More than a year after the South African government promised to set up an early-warning system for xenophobic attacks to help keep Nigerians on soil safe, nothing much has materialised.
Renewed efforts will be made to address the issue, which has caused serious diplomatic friction between the two countries and which has seen South African businesses in Nigeria being criticised.
Nigeria’s foreign minister, Geoffrey Onyeama, told City Press at the 31st African Union summit last Sunday he was optimistic the issue would be resolved now that a new minister was in place.
He had met International Relations Minister Lindiwe Sisulu on the sidelines of the summit and said he was “very, very hopeful”.
He said Sisulu’s background in security affairs helped and “she has also come with new initiatives that we believe will be a game-changer in the whole process”.
During his visit to South Africa last year, the two countries agreed to establish an early-warning system to stop xenophobic attacks before they happened.
“Unfortunately, the political will wasn’t there, so that never actually came to fruition,” Onyeama said.
“We are very excited by the new minister’s stance on the issue and, with her specialised background, we feel we can get a more institutional and permanent engagement with the two sides.”
He said there was “a kind of trust deficit between the police and the Nigerian community”.
Sisulu had suggested ways for the two to work together through community policing forums.
“We feel if they are on the same page, it will make a big difference.”
He said Nigerians were often scared to cooperate with the police, because when they did inform on criminals, “that information goes back to the
criminals and their lives are often in danger”.
He said if organisations like the Nigerian Union SA (Nusa) had direct access to the security apparatus, they could give early indications of when they thought there might be problems that needed a response.
Sisulu said it might be a slight exaggeration for Nigerians to say they felt discriminated against in South Africa, because it wasn’t always possible to tell Nigerians from other foreigners.
She acknowledged, however, that “perhaps [Nigerians] are subjected to tough action from the police”.
She said when she was a minister in the security cluster in the past, she found Nigerians “have a robust way of dealing with the police and that the police would deal very robustly back”.
But, she said, “we need to find a middle ground in which the Nigerians will adhere to the laws of the country” so that police did not treat people “in a way that made them feel we are xenophobic”.
Sisulu said she had referred Onyeama to a police forum “that is open to all permanent citizens”, which also included Nigerians in South Africa.
“They would be welcome to be part of this police forum.”
Sisulu said there would be more meetings between her and Onyeama to deal with the matter, “but I said to him that, you know, Nigerians by their very nature are very entrepreneurial people, probably more than South Africans.
But when that entrepreneurship strays into illegal activity, it is completely unacceptable.”
She said the South African government on its part had been grappling with the issue of xenophobia, including engagements with people in the diaspora, “because we do not want to be portrayed as xenophobic”.
Nigerians regularly complain about violence directed at their citizens in South Africa.
Efforts to address the violence also appeared to be frustrated by a lack of trust between Nusa and Nigerian government representatives in South Africa.
Nusa president Adetola Olubajo said in the past two months seven Nigerians had been “brutally murdered [in South Africa] without any meaningful intervention to bring the perpetrators to book”.
He said their efforts to resist this violence were frustrated because Nigerian government representatives held the view “that most of the murder victims are criminals”.
In May The Guardian in Nigeria reported that its House of Representatives had called on the government to take diplomatic action against South Africa on the xenophobic attacks and even to appeal to the UN with regards to the human rights violations of its citizens.
President Cyril Ramaphosa is expected to pay a state visit to President Muhammadu Buhari in the near future, where these attacks are likely to be discussed, alongside trade and investment issues.