We are all aware of former USA First Lady Michelle Obama‘s famous phrase — “When they go low, we go high” — because it has become something of a slogan for exercising restraint in the face of frustration. Owing to the aptness of the statement, which was first uttered by the former First Lady in 2016, it quickly caught on and started trending globally.
Today, most people facing insult or humiliation that could have triggered or engendered revenge, but opt to rise above the fray, often rely on the famous Obama’s wise counsel as their personal doctrine.
And often, that positive attitude has been quite rewarding to both the individuals that take that path of honour and the society in general.
Arising from the above, the recent dastardly killing of fellow Africans in South Africa, and the reprisal actions against South African businesses in some African countries, especially Nigeria, it is apropos for the Michelle Obama appeal to be given a new lease of life by Nigerians who feel hurt and let down by the cruelty of black South Africans against their brothers and sisters from other African countries, who made huge sacrifices to unshackle them from white oppression and supremacist rule also known as Apartheid.
But before delving into the probable causes of the ignoble crime against humanity by the irascible and rabid South African bloodhounds, it is important to put into context the Michelle Obama slogan.
According to the former First Lady in an interview with New York Times when she was promoting her book Becoming: “Going high’ doesn’t mean you don’t feel the hurt, or you’re not entitled to an emotion”.
She explained: “It means that your response has to reflect the solution. It shouldn’t come from a place of anger or vengefulness. Barack and I had to figure that out. Anger may feel good at the moment, but it’s not going to move the ball forward.”
She continued: “Responding to a dog whistle with a dog whistle is the exact opposite of what you’d teach your child to do”.
Perhaps, moved by the sight of the grisly and hideous videos of fellow Nigerians being practically roasted on the streets of South African cities, it was human for emotions to run high amongst Nigerians and for reprisal actions to commence against South African businesses in Nigeria.
But before we allow the idiocy of some misguided elements in South Africa to strip us of the oil of human kindness, which Nigeria and indeed Nigerians are renowned for, we should be guided by the worthy counsel of Michelle, the wife of the first Black President of the USA, who even as First Lady experienced racism first hand, yet insists that our response to such affront should reflect the solution which is certainly not fire-for-fire.
In the light of the above admonition, looting, boycotting or the extreme case of calling for the nationalisation of South African originated business concerns in Nigeria are contrary to the high minded Obama doctrine. And stooping to the low level of the vagrants in South Africa who started venting their frustrations on their African brothers/sisters owing to the economic doldrums which their economy has descended into, as reflected by the wide income inequality and wealth disparities in the country, would be counterproductive.
More so, as it is against the well-established tenets/ethos of Africans who pride themselves as being their brothers’ keepers. It boggles the mind that instead of protecting fellow Africans, the South Africans who clearly have become cold-blooded and hardened by long period of dehumanising oppression by their white oppressors, would believe that bludgeoning to death fellow Africans who are also in most cases victims of visionless leadership in their home countries, would offer them succour from the life of penury foisted on them by the ineptitude of their leaders.
One of the ugly fallouts of xenophobia in South Africa, which triggered the spontaneous counter-violence in Nigeria that saw a couple of Shoprite outlets being looted by angry Nigerians, according to Lagos State Governor Babajide Sanwo-Olu, is that over 5000 jobs had been lost in Lagos State alone.
But for the quick intervention of Nigerian authorities that ordered the security forces to ‘ring-fence’ businesses with South African interests such as the malls in Asaba and Warri, in Delta State as well as MTN facilities around the country, the damage to infrastructure and jobs loss toll could have been higher.
The speed with which the Nigerian government brought the ugly situation under control in less than 24 hours is an exemplar of how dynamic a government that detests xenophobia can be. And that’s quite contrary to the attitude of the South African law enforcement authorities that seem to be tacitly supporting the xenophobes in that country by looking the other way while the lives of foreigners were being violently terminated and their businesses looted. It has been argued in some quarters that if the South African security agencies were not complicit, the psychopaths would not have had a field day as the simmering anger of the mostly jobless South Africans erupted into an orgy of slaughtering foreigners that triggered the retaliatory actions of targeting businesses with South African interest around the African continent. If the crisis was just a mere protest by rioters against drug traffickers or criminals as the South African government is trying to spin the bloody targeting of foreigners by its nationals, why were South African drug traffickers and criminals spared in the attacks?
These are the cogent questions being raised by the South African Conference of Catholic Bishops, who were left with no choice but to speak truth to the authorities in a recent media report affirming that indeed, there have been nothing less than xenophobic attacks in that country. The body of bishops further lamented that those that should have been protecting foreigners were aloof while the mayhem was being unleashed – a position which contradicts the denial by the South African Government.
Going beyond the ephemeral, as a social scientist and development strategist, l believe that there are deeper socio-political issues that are fundamental and germane to the crisis in South Africa.
Obviously, the worsening poverty and misery index in that country are the underlying factors responsible for the social upheavals manifesting as xenophobia. And they are not caused by the foreigners whose lives have either been cut short and if lucky to be alive, whose businesses have been ruined.
Rather, the blame could be situated on the doorsteps of Apartheid, which in Afrikaans dialect is APARTNESS – a white minority rule which segregated the majority population of blacks from the whites and denied them their basic human rights, until the inhuman system which started in 1948 and is akin to slavery, was abolished on April 27, 1994. Is it not an irony that the white supremacists, who introduced and perpetuated the crime of Apartheid for decades are walking the streets of South Africa free, while the African kits and kins of South African black victims are bearing the brunt of the horror they suffered.
Like the abolishment of Slave Trade on August 1, 1834, Apartheid ended in South Africa through the struggles led by the iconic leader, Nelson Mandela, and the collective struggle of black men and women all over the world, particularly Nigeria, which although not situated in South Africa’s neighbourhood, assumed the role of a frontline state.
In protest against the complicity of Western powers who refused to sanction South African white supremacists, Nigeria boycotted an Olympic event, and directly took on the most powerful country in the world, the USA by denying that country’s Secretary of State at that time, Henry Kissinger, landing right for the aircraft he was travelling in, from South Africa with the intention to stop-over in Nigeria.
In addition, Nigeria also at great risk to its economic interests worldwide, nationalised European interests in oil and gas such as British Petroleum (BP), as well as the financial organisations like Barclays Bank, amongst others. Some conspiracy theorists would argue that the Nigerian economy, which was bubbling due to high oil price started crumbling after that affront against the Western powers. Given how the Zimbabwean economy has been emasculated after the land was seized from white land grabbers and redistributed to landless blacks, the theory now appears plausible.
With the aforementioned monumental sacrifices made by Nigerians in all facets of life who contributed to the funds for the liberation of South Africa, would it not be foolhardy for the same Nigerians to start destroying South African interests which would amount to destroying a house that one has built in the quest to eliminate some vermin like rats that have infested the building?
When Apartheid ended on April 27, 1994, the Truth & Reconciliations Commission, which entailed white villains meeting face-to-face with their black victims to seek for forgiveness was held up as a unique model for building peace in countries emerging from conflict. With the benefit of hindsight, the truth & reconciliation exercise might have been a mere whitewash of the otherwise very serious underlying issues, which are just surfacing now. Put succinctly, had the substantial and fundamental matter of dispossession suffered by the blacks been addressed, the black majority South Africans might have been exorcised of the demons now driving them into becoming the monsters that they have been to fellow Africans.
In the light of the increasing tide of xenophobia – a symptom of seething feeling of angst boiling over like volcanic eruption, social scientists may need to review the superlative recognition accorded the famous Truth & Reconciliations Commission by reappraising it simply because the positive verdict appears to be a false positive.
In other words, taking into consideration the eruption of the anger, which has been festering and now manifesting as xenophobia bottled up since the death of Apartheid about 25 years ago, the famous Truth & Reconciliation Commission might not have been as efficacious as it had been touted to be. Just like slavery and colonialism did not easily disappear but only transformed into neo-colonialism, the vestiges of Apartheid have remained embedded or immured in the social fabric of South Africa.
Clearly, most black South Africans who were expecting their leaders to toe a path similar to the policy introduced by Robert Mugabe of Zimbabwe, who stripped the white minorities of the land that they seized from the hapless blacks in the heydays of Apartheid, are disappointed as their hopes for a restoration seems to have been dashed.
In the light of the consequences being suffered by Zimbabwe, which has been sanctioned by the European kits and kins of the minority whites in the southern African region, resulting in the stifling and hobbling of Zimbabwean economy, which is an evidence of nepotism being taken to new heights by Europeans, the past and present South African leaders, obviously do not want to be exposed to such peril or willing to suffer similar fate or endure the misfortune that’s currently bedeviling Zimbabwe.
That’s why from Nelson Mandela, who became the pioneer black president in 1994, and served for only one term, followed by Thambo Mbeki who took over from him, served one term before being forced out during a second term; to Jacob Zuma, who was also recently compelled to vacate office and the incumbent, Cyril Ramaphosa: none have been able to fulfil that lofty dream of giving back to black South Africans the land lost to the white settlers.
Even without toeing the Zimbabwean path of black empowerment through the restoration of seized land by the whites to blacks, the South African economy is now in dire straights, and the evidential statistics are grim.
With a mere 0.6% GDP growth, 25% unemployment rate, exacerbated by the crisis in ESKOM, the state-owned electricity firm that has culminated into frequent power outages, Fitch rating agency has downgraded South Africa’s credit rating outlook to negative. The widening budget deficit arising from weaker growth and increased spending has been cited as the reason for the downgrade.
Worst still, Moody’s rating is also on track to assign South Africa’s sovereign bonds a junk status.
Without further ado, it must be stated unequivocally that the prospect of South Africa exiting or escaping its present economic predicament in the nearest future is slim. And risking a diplomatic spat with Nigeria, a country that sustains most of South Africa’s international brands would amount to an economic harakiri.
Worse still, without the re-empowerment (with education, skills and funds) of black South Africans, who by all estimations remain financially anaemic and manifestly social misfits, as well as deviants due to the life of violence that they have led under the Apartheid regime, Hobbesian and Byzantine lifestyle, would continue to be the norm rather than the exception in black South African communities.
It is such a heartbreaking paradox that after being rescued by fellow Africans about 25 years ago from an ordeal that can best be described as the perfect example of man’s inhumanity to man – Apartheid, the rescued have now resurrected oppression in another form and shape by projecting their disappointment in their government on their fellow Africans from other countries who have successfully liberated themselves from poverty. It is rather unfortunate that after shedding tears and pointing fingers at their white exploiters and declaring them forgiven in the course of the famous truth & reconciliation sessions, they assumed that the white oppression that persisted for nearly a century would just be wished away as easily as the weather elements like rainfall and sunshine or night and day switch from one to the other.
That xenophobia has now become the defining feature of the country that hitherto prided itself as the rainbow nation, is proof that the sordid and horrific Apartheid past, still haunts South Africans gravely.
So, in my considered opinion, a reorientation of black South Africans in the manner that Nigeria granted amnesty to reformed and empowered ex-environmental rights militants in its Niger Delta region is highly recommended for South African authorities to consider, if they are serious about addressing the recurrent malady of xenophobia and constant social upheavals in that country.
In the light of the above, if indeed President Muhammadu Buhari is planning on visiting South Africa next month, as is currently reported in the media, he should not forget to take the blueprint and standard operating procedure (SOP) for restoring peace to the Niger Delta via the Amnesty Programme and Niger Delta Development Commission (NDDC) to his South African counterpart, Cyril Ramaphosa for consideration and possible adoption.
-Magnus Onyibe, a development strategist, an alumnus of Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy, Massachusetts, USA and former Commissioner in Delta State Government, sent this piece from Lagos.