After Xenophobic Attacks, Nigeria and South Africa Reset Ties
Nigerian President Muhammadu Buhari traveled to Pretoria in early October to meet his South African counterpart, Cyril Ramaphosa, just weeks after the latest outbreak of attacks against foreigners—including Nigerians—in South Africa in September. The visit was intended to smooth over bilateral relations between Africa’s two largest economies, which have been bumpy in recent years, in part because of periodic episodes of xenophobic violence in South Africa.
Xenophobic violence has been a problem in South Africa for years, with recent peaks in 2008 and 2015 prior to the most recent attacks in September. Analysts have pointed to numerous causes, notably a sense among some South Africans that foreigners compete for scarce jobs and are responsible for the country’s high crime rate. Both accusations lack much basis, however. In reality, unemployment, crime and poverty are so widespread in South Africa that the relatively small foreign population—less than 2.5 million people out of a total population of more than 55 million—cannot be credibly blamed for the problems. Foreigners, nevertheless, sometimes become scapegoats for frustrated South Africans.
Although Nigerians make up a relatively small proportion of South Africa’s foreign population—approximately 70 percent of which comes from neighboring Zimbabwe, Lesotho and Mozambique—Nigeria’s government has been one of the most vocal in responding to the xenophobic violence. Following the most recent attacks in Pretoria in early September, Nigerian Vice President Yemi Osinbajo canceled his scheduled appearance at a World Economic Forum event in Cape Town, and Nigeria recalled its high commissioner. The Nigerian government also repatriated some 600 of its citizens.
In addition to Nigeria’s government, Nigerian society at large also reacted strongly to the violence. Tiwa Savage, a Nigerian pop music star, canceled a festival date in South Africa, and there were retaliatory attacks in Nigeria against stores belonging to MTN, a South African telecommunications company.
South Africa cannot afford to ignore Nigerian anger, given Nigeria’s political and economic clout generally, as well as the Nigerian market’s importance to South Africa specifically. MTN, for example, has over 61.5 million Nigerian subscribers, while the South African supermarket chain Shoprite has at least 25 stores in Nigeria.
During Buhari’s visit to South Africa, the two countries signed major trade and investment accords that further open West African markets to South African businesses, while simultaneously aiming to increase South African investment in roads, mining and other sectors in Nigeria. The visit underscored what the two countries can offer each other economically, but also how xenophobic violence can undermine trust.
To assuage Nigerian concerns, Ramaphosa pledged to Buhari that South Africa will set up an early warning system to head off future episodes of violence. He also promised to prosecute anyone involved in xenophobic attacks. Although the early warning proposal is short on details, Buhari seemed at least partly reassured. He told a town hall of Nigerian expatriates that the violence was “an embarrassment to the continent,” but added, “The authorities have expressed their apologies over the incidents and have resolved to take necessary steps to end this ugly trend in the interest of our relationship.”
Beyond the immediate controversy of the attacks, Buhari and Ramaphosa are dealing with some broadly similar economic problems. Both faced recessions within a year of taking office—Nigeria in 2016-2017 during Buhari’s first term, and South Africa in early 2018 when Ramaphosa took office, and once again during the first quarter of 2019. And both of Africa’s largest economies are struggling to translate economic might into broad-based benefits for their populations. An estimated 55.5 percent of South Africans live in poverty. In Nigeria, as of 2018, an estimated 86.9 million people lived in extreme poverty, the highest number of any country in the world, including India.
In different ways, both Ramaphosa’s African National Congress, or ANC, and Buhari’s All Progressives Congress, or APC, have also backed away from earlier economic policy promises. At points in its history, the ANC has been much further to the left than it is now, with close ties to communists and the trade union movement. Ramaphosa personally embodies something of the ANC’s shift, having evolved from anti-Apartheid activist and trade union organizer to, more recently, extremely wealthy businessman and party heavyweight.
Buhari’s visit to South Africa underscored what the two countries can offer each other economically, but also how xenophobic violence can undermine trust.
Ramaphosa’s economic thinking, if the composition of a recently appointed advisory council is any indication, now runs in a more or less neoliberal direction, with a small dose of Keynesian government intervention to stimulate growth. For example, one of his new advisers has written about “building a good jobs economy,” but the mechanisms envisioned are the now-standard fare of public sector support for startups and skills training. Another adviser has written that Ramaphosa should ensure that “real wage rates must be linked to productivity increases” and has urged that with state-owned enterprises, “operations will have to be rationalised.”
It is hard to see how skills training and startups will translate into widespread employment opportunities for the poorest South Africans, and easy to suspect that “rationalizing” state enterprises is code for downsizing their workforces and throwing more people into unemployment. Then again, perhaps these policy prescriptions don’t matter. As one South African columnist argued, the ANC bureaucracy, which really makes policy, “has not produced a single original policy paper in at least 15 years. That is a sign of intellectual decay, six feet underground.”
In Nigeria, the APC’s economic vision has been more amorphous, but it has included periodic expressions, especially during the 2014-2015 presidential campaign, of Keynesianism. Prominent APC leader Bola Tinubu stated at one point that an APC government would run budget deficits to finance massive infrastructure projects in order to grow the economy and create jobs. The American political scientist Carl LeVan has found that economic concerns drove many Nigerian voters to vote for the APC in 2015, hoping for a break with a corrupt system characterized by rapid but relatively jobless growth. In practice, however, the APC’s economic policymaking has failed to reverse the rise in poverty.
While Buhari certainly has good reason to be outraged at the victimization and scapegoating of Nigerians in South Africa, it is also true that Nigeria has its own substantial share of internal violence, among the causes of which are unemployment, underemployment and poverty. No amount of early warning mechanisms, in either country, can make up for the fact that Africa’s two largest economies are not really working for the majority of their people.
Alex Thurston is a visiting assistant professor of political science and comparative religion at Miami University in Ohio