#AbroadLife: What’s Life Like For Nigerians In South Africa?

September 6, 2019

The Nigerian experience is physical, emotional and sometimes international. No one knows it better than our features on #TheAbroadLife, a series where we detail and explore Nigerian experiences while living abroad.

South Africa is a country known for gold, vuvuzelas and the apartheid hero, Nelson Mandela. But beyond nationalists and national treasures, it is also a country infamous for the widespread xenophobic sentiments held by its citizens.

In 2008, the country recorded the bloodiest xenophobic attacks in its history, when over 60 people were killed. In 2015, attacks got so severe, Nigerians and other immigrant businesses were the subject of repeated attacks and looting in the state.

To get a feel for the daily life of Nigerians currently living in a land so outwardly against their presence, we sat with a young Nigerian woman, who recounted her experience.

For such a distincg Nigerian name, you have quite the South African accent, how long have you lived there?
My family moved to South Africa shortly after I completed primary school. I think I was about 13 years at the time. I’m 23 now. 

Why did your family decide to move?

Well, my mother is South African, and my dad is Nigerian so they moved to be closer to her family over here. He still lives in Nigeria though.

Oh! So you’re half-Nigerian, half⁠ South —

Well. I’m Nigerian and I hold a residence permit in South Africa.

Wait, explain.
In South Africa, once you’re an immigrant or you have immigrant parents, citizenship is just… no. My best friend, whose parents are Nigerian, was born here and speaks Zulu like she owns the place. We’re both toting permanent residency permits.

Hold on. I just did a quick Google search and holders of permanent residency permits should be able to apply for citizenship after five years, right? Right?!

Yeahhh, you would think so. But nope, that citizenship is not going to happen.

Wild. So you mentioned your best friend is Nigerian, is there a Nigerian community where you live?
Oh absolutely. But not just Nigerian. There’s an African community here. You might not think it because of the attacks, but Johannesburg is a pretty metropolitan city. There are Zimbabweans, Malawians, a lot of Congolese people. The majority of my friends are immigrants.

Okay, you just mentioned Johannesburg. Before the attacks that happened this week, had there been any crisis with immigrants?
I wouldn’t say crisis, but it’s always a tense situation. The attacks started in the part of Johannesburg that isn’t safe, and right next to it is this big immigrant community called Hillbrow.

Tell me about it.

So Hillbrow is like the starter city for any immigrant who recently moved. The rent is low; it’s about 1000 rand a month

You can find Jollof rice in the Ethiopian Orthodox church. There are a lot of Igbo mechanics, french clubs, it’s very multicultural. But the thing is, it’s right next to Central Johannesburg, a portion of the city that the government has pretty much left to rot. So immigrants, for reasons beyond me, get the blame for its deteriorated state. To some people, immigrants living in an area can cause it to go into disrepair. So it’s always an easy target.

For Nigerians in particular, were there any clashes before this week’s incident?

Here’s the thing about Nigeria and South Africa. If you go to Sandton, almost all the music is Nigerian: Wizkid, Davido. Dj Cuppy was even there about three months ago. Nigerians even spend the most money in clubs, and that’s all fine. But a line just gets drawn and there’s this resentment towards immigrants.

Can I tell you something?

Go on.
South Africans blur the lines where immigrants and foreign nationals are involved. They use ‘Nigerians’ as a blanket term.

Wait what?

Please explain.
When I first moved to South Africa, someone said to me, “The Nigerians in Johannesburg speak french,” when I kept insisting I could only speak English. He was actually referring to Congolese immigrants.
So when you hear people say South Africans say things like: “Oh, we’re tired of the Nigerians in this place,” what they really mean is, they’re tired of Zimbabweans, Malawians, the Congolese and just about all black immigrants in South Africa.


So in these recent attacks, Nigerians were said to be targeted, how would they have been physically identified?
I don’t know that any Nigerians were actually attacked. Nigerian businesses were looted, but to have attacked Nigerians would have required going around to their homes, which are high-density immigrant areas, and that would be a foolish thing to do. Although, in Central Johannesburg, in the further parts, where townships are, there were reports of immigrant homes being attacked shortly before this week’s incidents. However, to answer your question, Nigerians bear distinguishing marks from South Africans. Nigerian men are physically bigger and taller in build, where South African men are smaller. They’re darker too. Maybe the language and then the accent.

So these aren’t the first attacks this year. They’ve been building up?Exactly. So there’s a reason the attacks happened in Johannesburg and it probably links back to this guy, Herman Mashaba, he’s the Mayor. 

Think ‘Trump meets your tribalist African uncle’. Because of him, a weird wave of nationalism has swept over Johannesburg. He won on a platform that condemned immigrants and blamed them for everything from the lack of jobs in South Africa to his wack hairline. He has a special term for immigrants, he calls them “Illegal foreign nationals”. The sentiments he preached have carried on from his campaign and have settled on the people of Johannesburg. He has also been carrying out a lot of immigrant raids.

Tell me about those.
Okay, so about three weeks ago, this bonafide South African, mixed-race woman got arrested, because, and I quote “She looked and smelled like an Ethiopian.”

Please, tell me you’re making this up.
I’m not

(She wasn’t. Hit this link)

In trains and bus stations, they stop people and ask for their Identity cards.

What? Like passbooks?

Exactly, this has been happening in Central Johannesburg. About two weeks ago, there was a raid where immigrants sell clothes for cheap. Their goods were seized and they were asked to show their papers. Apparently, they were selling “counterfeit clothes” to the good people of South Africa. What does that even mean?

Nigerians got the rap for that somehow. Same way a Nigerian drug dealer was accused of killing a South African taxi driver. You know, what supposedly led to this week’s attacks, when apparently,  It was a Tanzanian.

We heard about that. Have you been personally attacked for being Nigerian? I’ll be honest, there’s a bit of a distinction. While xenophobia cuts across all social classes, violence drawn from said attacks are usually restricted to, you know, the underprivileged in society. I’ve been pretty sheltered, so while I’ve never been physically attacked, I get I verbal assaults and looks of just hate, yeah, those happen.

I mean, every time I have to go to get my passport or papers at the government office, people look at my name and say, “Oh, you must have bribed your way to get these papers”. 

Man. Man. Have you ever felt the need to go by a South African name just to have things easier?

Well, it’s a thing where I’m very cautious when I tell people my name. I’ll admit there have been times where I just leave it out that I’m Nigerian because you never know who you might be speaking to, they could be violent, they could have a specific anti-Nigerian/immigrant axe to grind. But these days, I just own it, it’s terrible having to deny your identity. I have a friend that that just moved here from Nigeria for university, anytime he gets into a cab, he’d claim he’s Congolese or Malian, anything but Nigerian. It’s crazy.

Would you ever move back to Nigeria?

I mean, I’m in Nigeria every year, so I never feel quite far from home. At the end of the day, there are better opportunities in South Africa for me right now. I’ll always consider the possibility though.

Want more Abroad Life? Check in every Friday at 3 PM (WAT) for a new episode. Until then, read every episode of the series here.

Boyin Plumptre

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