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Xenophobic attacks: We live every day in fear—Nigerians in South Africa

THE attacks had long been expected. As early as January, Nigerians living in South Africa were alerted to the possibility of an attack by their hosts.

And, when the South Africans carried out the plot in the early hours of February 24, Nigerians, who had prepared themselves for any eventuality, were spared the loss of lives, which had been their lot in previous attacks.

As he watched the violent attacks on television, Femi, who pleaded that his full name should not be used for security reasons, realised that he and other Nigerians owe their lives to the benevolence of some of their hosts. Femi, who has lived in the former apartheid colony for five years now, said Nigerians now live in fear of attack every day.

Weeks after the latest waves of attacks on foreigners by South Africans, Femi, who trades in accident cars, is yet to get over the trauma of the ugly incident.

Recalling his experience, he said: “We had information from people close to the South Africans that they were going to attack us.

“They normally say they are going against illegal immigrants.

“The week before the last attack, they came to a mechanic workshop owned by a Nigerian. The place is called Embassy, on Christophel Street in Pretoria. They burnt 28 cars in that shop.

“On 24th of the month, they marched around from Attridgeville down to Pretoria West. During the march, they were destroying and looting shops. It was chaos.

“I stayed in Pretoria West, and I was indoor throughout. I switched on the television to monitor what was happening. The experience was horrible. You can imagine watching people moving round and attacking your people. I don’t pray to go through such experience again.

“At a stage, the immigrants, Ethiopians, Somalians and Nigerians, decided that they would fight back, because even though the South Africans and their police know the drug peddlers and the prostitutes, they still go ahead to attack foreigners who go about their legitimate businesses. “

Femi says he no longer feels secure in South Africa. “I am just trying to get myself together and go back to Nigeria or relocate to a more peaceful country,” he said with a tinge of sadness.

The story was the same for Seye Oladeji. For him, living in Pretoria West in the last 10 years has been a tough decision.

Like other Nigerians, Oladeji survived the latest attack because some friendly South Africans told him of an impending attack.

He said: “I was indoor all through the period of the attack. I have been in South Africa since 2007. I witnessed it in 2008. I know how they are.

“Two houses close my residence and belonging to Nigerians were burnt. It was a really traumatic experience.”

However, despite the trauma and loss foreigners go through in South Africa, he is not ready to quit.  With his firm understanding of the country and its people, Oladeji said he would always get by in the midst of the violence.

“Some of us know how to go around when they are doing all these. I get by,” he said with a sense of assurance.

Ezechukwu Emmanuel lives in Durban, South Africa. For eight years, he had learnt to relate with the people around him with suspicion. Although the last orgy of violence was largely restricted to Pretoria and its suburbs, Emmanuel said most Nigerians in the country feared for their lives while the attack lasted.

“I don’t really know why these people are doing this to us. We go about our businesses legally, but they are envious of our achievements and they want to kill us,” Emmanuel said.

As the angry mobs attacked Nigerians and looted shops belonging to Somalis, Pakistani and other migrants in townships around Pretoria and parts of Johannesburg, the venom and anger on their faces were enough to scare the daylight out of any human.

As they went round looting shops and other properties owned by Nigerians and other foreigners, it was obvious that the intent was to exterminate anybody that tried to stop them.

“They (foreigners) should know that this they are a guest in my house. I am treating them with respect. They should treat me with respect,” one angry protester told the BBC.

Nigerians in South Africa were “notorious” for dealing drugs, he added, calling for greater checks on foreigners coming into the country.

The main South African group behind the Pretoria attacks, Mamelodi Concerned Residents, blamed foreign nationals for taking jobs and accused them of being involved in prostitution rings and drug cartels.

The petition delivered by the group to the home affairs ministry alleged worshippers from Zimbabwean apostolic churches, who congregate in the open, were “destroying our public parks”, and accused them of defecating, urinating and burning fires.

It also said foreigners were “arrogant and don’t know how to talk to people, especially Nigerians.”

But a Nigerian, who said he had earlier sent his family back home to Nigeria, said the accusations were wrong. He claimed he suffers daily attacks from South Africans, who he accused of envy.

“I think the main reason these people attack us is because they are envious. Nigerians are hardworking people. If you look round the country, we don’t mind any kind of job, and we carry ourselves with pride. But they have termed that to mean that we are arrogant.

“For instance, if you go to a car wash business owned by a Nigerian, you would see the difference with one owned by a South African. Rather than change their attitude to work, they are trying to make scape goats of foreigners, particularly Nigerians.”

The South African President, Jacob Zuma, said many foreign citizens living in South Africa were law-abiding and huge contributors to the economy.

“It is wrong to brandish all non-nationals as drug dealers or human traffickers. Let us isolate those who commit such crimes and work with government to have them arrested without stereotyping and causing harm to innocent people,” Zuma said in a statement.

Speaking further, the president denied that South Africans were xenophobic and that the event “was anti-crime in the main. It was not an anti-foreigners march.”

At the height of the attacks, Nigerian groups in the country rose with one voice. The leaders of the Oodua Progressive Union (OPU) in South Africa said five buildings with Nigerian businesses, including a church, was looted and burnt by South Africans.

The coordinator of the group, Tunji Aladeselu, said: “One of the buildings is a mechanic workshop with over 20 cars under repair. Aside this, other vital documents were burnt during the attack. The pastor of the church sustained injuries and is currently receiving treatment in the hospital.”

Aladeselu called on the Nigerian government to help protect Nigerians from further attacks.

“We visited the Nigerian Embassy to meet with other members of the Nigerian community and to fashion out ways of safe guarding Nigerians.

“We also demand that the Federal Government of Nigeria relate with its South African counterpart to increase security presence in areas highly populated by Nigerians and their business concerns.”

In the same vein, the chairman of Nigerian Union in Kwazulu Natal, Mr.Barthlomew Eziagulu, condemned the understanding of the South Africans. He said the people are now more alert to attacks. “The people’s understanding is low. We are still on alert. While the attacks were on, we encouraged our citizens to be indoors.

“Even up till now, we are still on the alert.”

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