Dear South Africa, Nigerians Aren't the Problem, Criminals Are
Dangerous stereotypes make Nigerians the perfect scapegoats for South Africa's crime problem.
My family lives in a small, white Afrikaans-dominated town called Krugersdorp—just forty minutes outside of Johannesburg. As one might guess, I hate it there. But that's a story for another day. Anyway, as you drive from the tree-lined streets of the suburbs towards the center of the town, the scenes quickly switch to that of dilapidated houses (you know, the ones with broken windows and old paint) where sex workers stand on every corner and their pimps are not too far away.
Last year, a woman was abducted in Krugersdorp. Everyone was understandably up-in-arms and the police went into overdrive trying to find her. The woman was thankfully found about a week later after she managed to escape from her abductors. In retaliation, however, members of the community went to the town center and burned down every one of those ugly houses in an attempt to rid the area of the Nigerians they believed were behind the abductions, sex trafficking and drug dealing in the town. Soon afterwards, however, the woman who'd been abducted was found to have made the whole thing up.
Last week, Hillbrow was trending on social media. Let me just say that the suppressed xenophobes jumped right out from many people claiming "concern for the country". One Twitter user spoke about how she was putting aside her "political correctness" and voicing out how she felt Nigerians were a huge problem in South Africa with regards to crime and said that they all needed to go. "Ghana and Cameroon deported hundreds of thousands of Nigerians for the same reasons," she added. Many South Africans agreed with her sentiments despite her latter statement being factually untrue.
Firstly, it's important to note that South Africa has the highest level of inequality in the world. Just two weeks ago, the government finally declared unemployment a national emergency. One only has to see the presence of several beggars at every traffic light to understand the deep scourge of poverty in the country. Beggars whose desperation often leads to aggressive engagements when you don't have any spare change to give them.
The country also has some of the highest rates of domestic violence and five times the average global femicide rate. What I'm trying to show here is that way before South Africa was dealing with a migrant community of Africans from all over the continent, things have been pretty bad already and for a long time. And when the government is more preoccupied with looting state coffers than they are with changing the plight of their people, the only people who then bear the brunt of the frustrations that South Africans have are foreign nationals and more specifically, Nigerians.
Am I saying that no Nigerian has ever sold drugs, been involved in human and sex trafficking or run a syndicate in South Africa? No. I know of many Nigerian criminals who have been involved in shady activities. I know Nigerian criminals who've scammed fellow students and even family members.
"But the key here is that they are criminals first before they are Nigerian and that difference is crucial."
South Africans are justifiably concerned about the high levels of crime in the country but their insistence on it being a "Nigerian" problem and not a problem with criminals is extremely xenophobic. Instead, we choose to perpetuate archaic stereotypes about Nigerians: they're scammers, pimps, drug-dealers and thieves, without considering how dangerous these stereotypes are particularly to the greater number of Nigerians that aren't any of these things..
Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, a brilliant Nigerian author, once spoke about stereotypes in her TED talk titled "The Danger of a Single Story". Adichie said something incredibly powerful and that was that the problem with stereotypes is not that they are entirely untrue but that they are not complete. In as much as there are Nigerians and other foreign nationals who do engage in criminal activities, I can bet that there are so many more contributing positively to the country. We forget the students, the young professionals and the teachers who want to build the country with the same ferocity as they would their own. What sense is there in smearing them with the same brush?
South Africans conveniently forget that the migrant community (documented and undocumented) only accounts for a very small percentage of the population of 52 million. As South Africans, we seem to be sitting on a precariously high horse where we attribute none of the crime that occurs to our own people. How many countries abroad are ignorantly saying the exact same thing about South Africans in general?
Let's also not forget that everything is political. The best way for the ANC government to detract from the fact that they have failed to deliver many of the promises they made post-1994 is to shift the blame to this so-called "other". The other that left their home in search of better for themselves and their families. The other that would probably condemn the same behavior we've accused them of.
Xenophobic utterances by South African politicians such as Cyril Ramaphosa, Herman Mashaba and even Jacob Zuma's son as well as manifestos and policies which shun immigrants as a whole, have always sparked violent attacks on foreign nationals.
"South Africans have injured, displaced and even murdered other Africans with impunity and not a damn thing has happened."
And in a global environment that is becoming more and more hostile towards immigrants, nothing will happen.
I will never forget the xenophobic attacks that happened in 2008. I was in my first year of high school and the "burning man" was on the front page of the newspaper. A Mozambican, he had been wrapped in a blanket, fuel poured over him and set alight till he burned to death. Eleven years later, that image has not left my mind.
Now you tell me, where is the justice there?
It's easy to blame Nigerians for everything that's wrong in South Africa. I mean, if not them then who, right? It's convenient to do so. However, like another great Nigerian author, Chinua Achebe, once said, "You cannot be a part of the system you are fighting against."
The valid injustices that South Africans are facing, in no way justify the injustices they carry out against Nigerians and other foreign nationals.