By Dele Momodu
Fellow Nigerians, let me confess that I was a big fan of South Africa until lately. I have travelled to South Africa countless times in the last 15 years for business and pleasure. Sometimes I have routed my journey through that country only to seek to experience the air of freedom brought about by what I believed was the death of apartheid. I suspect that I was also trying to make up for those terrible years of apartheid when we thought we will never travel in that direction in our lifetime. As it turned out, Nigeria was a major clamourer for the end of the oppression of the Blacks in South Africa, and remained in the vanguard of the war against apartheid until the collapse of the evil regime and system. Not only did Nigeria support the country, it offered solace, succour and shelter for Black South Africans many of whom had fled to Nigeria to escape the tribulations, trauma and sometimes torture that they would otherwise be exposed to. Not only were these our South African brothers and sisters welcomed with open hands and were well catered for, we treated them like royalty and afforded them opportunities that were not even available to ordinary Nigerians. We educated and trained them. We effectively armed them in every sense of the word for the struggle that they would be plunged into both during the battles to end apartheid but also thereafter during the turbulent periods of nation-building. In fact, Nigeria and Nigerians wept louder than the bereaved. Nelson and Winnie Mandela were our biggest heroes and we shared in their pain and anguish.
The release of Mandela from prison was celebrated all over the world and Nigeria in particular. His first visit to Nigeria shortly afterwards was carnival-like. Without sounding blasphemous, everyone wanted to touch his body, as if doing so would heal all wounds and proffer salvation to sinners. We wondered then, and till today, how a man who spent 27 years in prison would still have the capacity not just to forgive but also to forget and thereafter move on with his life and national leadership. Other mortals in his shoes would have pursued their enemies to the pit of hell. Not Mandela. He kept his dignified poise all the way and held out olive branches for those who had manacled his manhood and spirit. He demonstrated the truism that you can shackle the body, but the mind and spirit will always be free to roam as the individual directs.
I remember when news broke that Nelson had decided to separate from his wife, Winnie, whom we all saw and accepted as the symbol of the struggle. We were stunned and dumbfounded. We were thrown into mourning instantly. But because this was Mandela, we forgave him. Even when he imported his new wife from Mozambique (some women are lucky, her last husband was also a President, Samora Machel), his fanatical fans forgave him again. Even in death, it is apparent that the Man can do no wrong. He is the reference point for visionary leadership and consummate statesmanship. He displayed abilities and capacities so uncommon in most world leaders. He was simply an icon, a colossus that is nonpareil, one of a kind. I guess Mandela is so big that African leaders don’t even try to emulate him. He is just so much bigger than them as for example his decision not to be a sit-tight leader notwithstanding that his countrymen and the world at large craved for more of his unique and distinctive style of government.
With the liberation from apartheid, Nigerians felt a sense of entitlement in South Africa and wasted no time in invading the place, in droves, like locusts. Every new immigrant became enchanted with the country and immediately sent word home inviting family and friends to come and experience Eldorado. I must also say this for the records. I used to wonder why the white settlers did not want to hand over to the real owners and original inhabitants of the land? Why would anyone travel from distant places and decide to take over one the juiciest landscapes in the entire world? Who gave them the right? I discovered the simple answer as soon as I first encountered Johannesburg. Wow, I exclaimed, I thought I was in paradise. In reality, I realised that no one would build such monumental infrastructure and allow it to fall into wrong hands. Apart from anything, they would also want to enjoy the beauty and comfort for eternity.
I fell headlong in love with South Africa exactly 15 years ago during the 70th birthday celebrations of The Esama of Benin, Chief Gabriel Osawaru Igbinedion, who incidentally is celebrating his 85th birthday at this very moment. One of the events took place in South Africa where he and his children have had extensive interests for years. I stayed long enough to undertake a tour of some parts of the country. We saw beautiful ranches and some incredible estates. Trust us Nigerians, we know the good life and we love the great life. Nigerians were doing great in the country. Visas were not so difficult to obtain, though we were naturally disappointed and even angry that Nigerians queued for visa while Europeans strolled in and out at will. We still face the same segregation to this day.
I would later further get hooked on South African Airways with its sumptuous meals and fantastic wines. There were times I flew to London and back via South Africa, not minding the 16 hours that I would have to endure on each leg. My affection for South Africa started waning after a sad experience I had at the Michelangelo in Sandton one miserable evening. The duo of KC Presh had come to visit me at the hotel. Two of their friends later arrived and requested from the reception for access to my floor which was declined pronto. I went down personally to sort it out with the manager. To my utter consternation, whites were going in and out freely while the blacks were sentenced and banished from entering after 6pm. I was nonplussed. I reflected again on whether I had been dreaming that apartheid had ended years earlier and that this was a country run by Black people for the masses of the people who are majorly Black. It did not seem that this was the case, as the debacle presented us a classic case of segregation, except that it was being sanctioned by Black people against their Black folk. Unbelievable!
That was my first baptism of fire. I was so angry and disillusioned that I checked out the following day and never returned to that hotel. This woke me up to the sordid reality of things in post-apartheid South Africa. The Independence of South Africa was clearly far from being total. It was a mirage. I travelled to Cape Town, Durban, and Joburg many times and began to see the ugliness I never observed before. I saw squalor and opulence side by side, between Alexandria and Sandton. Cases of violence quadrupled. Nigerians were targets because they knew we love to carry cash and enjoy the good life. We were envied because of our confidence and self-assuredness.
Then some of our bad boys started trickling into townships and partially adulterated the majority who are the good ones. Many of them did not just take over the good and bad businesses, they also took the women from their less generous boyfriends. Nigerians hold the world championship records in over-pampering their girlfriends. Many South African ladies ran away to Nigerians, told their parents to forget ever having them back.
But by far the biggest battle was among the drug lords and their gangs. The South Africans alleged in 2016 that Nigerians were taking over the trade and they must flush them out by fire by force. This was confirmed by a well-positioned staff of our High Commission in Pretoria. Since then there has been a simmering war between the South African drug cartels and the foreign drug cartels some of which unfortunately include Nigerian drug barons.
One of the major causes of the present strife, for which Nigerians are in the forefront of foreigners being consumed by the conflagration, is the fact that foreigners especially Nigerians are typically more hardworking and industrious than their South African counterparts. Nigerians are business savvy and diligent. They are innovative and creative. They will prosper in the midst of adversity and the worst kind of situations, as is currently being shown by events at home. The ordinary South African probably finds this culture and work ethic alien to their DNA. What we must note, is that no narrative can justify or excuse the heinous and hideous atrocities that we have all been witnessing. We should not allow any fifth columnist to distract or divide us from being united against the evil, vile and wicked monstrosities being perpetrated against Nigerians in South Africa.
The culpability of the South African security apparatus for the ignoble events unfolding in South Africa is palpable. At this volatile moment, they appear to be tacitly and, sometimes, overtly supporting their people by studiously ignoring the wanton and depraved killings of foreigners and the unconscionable looting of their property. The South African Police Force is a largely efficient and well-drilled unit. It has significant resources to fight this scourge if it wishes. It has the benefit of CCTV and other surveillance techniques to fight any drug war, if that is partly the genesis of the crisis. It can bring down both the South African and foreign cartels if it so wishes. Turning a blind eye, as it seems to be doing, can only give fillip to the rumours that the police are complicit in the problem. It is in their own interest to nip such stories or popular beliefs in the bud.
As for me and my house, the major blame should go to His Excellency President Cyril Ramaphosa who had actually stoked the fire of xenophobia during his Presidential campaigns. Some of the statements he was captured saying on tape are too bizarre and unbecoming of a man of his position and status. His recent appeals to reason and wisdom have become too little and too late. Many are not even convinced of his sincerity. The popular belief is that those words are half-hearted and spoken with a forked tongue, that they are only uttered to fulfil all righteousness and nothing tangible would ever come out of them.
I believe the South Africans have bitten more than they can chew this time around and they should be taught some big lessons that they will never forget. I think the only language they would understand is if we inflict the biggest economic sanctions on them. If I were the President of Nigeria, I would threaten, and if not heeded, start the process of legally shutting down some of their major economic interests in our country like MTN and DSTV. In any event I would have immediately ordered an inventory of all South African businesses in Nigeria. I would also ask my High Commissioner in South Africa to embark on a similar exercise of Nigerian interests including small scale businesses. For every Nigerian business burnt or looted I would legitimately ensure that a South African business is taken over. If human limbs and lives are involved, I would inflict incarceration on those of them that have breached our laws and we have been turning a blind eye. Again, I am sure that there are more than a few of these. Moreover, I doubt that South Africa can survive for too long if their cash cow, MTN, or even DSTV, is nationalised, bidded and subjected to the ownership of Nigerians with commensurate and demonstrable capacities to run them. I am sure that there are quite a few infractions being committed by these South African giants that would make such a process possible. The insult on Nigeria has reached its peak and this should not be so.
To whom much is given, much is expected. Nigeria has been too kind to South Africa, but South Africa has never reciprocated properly. As President of Nigeria, I would have been brutal against the madness going on in South Africa. My response would have been swift, and harsh, albeit just. Someone needs to demonstrate that Nigeria is not squeamish or stupid. The fact that we are nice, kind, generous and accommodating should not be taken for docility or weakness.
Having said all these, I will never support any act of looting or damaging of South African shops in Nigeria. That would be tantamount to committing the same crime as the children of anger who have been going on rampage in South Africa. Two wrongs can never make a right. I believe the main thing that can hurt the South Africans is to wield our big economic stocks and block the very bountiful harvests they’ve been carting away from us. They will be forced to control the recalcitrant and unrepentant thugs, louts and brigands who have been acting stupidly and recklessly.
Let’s not behave like them. We should act like the intelligent and civilised humans of reasonable breed, culture and custom that we are and are renowned to be. Nigeria is not the giant of Africa without reason. This is probably the catalyst for the sleeping giant to awaken.
The ball is squarely in Mr President’s court. This is the time for action and not inaction. For authority and not delegation!
By Dele Momodu