are in poverty and they get tempted to believe [the] simplest solutions; that if we drive away the foreigners, we will work tomorrow. But the reality is that there are no jobs. Even if these people leave, we will still be unemployed.” The tweet below 4 years later buttresses the point.
But it appears that little has actually been done and few (if any) lessons learned, judging from the scale of the current violence, and the still baffling utterances from the South African government. Don’t get me wrong, there is no smoke without fire, so I’m convinced that the South African protesters have observed (or heard about) situations that give them cause to worry. Such worry, when not properly addressed by the authorities, can result in mob violence as the people decide they have to do something since their government will not. Nigerians, more than anyone else, can understand this sentiment perfectly well.
As I said back then, a significant catalyst in these now almost regular Afrophobia attacks, is the perceptions of people. It is also why the South African government’s reaction has been disappointing because it points to the fact that little has changed over the past 4 years. From denying that the attacks are hate-based to brushing off concerns of host communities and brother governments, the SA government has unwittingly given tacit blessing to the crimes by turning a blind eye to their true nature and instead giving them a slightly less nauseating colouration. Of course the words coming from SA authorities are now more conciliatory and everything, but that was exactly what happened 4 years ago: deny, refute, cast doubt, then accept and promise measures. The playbook does not seem to have been updated.
Predictably, governments and citizens in Africa, Nigeria in particular, not only took offence but (in some instances) also took to the streets in protest. Almost inevitably, some of the protests which occurred at the doorsteps of South African-linked companies turned violent, resulting in the looting of stores and even deaths.
Snowballing Our Way to Hell
It would appear that we have somehow found ourselves the perfect storm.
Yes, one might be flabbergasted at the claims of South African officials that “everything’s cool, just a few criminals in the street. Happens everywhere, nothing to see here.” But you must also be gobsmacked by calls in Nigeria from the national chairman of the ruling party to “take over” South African-linked businesses in Nigeria. I’m not sure if he made those statements to drum up anti-SA fury among unemployed, barely-educated youth in Nigeria or further infuriate unemployed, barely-educated youth in South Africa. Either way, if ever the Minister of Information and Culture, Mr Lai Mohammed, comes out sounding more measured and thoughtful than you, then you know you definitely need to rethink your position. Regular readers will know that I tend not to have much sympathy for government spokesmen who speak volumes without saying anything, but I was quite impressed with Mr Mohammed’s statements which called for calm and reflection. It sounded like he realized this was an opportunity for Nigeria to act like the big brother we like to claim we are.
But, because this is Nigeria, we can’t help but include a ridiculous bit of hypocrisy into proceedings. Shortly after announcing that the South African ambassador in Nigeria was given an earful and the Nigerian ambassador there recalled, Nigerians were treated to the news that President Buhari had decided to boycott the World Economic Forum due to begin in South African just a couple days or so away. In doing so, however, the president’s New Media aide, Mr Bashi Ahmad, couldn’t resist taking a sly and, if I may add, underhanded dig at former presidential candidate, Mrs Oby Ezekwesili, on Twitter for herself attending the event as a private citizen. And then photos emerge of two sitting governors and a traditional leader smiling away in South Africa and, naturally, Nigerians send Twitter into meltdown. Good show, everyone.
Another consequence of the poor handling by SA authorities, I’m sure unintended, is that the Internet has been flooded with all sorts of graphic pictures and videos purporting to show the real events on the ground. Naturally, a lot of people have been fooled by the misinformation and indications are that it has helped to fuel some of the anti-SA sentiment that forced governments to plead with citizens not to engage in reprisal attacks in their home countries.
So now we have officials and politicians on both sides fighting hard to clinch the award for dumbest statement of the year while fake news and old, possibly doctored, videos are dug up and circulated on social media to further provoke any African with a smartphone. The only thing missing is a coating of deep fake videos designed to infuriate both sides. I haven’t seen any indications of that so far but, don’t worry, I can virtually guarantee that if we have another such incident in a couple years or more, deep fakes will be prominent. That will pose a significant problem for security agencies, civil populations and society in general. But it’s a place we might end up in as long as politicians on both sides insist on seeing just how deep the rabbithole goes.