I visited South Africa a few times during the Apartheid regime; I was then the regional director for Africa with Costain International UK. At that time, South Africa was a stopover country for me during visits to Zimbabwe, Namibia, Botswana, Lesotho, Mozambique, and Angola as my company did not do any business there due to the situation of the country. During those years, the Apartheid regime was beginning to crumble and Nigeria was the lead nation monitoring all the sanctions that were imposed on South Africa by the Organisation of African Unity (OAU), now known as the African Union (AU); The United Nation; the free World and Friends of Nigeria all over the world. With most of these sanctions headed and monitored by Nigeria, The apartheid government of South Africa was now isolated by the rest of the world. Despite the minor setback that was experienced by the OAU, the Mandela issue and the liberation of the Southern African nation was always at the top of the agenda, particularly by Nigeria.
At a stage, the OAU was divided between the Casablanca group and the Monrovia group. The latter was supported by those Western Powers that saw Mandela as a terrorist, but as a part of the former group, Nigeria was able to mobilize enough support among the rest of the free world so as to ensure that they carried through most of the United Nations resolutions on sanctions that were tabled against South Africa. Before long, the country started to feel the burn of isolation.
They couldn’t play their Rugby, Tennis, Football and Cricket outside South Africa because of the sanctions. It wasn’t until 1991 after the deconstruction of apartheid that the cricket team played its first international match since a ban by the International Cricket Council (ICC) in 1970 because of the government’s policy of apartheid. With sports becoming a global, unifying and important playtime; the young white South Africans were becoming increasingly weary and unsettled over their exclusion from the international scene. They couldn’t play their games against black-dominated nations and could only field white players during their matches with other white teams. The majority of the outside world wouldn’t come to South Africa to participate in any sporting event as well. With sports becoming lucrative to both the player and clubs; South Africa was losing the war from within and a tiny sign was with the impact it was having on the development of young minds.
Even their lovely South African wine that once much revered was rejected by the world and could only be sold underhandedly through a third party like Israel until some of the Israeli companies that sold the rainbow nation’s wine got into trouble and were punished by Nigeria.
At the time, General Olusegun Obasanjo was a member of the contact group comprising of former Prime Ministers and Presidents of the free world; the group not only monitored sanctions, but they also requested for permission to visit Robin Island to see Nelson Mandela in prison. At this stage, it became very clear that Nelson Mandela was going to be free at any time.
I saw then a South Africa that was coming out of the war but at the same time, I saw a country that was going to have a problem finding peace because of the long period of liberation. I saw a country with no black middle class, a country that was going to have Black on Black war because it was easier to be angry at the one that’s accessible. I saw a country that was going to go through high rates of unemployment and unemployable youths. The reconciliation of all the diversity of people became a huge challenge. It was only the person of Nelson Mandela that could pacify the various fighting warriors that were waiting to explode, although the appointment of Desmond Tutu to chair the truth and reconciliation committee gave South Africa a temporary truce. However over the years, from my sideline position, I could begin to see the truce falling apart because nothing was done quickly to mend the cracks. The Xenophobic attacks that we are witnessing today may be the beginning of that.
Yet, I must say that the xenophobic attack in South Africa is short-sighted, it is an unfortunate example of how we lose appreciation for the present because we stop learning about the past. I recall a programme that was put in place by Nigerians just after South Africa defeated apartheid. The programme was set up to cater specifically for their educational needs and general welfare through the Southern Africa Relief Fund (SAFR), to which then-president General Olusegun Obasanjo contributed $3.7 million. In that programme, thousands of South Africans were being brought into Nigeria as students, as apprentice entrepreneurs, and as teachers to begin to integrate. But this was not properly followed up during subsequent years, and it ended like planting a tree, not nurturing it and leaving it to die. The programme was also meant to send thousands of Nigerians especially National youth corps members to various schools, colleges, and institutions in South Africa to help with the orientation of those South Africans that had been subjected to substandard education.
We didn’t stop at empty promises. Records show that Nigeria further supported the ANC and the Pan Africanist Congress (PAC) with an annual subvention of $5 million for a period to help them in the struggle of regaining their nation. Also, Obasanjo made a donation of $3 000, while every member of his cabinet made donations of $1 500 each to the South African cause – these were all personal donations. Even civil servants were not exempt from helping South Africans as they gave two per cent of their income to a fund, then known as the “Mandela Tax”. I also remember that in this period, many Nigerian children in primary and secondary schools had to skip lunch because the monies were sent to a special account to help stop apartheid. The children who have grown now and are still the same generation being oppressed in South Africa were told that their ‘brothers and sisters’ were killed and could not fight for themselves properly. How do you explain hatred by someone you love blindly?
I believe that if the integration programme that was proposed got implemented in the true sense, there would have been a better understanding of the problems the South Africans face and would expose South Africans to a new life away from war and crisis. You will have young men and women from all the front line states living and working in South Africa and you will have young men and women from South Africa living and working in all the front line states. Friendships will develop across boundaries and inter-marriages; the entrepreneurship spirit that abounds in Nigeria and some other front line states would have been passed on to the South African young men and women. It would have gone a long way to remove these hostile feelings towards young men and women from other countries by some South African over the fear of having their jobs and ‘women’ taken from them due to the integration, partnership, and development that would have come out of the collaboration.
If the continent of Africa must move away from being seen as the Dark Continent, the two Continental Giants; South and West, must begin to resolve the present crisis which is nowhere near what the two countries have gone through before. The current crisis which started a few years ago has gone beyond politicians and diplomats. It is now time to engage Nigerian entrepreneurs and writers who are well known and respected in South Africa and South African academicians, writers, and sportsmen who are well known to Nigerian to begin a dialogue instead of playing to the gallery. These groups of men and women from both countries will reach those Nigerians and South Africans that have suffered from the crisis. We need to stop being afraid of one another, letting our fear take root and grow vines to choke us.