Xeno­pho­bia puts strain on SA-Nige­ria re­la­tions

Finweek English Edition - - INSIDE - ed­i­to­rial@finweek.co.za

Out­side MTN’s main of­fice in Abuja, there are yel­low ban­ners strung across the se­cu­rity gates. “We Stand Against Xeno­pho­bia #Africa Unite,” the ban­ners say in bright gold and reds that match the gateposts and the build­ing be­hind. Just a few days ago, this same of­fice saw a peace­ful protest as a group of Abu­jans ex­pressed their fears over the re­cent at­tacks against Nige­ri­ans – and na­tion­als of other coun­tries – in South Africa.

Along­side this protest has been a more frac­tious push­back on­line, es­pe­cially on Twit­ter. I have been asked to boy­cott Sho­prite, MTN and DStv; my timeline has been f ull of deeply dis­turb­ing pic­tures of blood­ied and bro­ken bod­ies and sub­se­quent rows over the pho­tos’ ori­gins; my on­line cor­re­spon­dents’ tone has been more cau­tious and more sen­si­tive than usual.

Con­ver­sa­tions about im­mi­gra­tion, na­tion­al­ity and eth­nic­ity that might have been cor­dial a few weeks ago are sud­denly had as if we’re all creep­ing around the edge of a very thinly iced lake, none of us quite dar­ing to skate across and meet in the mid­dle.

As for the sug­gested boy­cotts, the heart may see where th­ese re­quests come from, but the head must un­der­stand that th­ese com­pa­nies and their em­ploy­ees aren’t i ncit­ing and en­dors­ing t he xeno­pho­bic at­tacks. Boy­cotting a South African brand that em­ploys Nige­ri­ans in Nige­ria hurts Nige­ri­ans in Nige­ria more than it hurts those at­tack­ing Nige­ri­ans in SA. I also have to con­fess that even if I did see rea­son to protest against th­ese com­pa­nies, my life and work are heav­ily re­liant on Sho­prite, MTN and DStv, as are the lives of many peo­ple here. Whether en­gag­ing in the Twit­ter dis­cus­sions or not, there has been a def­i­nite shift in sen­ti­ment. I went for a meet­ing this week with a friend who works in cor­po­rate com­mu­ni­ca­tions in La­gos and who of­ten trav­els to Jo­han­nes­burg to see clients whose ac­counts she han­dles.

How did she feel at the mo­ment, I asked; would she hap­pily travel to Joburg with ev­ery­thing that’s been hap­pen­ing? No, she an­swered. She wouldn’t feel com­fort­able trav­el­ling alone with the threat of vi­o­lence against Nige­ri­ans; she’s not even sure she’d want to go in a group. She loves SA, she loves do­ing busi­ness there, but the risk at the mo­ment has tipped the bal­ance. She’ll make calls and video con­fer­ence in­stead.

Her feel­ings are echoed across my ac­quain­tance, re­gard­less of sec­tor or stand­ing; no lack of af­fec­tion for the ma­jor­ity, but too much fear of the mi­nor­ity to risk the jour­ney. The Nige­rian gov­ern­ment’s de­ci­sion to re­call its Act­ing High Com­mis­sioner to SA has fur­ther ratch­eted up the ten­sion be­tween the two coun­tries.

A sit ua­tion where t he busi­ness com­mu­nity in Africa’s largest econ­omy feels wary of trav­el­ling to the con­ti­nent’s sec­ond-big­gest econ­omy for work is a sit­u­a­tion that en­trenches di­vi­sion rather than col­lab­o­ra­tion. It’s a sit­u­a­tion that makes it that much harder for th­ese ma­jor en­gines of Africa to unite and a sit­u­a­tion where no one wins, other than xeno­phobes.

Street ven­dors sell MTN air­time and prod­ucts in Ag­bowo, a part of Ibadan, Nige­ria.

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