The recent Nigerian-South African headlock over the leadership of the AU has raised questions about how the countries feel about each other.
And for South Africans who regularly travel to and from Nigeria, the anti-South African sentiment they encounter in the country has appeared more pronounced in recent years.
“South Africa is seen as the America of Africa,” said Gregory Mthembu-Slater, an independent economist and political analyst. “Some Nigerians I have spoken to have lamented a perceived lack of humanity and African sentiment encountered in South Africa.”
According to Mthembu-Slater, the South African embassy in Lagos has a renowned “Heathrow vibe” for its cold treatment of Nigerian travellers. And South Africa boasts numerous diplomatic affronts. The most recent was the deportation of 125 Nigerian citizens in March this year over an alleged absence of yellow fever cards. Controversy was also stirred in 2005 when Nobel laureate Wole Soyinka was detained for hours at OR Tambo International airport, prompting him to boycott travel to South Africa.
“There is also obviously an amount of jealousy involved,” said Deon Maas, the writer of a Nigerian reality television show, the Gulder Ultimate Search.
As the most populous country on the continent, Nigeria has historically adopted a “big brother of Africa” stance. It partook in anti-colonial struggles throughout the continent and was a concerted opponent of apartheid South Africa.
But at the same time Nigerians are frustrated by their own political ills and poor infrastructural capacity. As Maas put it: “Nigeria is a very proud country, but is now seeing itself chipped away by institutionalised corruption”. And the constant hammering has made it adopt a defensive posture in the face of international condemnation.
SA’s apparent arrogance
In the meantime, South Africa burst on to the continent after 1994 with an apparent arrogance nourished by decades-long seclusion.
Rick de Kock, a businessman who frequents Nigeria, observed that; “South African companies have learnt over recent years that they cannot go into another market with a neocolonial mentality. They have come to be circumspect and respectful of cultural norms.”
A South African expatriate, who refuses to be named and has lived in Nigeria for seven years, believes that South African companies bred hostility in Nigeria. Little was done to discourage the perception that their large profits were merely sent back to South Africa.
“Nigerians are known to be confident, assertive and enterprising,” said Goolam Ballim, chief economist at Standard Bank. In Nigeria, he said, “There is an acute sensitivity to the presence of foreign countries as representative of the mere extraction of wealth.” And the recent global depression has only encouraged protectionist tendencies.
There have been threats against South African investment. A Nigerian group, the Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta, has publicly threatened foreign petroleum firms and South African-owned Telecoms companies. But, according to Ballim, these have largely been “low-intensity conversations”, with none leading to significant disinvestment.
Nigerians in South Africa
Mike Mubuge, who everyone calls “Super”, is the owner of Café Joie, a pub and restaurant in Yeoville’s Raleigh Street. He wears a black track suit and a cross decorated with diamonds on a gold chain around his neck.
It is Tuesday afternoon and he is preparing for the evening. Some regulars are already enjoying his cold beer. Mubuge has lived in South Africa for 15 years and comments that South Africans have an insular outlook.
“They are still blind,” he said, “But I don’t blame them because they don’t travel and travel is education. So what can I do?”
Chinedu Igweze goes nowhere without his Bible, it seems, he even brings it to Café Joie. But then he is a pastor at the Christ Alike Bible Prayer Ministry in Randburg.
Igweze feels that Nigerians are treated with hostility. He reads aloud a sobering passage from Colossians, on man as a seeker of knowledge. “In Nigeria, we love all Africans,” he said. “I studied foreign policy and I know that Africa is the centre of its foreign policy objectives.”
Alozie Chinonye owns the next-door Blossom Restaurant and Pub. He rubbished the idea of animosity between the countries. Recalling how as a schoolchild he had to pay a compulsory “survival levy” toward the anti-apartheid struggle, he asked: “With such a history, how could anyone say that we do not love each other?”
But he suggested that mistreatment at the hands of South African officialdom had encouraged perceptions of hostility. He believes police brutality against foreigners to be on the rise and said bureaucratic difficulties with the department of home affairs had exacerbated discontent. “We are losing confidence in the justice system,” he said, “and the Richard Mdluli saga is concerning.”
Herbert Uzoegbo, a professor of civil engineering at the University of Witwatersrand, has lived in South Africa for 17 years. “Nigerians are one of the heartiest people in the world,” he said. “It takes very little to make them happy.” But they are also very sensitive and the relative lack of respect they encounter among South Africans sometimes comes as a “culture shock”.
But Uzoegbo said that those that come here are “happy” because “things are better managed and we have better infrastructure”.
At the same time, most people are of the opinion that bad politics is the only barrier to Nigeria becoming a powerhouse of the continent.
But, as Maas comments, on the measurement of “how good the music is, how cold the beer is and how cool the people are”, Nigeria trumps South Africa any day.