South Africa wants Nigerians to visit but treats them like criminals upon arrival. Ernest Danjuma says this needs to end.
Man-about-town, Ernest Danjuma runs a brand design and growth strategy company called The Denda Group which works with African-owned startups, small businesses, and nonprofits around the continent. We spoke to Danjuma about his controversial call for Nigerians to boycott South Africa to protest anti-Nigerian prejudice in South Africa's border and customs control.
Abiola Oke for Okayafrica: You've been making some waves lately because of a very controversial article that you wrote, initially published on The Guardian Nigeria. Let me know if this word is accurate to describe your feelings towards the South African government—"Disdain."
Ernest Danjuma: If you can separate the government from its policies, then yes. Obviously, I'm Nigerian, so Nigeria is my primary concern. A lot of other African nationals have voiced pretty much the same concerns towards the policy.
What do you take issue with?
There's been a lot of talk over the last five years about visa policies that could ease travel within the continent. South Africa, being the second largest economy, was the primary driver of this move to make travel around the continent easier. At the same time, they're one of the worst offenders. South Africa's unique history makes their policy towards other African nationals especially wrong-footed.
In the article you detail some very unfavorable experiences trying to get into the country. I think three different times. The one time you were detained was for how long?
For about seven hours.
What do you attribute that arrest to?
There has been a criminalization of Nigerians. The burden is on us to prove our innocence before we're allowed into the country. Now, we get that treatment from Europe and the U.S., and countries in Asia and whatnot. But those countries almost explicitly let us know that we aren't welcome there. There, we're under no illusion that we're entering friendly territory.
We do agree that simply sharing a geographical commonality doesn’t mean that you are my brother or sister, right? The idea of pan-Africanism goes beyond the geographical. It's more a common history, a shared identity. Why South Africa?
I will give you this. The U.S., with NATO, is not going to subject its allies to the kind of treatment that it subjects to non-allies. So let's get that clear. We are under the African Union, and that in itself should grant you—when there's war, in any of the countries of the AU, Nigerian troops, Ethiopian troops, all our troops are summoned to actually respond to this.
We helped South Africa a great deal during Apartheid.
At the same time that countries like the U.S. and the UK were skirting divesting from the Apartheid regime, countries like Nigeria were quick to divest from the Apartheid regime. Yes, you might say that there is a double standard, but, yeah. We hold them to a higher standard. Just the same way we hold all the other African countries to the exact same standard.
Free travel within the African continent has never been a thing. Travel without borders—the AU is looking to implement this maybe 20 or 15 years from now. There's been a mandate to make travel within the continent easier for Africans. If we understand that travel within the continent is restrictive for Africans, why does it come as a surprise that you've had so much difficulty getting into South Africa? Your experience, although anecdotal, has been echoed by a lot of other Africans. By the same token, many South Africans complain that they have had the same difficulties trying to get into Nigeria. In your article, your op-ed, you were very critical of South Africa, but you did not consider the way Nigeria treats South African. Not to say an eye for an eye, but your government has treated them the same way.
If you go to Nigeria, you'd be hard-pressed to find a block where there isn't a South African business. Most of the major companies in Nigeria, you go from MTN, to Shoprite, to Econet, to DSTV, and what not. Multichoice—All the major companies. I'm including hotels, Protea. They spread across Nigeria. Our policy towards them was very lax. I have friends that work in the Nigerian Embassy in Johannesburg. They've almost gotten to this point where it's like, "We're going to show them. We're going to reciprocate." I write in my article, my opinion piece, that it's not uncommon for governments to say, "Okay, if our citizens are treated in this way, you're requiring this of them. We're also going to require the same thing of citizens of your country." That's a standard diplomatic relationship. What is missing is that there's no systematic targeting of South Africans. It's difficult to get a Nigerian visa, even for Nigerian Americans. There's difficulty in the process. The process is broken. That is one thing. It's completely different thing to systematically target nationals of a specific country.
Where's the evidence? Let's take our company, for instance. We have operations here. We have operations in Nigeria, and we have operations in South Africa. South Africans were very welcoming, and open to our corporate establishment there. We've worked with the South Africa Board of Tourism on a number of activations and I've actually had the pleasure of meeting a number of Nigerians in South Africa that are thriving. Tunde Folawiyo is there. MTV is run by a Nigerian. A lot of Nigerian artists have a great time there. Between the likes of the Wiz Kid and Davido, Nigerian artists are welcome there. How do you reconcile that?
That is an interesting point, because I get a lot of that. Influential people normally don't have to go through the same process. You can pick up the phone and call somebody at the South Africa Mission and say, "Hey, we have XYZ corporation that we're trying to set up there. We're bringing capital and XYZ." They're probably going to treat you a little bit differently. You're bringing in commerce. You're operating from a place of relative power. That goes for the influencers. Some of my friends in Nigeria are also influencers.
Aren't you an influencer yourself?
Yes, I have people at the South African Embassy. Which makes me feel a little bit bad about writing this. For instance, the likelihood of me experiencing police brutality in America is very unlikely. I'm an educated person. I know how to avoid. I know how to work my way around the system.
Are you advocating for personal responsibility?
No. I'm not.
Or black exceptionalism?
That's what I'm saying. People who are exceptional in a particular field often feel like, "Oh, this isn't a problem, because we personally don't have to go through it." What I'm saying is the system, the process in itself, is horrendous. You go to get a visa. If you look at diplomatic relationships as people of two countries getting to know each other, and getting to liaise with each other, building friendship, building a bond? As far as that goes, the very first process where Nigerians ever coming in contact with South Africans is a horrendous process. We don't even have the luxury of meeting South Africans. The people, they've outsourced all their diplomatic relations with regular Nigerians to is Nigerians. To a third-party operation that's Indian-owned. The face is all Nigerian. You never get to even meet any South Africans. You never get to interact with their country in a way that say, the celebrities have to. They get to interact with people from South Africa tourism. You get to meet people, and they tell you about their beautiful country. These other people have never been to South Africa. They don't know anything about South Africa.
Let me play devil's advocate, here. Many will say that because South Africa was, if I'm not mistaken, the last country to come out of colonial rule, that a lot of the other African countries, specifically Nigeria, have had more time to develop the human capital necessary to run their countries without foreign interference. South Africans have been described as very cautious about allowing other Africans, specifically Nigerians, to come in and take advantage of the resources without having the amount of time to develop their own human capital.
But you can't, by the same token, allow British and Americans and all these guys to come into your country freely and walk around with reckless abandon. While at the same time you're saying, "Oh, you don't want Nigerians to come take advantage of your..."
Some would say that some of these foreign individuals, from countries that have more economic power and economic standing on a global stage, come in and actually invest. They're coming in and they're not extracting. They're investing their tourism dollars. They're buying, they're spending into the South African economy. Whereas, Nigerians...
That's what they're doing? They're extractive! They're exploitative! Where are they getting this idea from? People are coming because they love South Africa? They want to come and spend dollars in South Africa?
Are they not spending dollars in South Africa?
They're coming to exploit. They're coming to get money out of South Africa. That's the plain truth. People aren't, like, Americans. in the same way that we are. We're there to do business. We're not there to collect money from social welfare. That's not what Nigerians are doing there. Nigerians are there doing business.
What about this perception that Nigerians are crooks?
For people who, for 60, 70 years, were systematically stolen from, brutalized, and those people are still there. Your problem is the Nigerians that are coming to your country? I think that argument is a little bit ridiculous.
Clearly, in your fiery article you are advocating for Nigerians to divest from South Africa. From tourism. What's the recourse? What are you advising? What are you advocating for?
What people don't get from my article is I've been to South Africa. I don't have a problem. I'm someone that has a relatively easier time getting into South Africa. Been there 3 times, thereabout. Every time I've applied for a visa, I've gotten a visa.
My thing is one: The visa process is based on the assumption that we're criminals, that we're crooks. We have this burden of innocence to prove. I think, first of all, that's wrong-headed. Especially for a country that is heavily investing in Nigeria and telling Nigerians, "Come to South Africa. Come and spend money in South Africa."
You can't want us to come and spend money in South Africa and treat us that way. That is absolutely unacceptable. We will not have that. I for one, I would fight until the last drop of my blood to make sure that no Nigerian that doesn't have to be in South Africa goes to South Africa. There's a bunch of countries that treat us with so much more respect—Rwanda, Tanzania, Kenya—the countries of West Africa—Mauritius. There's a map, I've put a map of countries that actually have favorable visa policies towards us. Nigerians are not any less crooks, just because we find ourselves in Kenya or wherever. If we're crooks, we're crooks. Since that's the assumption, that they want to go off of.
Those countries have a process. We tender our papers. If you are eligible to come in, you come in. You do your business, and you keep moving. For me, these countries are just as beautiful. The landscape is just as nice. The citizens are just as friendly. So why not go spend your money there instead? Why continue to buy into this false idea that South Africa is some European haven within Africa?
It is a pretty advanced country infrastructurally speaking. When you land in to O. R. Tambo Airport you see evidence of a first-world country.
So it is when you land in Kigali International Airport. So is it when you land in Jomo Kenyatta. South Africa's been romanticized. South Africa is beautiful. I love South Africans. This is nothing against South Africans. We've always fought side by side with them, even while detesting their government's policies. Even while divesting from their government's wrong-headed policies. This is nothing different from what we've done in the past. If they don't think that Nigeria is an important-enough ally that they need to review and revise their visa policies, vis-à-vis Nigerians. There are other countries that are just as beautiful. That we should go to.
In other words, if I understand your message here. You're trying to say to Africans, not just Nigerians, that we need to spend our time and our resources on other parts of the continent where we're welcome.
And that the South African government should revise its visa policies towards other African countries.
Exactly. And at least make sure that the same policies they exhibit toward European and American people—who they are so friendly with and so welcoming of their investment—they at least give us the same level of courtesy as they do those people. I don't think it's an unreasonable ask.
This is more targeted towards South African tourism. They're doing a fantastic job of selling South Africa to Nigerians. First of all, they need to sell Nigerians to South Africa. That's a more important sales job. If you can't sell us to your country, then don't come and sell your country to us.
Okay. Well, thank you very much Ernest.
You're very welcome. Absolutely.