South Africans could learn a thing or two from Nigeria about tolerance and treating foreigners well, says Nigerian consul general Uche Ajulu-Okeke.

In fact, her consulate is busy establishing a cultural centre where South African wives can learn to say “I love you” to their Nigerian spouses in that country’s many languages.

During a discussion about xenophobia on Tuesday night, the consul general, who is based in Johannesburg, said: “Nigeria is the one country in Africa where you will not be asked for your papers.”

Her office, she said during the talk at Wits University, issued 900 visas a month for South Africans to visit Nigeria.

“We must be able to tolerate each other,” she said.

Ajulu-Okeke said there was a protocol of free movement between countries in west Africa.

“When you drop into that melting pot, nobody wants to know who you are or where you’re from,” she said.

In South Africa, however, because of apartheid, “you are still segmented”, she said. “You need vibrancy.”

In her prepared speech, Ajulu-Okeke said: “As the second-leading economy on the continent, the increasing emergence of xenophobia as social policy and practice in the face of presumed state acquiescence will only lead South Africa backwards and demotivate its continental integration and development.”

Ajulu-Okeke said South Africa’s history of apartheid meant that people faced institutionalised exclusion, so “xenophobia has become an unanticipated consequence of national development efforts”.

This was because the scarcity of resources and prioritising of locals in policy “breed hostility, exclusivist behaviour and antiforeign sentiments”. She said such hostility was “primarily targeted against foreigners at its initial stages”, but later the resentment turned to other institutions – those seen as the cause of poverty and unemployment.

“Hostility and resentment are gradually shifting to include the corporate sector and white South Africa,” even though these were the backbone of the South African economy, she added. “No one seems to notice that poor white South Africans increasingly find themselves in the same basket as objects of hostility as the foreign undocumented immigrant,” she said.

Ajulu-Okeke said the criminalisation of illegal immigrants contributed to “official xenophobia in which African immigrants are targets for regular harassment and extortion”.

She said the mistreatment of Nigerians was a source of concern to her. “My office is replete with complaints of criminal stereotyping of Nigerians, many of whom are hard-working and law abiding.” Abuse towards them often included “murder, violence and extortion”, and there had been complaints that undocumented Nigerian immigrants “cannot rely on the police for protection”.

She said that, last year, 116 Nigerians died in South Africa, 63% of them killed by police or other South Africans, “with no recompense to justice”.

On the positive side, however, she said there had been an increase in marriages between Nigerians and South Africans.

She said South Africa needed “a vibrant tomorrow for all South Africans”, and the way to get there was through education.

Ajulu-Okeke said Nigeria had, through the South Africa-Nigeria Binational Commission and “in the spirit of amity and traditional African hospitality”, offered to send 2 000 teachers to rural areas at Nigeria’s expense – on condition that South Africa provided them with housing and healthcare.

“This would go a long way to promote literacy and cultivate tolerance,” she said, adding that South Africa hadn’t yet taken Nigeria up on the offer.

But spokesperson for the department of basic education Elijah Mhlanga said it was the first time he’d heard of such a suggestion and declined to comment.


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