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South Africa and Nigeria: It’s complicated

A little over a year ago, I was in my final year of University in London and had just come off the underground at Waterloo Station. As I was making my way to the escalator the young man in front of me was kind enough to allow me go in front of him. A few moments later, I thought I heard him speak, and so I turned to face him and he said “Hi, are you from South Africa?” I said, “No, am from Nigeria.” Disappointment flickered across his face. In that half second it felt as if the possibility of a human connection between us- two children of Africa in the middle of faraway London - was unlikely. Why? Because of three dreaded words: I am Nigerian.

I forged ahead, determined not to let his preconceived notions of me ruin my day. I asked if he was South African and we began to talk. We got off at the same station, and after a few minutes, I noticed that he was still behind me. I stopped and asked if he was all right. He explained to me that he had come from Bath, a university town a few hours away. He was now stranded with no money and he had had a pretty rough night sleeping outside in the cold. It wasn’t a scam – sometimes you just know. So I gave him some money. To say that he was shocked would be to understate things.

Around the world, Nigerians have a reputation as 419 scammers, job stealers, drug dealers, pimps and downright undesirable people. Nowhere are these views more entrenched than in South Africa.

As I talked to him, it became clear that much of his own ignorance about Nigerians was linked to a broader ignorance about the rest of the African continent. Apartheid was a system that not only dehumanised and impoverished black South Africans, it also isolated them physically and imaginatively from their continent.

While this pattern of distrust between individual Nigerians and South Africans can be broken down by simple acts of kindness, the reality is that at a state-to-state level, the animosity between South Africa and Nigeria is deeply problematic and less easy to break down.

Nigeria and South Africa have engaged in a series of diplomatic spats over matters as petty as yellow fever cards and as significant as an African seat on the Security Council at the United Nations. Conflict between South Africa and Nigeria distracts both countries from important matters that the continent needs. Yet they seem deeply embedded in how we view one another, in a set of old and tired tropes about what it means to be Nigerian or what it means to be South African.

The one place in the world that seems to turn the legendary Nigerian cockiness into naked aggression is South Africa. It’s almost as if our famous pride can’t seem to find its wings there. This shrinking of ourselves, I think, is about mourning our lost potential. Something about South Africa makes us remember the dreams our grandparents and parents had about independence and how quickly those dreams were shattered.  

This memory seems to awaken when we feel slighted, particularly by South Africa. One of the lies or founding myths that Nigeria tells us itself is we are “Africa”. Africa for us is a thing of pride that we have sacrificed for, and very often to our own detriment. So when we read somewhere that some important Nigerian has been refused entry and deported from South Africa for often really frivolous reasons, we are forced to remember what could have been.

You see, if we look back at the wave of decolonisation in the 1960s, Nigeria was the best placed to succeed. With an educated middle class, a strong and proud history of entrepreneurship, and significant oil wealth, Nigeria had assets that others did not. Despite this, we have failed to turn that potential into tangible benefits for the majority of Nigerians. When the new kids on the block arrived in 1994 – liberated and ready to assert themselves on the continent – they reminded us of what we could have been.  

There is no question, then, that part of the tension between us is driven by Nigerian resentment. However, I have also observed an irrational dislike and distrust of the rise of Nigeria as an economic power by South Africans who should know better. A case in point was a recent article by Barney Mthombothi which was both offensive and disappointing, given his stature as a journalist and a thinker whose work I have always admired.

In The Danger of a Single story, her seminal TED talk, Nigerian novelist Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie says, “The problem with stereotypes is not that they are untrue but that they are incomplete” and that “they flatten our experiences of our common humanity”.

I retell the story of my South African brother and myself, because real stories matter. They can be used to repair and forge a better path for us all. It is simply not in the spirit of ubuntu for us to encourage these negative stereotypes about Nigerians in South Africa not because they are untrue but because they are incomplete. They do not tell us about the thousands of Nigerian doctors, lawyers, businessmen and students, contributing to South Africa.

It seems that Nigeria and South Africa are locked into telling stories about each other that are only partially true. The sooner we realise that the African sky is large enough to listen to all of our stories, the easier it will be for us to face our common destiny – together. DM

Abbiba Princewill is from Nigeria.  She has an LLB from King’s College London and is currently studying for an LLM in Securities Regulation at UCLA.


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