Steve Edward’s voice shook terribly, laden with anger and frustration as he relived how he escaped being killed by a South African mob last Saturday in Pretoria West.
“The men came in with machetes and other weapons and started making some arrogant noises. They first collected our money and goods. After then, they set our house on fire. They were happy,” he said. “We called on the police and some people to help us. But when they arrived, they joined our attackers in assaulting us.”
Edward, an indigene of Ondo State (Nigeria), had only lived in South Africa for three years when he witnessed the horrible incident.
He said, “The people we called on to help us also joined our attackers in looting us. They told us that we were dating their women and taking their jobs.
“They also accused us of selling drugs. But I’ve never sold drugs in my life. I’m a forklift operator at an automobile company here in the city. I’ve been working here since 2014 when I arrived in this country.”
Anti-immigrant violence reared its head again in recent weeks in Pretoria West when properties belonging to Nigerians and other Africans were torched by some South Africans who claimed that foreigners were taking over their jobs and dating their women.
The attacks in Pretoria West came just some days after residents in Rosetenville, a suburb in Johannesburg, reportedly burnt properties belonging to Nigerians and other foreigners for allegedly being used for drug dealing and human trafficking. Cars, houses and other items were destroyed in the attacks.
Since last Saturday’s attacks, Edward told our correspondent on the telephone that he had since been living in the street.
He said, “I’m now living in the street since they burnt down the house I lived in. We can’t sleep with our eyes closed because they can attack anytime. We can’t even go to any church to sleep in because they can come there. Nowhere is safe for us.
“My company has also sacked me. I think those guys went to the company and warned them to sack all Nigerians and other foreigners. They don’t want to see any Nigerian work in their country.
“Meanwhile, they are lazy and that’s the truth. That’s why their women follow Nigerians. They’re just jealous of our success. They don’t work, yet they don’t want us who are working to do so. What kind of life is this? They have taken everything I owned. I have lost all.”
Edward explained that he started having a premonition that the attacks would take place someday as “South African men hate us.”
He added, “They have always sought to attack us. Another incident that frequently happens is this: When we go to the bank to withdraw money, the tellers secretly take our pictures and send them to the police. I don’t know what they tell their police.
“But what I know that has happened to many Nigerians is that by the time we are leaving the bank, the police would have been waiting for us. They would collect our money, injure us, then drop us in an unknown location. They would tell us, ‘Go back to your country, we don’t want you here.’”
Having experienced the latest attacks, Edward told Saturday PUNCH that he would love to return to Nigeria to start a new life.
“I want to come back home and start a new life or what is the essence of all the three years I’ve worked here?” he asked.
Another Nigerian who lost all his properties to the recent attacks is Mr. Jaiyeola Balogun, the co-owner of Simon Auto Mechanic Workshop located on 442 Christoffel Street, Pretoria West.
When the hoodlums came to his workshop — containing 29 cars, equipment and other belongings — around 4am on Sunday, February 5, 2017, to burn it down, he would later realise he had lost over R7 million (N168m).
“I have lost all,” he said bitterly.
Balogun had owned the workshop since 2009 in South Africa, but in the twinkle of an eye, all his investments were gone.
He said, “I lost 29 cars in the attacks. They burnt everything down. My passport and that of my daughter were also in the workshop. I lost over R7 million (N168m). I’m down now as I’m talking to you. It’s like the world has collapsed on me.
“They stole my goods and burnt down my house. My family is in Nigeria, but my last daughter is schooling here in South Africa. They don’t like us Nigerians. Xenophobic attacks had never taken place here in Pretoria West, but they occurred this time around.
“I’ve been doing this job since 2009. I’d love to return to Nigeria. I’d like to come back home. I mean, all the things I’ve worked for over the years have all gone. But if I want to come back to Nigeria, I would need a passport, which has been burnt. Why do I need to keep staying in a hostile country?
“They cook up all manner of stories to paint Nigerians black. They tell these stories to justify their evil acts. For instance, when they say Nigerians sell drugs in their country, are they saying the police don’t know where they sell the drugs? They know.
“Let them go and arrest those who sell drugs, but they shouldn’t be attacking those of us who are doing legitimate businesses. I do handwork and I’ve never dealt in drugs all my life. It is saddening I have lost all my investments.”
Uchechi Okon was about embarking on a six-hour journey from Pretoria West when our correspondent called him.
“Right now, I’m relocating out of here to another place which is six hours drive from here. I quickly came to the market to buy some things. I have lost many things as they burnt the house I was living, so I need to buy some essentials before embarking on the trip,” he said.
Okon, who once owned a boutique on Rosazitta Street, Pretoria West, said the attacks lasted for about eight hours.
He said, “It all happened quickly. The mob came, saying they were looking for Nigerians selling drugs. I was sleeping. The next thing I would hear was loud banging on the gate.
“They eventually forced the gate open. We ran to the back of the premises to hide. By then, they had broken the door down and came into the compound. They said they were looking for the Nigerians that lived there, but my white landlady was shouting back that there was no Nigerian living there.
“They came with all kinds of weapons — knives, rods and so on. I heard later that they shot people in similar attacks, but I couldn’t see if they had guns. I was peeping through the window. It happened between 8.30am and 4pm. They went from house to house.
“When they didn’t see us, they stole all our properties and burnt my apartment with my clothes. Right now, I don’t have a passport. I don’t know whether they stole it or it got burnt down with the rest of my clothes and other belongings. I am now living in my car. The only clothes I have are the ones on my back.”
Mrs. Annemarie Van Zir, 68, the owner of the building where Okon and other Africans lived in, said it was unfortunate that Africans were being attacked by fellow Africans.
“They robbed us of our money and other belongings before burning down the building,” she said, adding, “I think the attacks are xenophobic. Even though I was born and bred in South Africa, that doesn’t mean I shouldn’t say the truth. It’s quite unfortunate what’s happening here.”
Being a South African, one would think Van Zir’s building would not have been torched by the mob.
But she said, “They burnt my house probably because there were Nigerians and other Africans living in it. They just don’t want to see Nigerians. The hoodlums usually narrate the ‘they took our jobs and women’ story anytime they attack Nigerians.
“They said Nigerians had turned their women to prostitutes, but that’s not the issue. The government here is not doing enough to empower women and some of them are also being chased out of the home by their parents.
“Guess where they go? Of course, they would go to Nigerians and others who take care of them well. During the recent attacks, the police came, but did nothing. They also enrich themselves with other people’s wealth.
“The police watched as they set my house on fire in broad daylight and now everything is down. Well, I’m still waiting for the government’s response in terms of compensation, but I hope I don’t wait in vain.”
Last Saturday’s attacks have also forced Musibau Alade to leave Pretoria West and now living in his uncle’s house. But still, he has not been able to sleep with his two eyes closed.
“When they came last Saturday to attack us, they burnt down the house I was living. Now, we learnt that they had planned other attacks this week. Right now, I’ve gone to my uncle’s house, but for some other Nigerians that I know, they are sleeping in the streets. It’s unfortunate what’s happening to us,” he said.
South Africa’s unending ‘Afrophobic’ attacks
Though no life was lost in the recent attacks, Nigerians and other Africans have always been attacked by South Africans in the country, with some people already tagging the attacks as ‘Afrophobic.’
In May 2008, 62 people were killed in a wave of xenophobic attacks across townships.
Foreign nationals, mostly migrants from Somalia and Ethiopia, were dragged through the streets of Alexandra, barely a few kilometres from Johannesburg’s plush Sandton suburb, and “necklaced” — a throwback to the summary execution tactic used in the Apartheid days.
A rubber tyre, filled with petrol, is forced around a victim’s chest and arms, and set alight.
In an instant, the story of South Africa’s much-touted rainbow nation of black, white and brown people happily living together, fizzled away in an outburst of vengeance.
Tens of thousands of people were displaced, forced to seek refuge in churches, mosques and even police stations. In the end, it took military intervention to quell the violence.
According to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, there were almost 310,000 refugees and asylum seekers in the country as of July 2014. By the end of 2015, this number topped 330,000.
South Africa, with a population of about 50 million, is home to an estimated five million immigrants.
Out of the five million immigrants, there are about 800,000 Nigerians in South Africa, many of them living in Johannesburg, according to the Nigerian Union South Africa.
In April 2015, the country was badly hit by the wave of xenophobic violence, which resulted to the death of about seven Nigerians, as stated by the South African police. Many others lost their properties.
‘It’s time to stop the attacks’
On December 29, 2016, a Nigerian, Tochukwu Nnadi, was killed by South African police officers for allegedly dealing in hard drugs, which brought to 20 the number of Nigerians killed in 2016 alone in South Africa.
According to the Senior Special Assistant to President Muhammadu Buhari on Foreign Affairs and Diaspora, Abike Dabiri-Erewa, South African cops gripped Nnadi’s neck despite his hands being already handcuffed at the back and squeezed it tightly until he died.
Described as a xenophobic attack in many quarters, Dabiri-Erewa also complained that over 116 Nigerians had been killed within two years in South Africa, though 63 per cent of the extra-judicial killings were carried out by the police.
She, therefore, called on the South African government to take decisive and definitive measures to protect Nigerians and other Africans living in the country.
“We have lost about 116 Nigerians in the last two years and in 2016 alone, about 20 were killed. This is unacceptable to the people and government of Nigeria,” she said.
An Abuja-based political scientist and social commentator, Dr. (Mrs.) Bisola Oduoye, also asked the Federal Government to act promptly on the recent attacks by South Africans on Nigerians.
Saying that the steps the Federal Government takes would determine how important the South African government would bring to justice the attackers, Oduoye said it was high time the government took some “intense” diplomatic actions.
She said, “They have always attacked Nigerians. In 2015, the same thing happened. Now that it’s happening again, it means the Federal Government and South Africa have not really sat down to talk on the issue.
“Our government now needs to tell its South African counterpart to stop the attacks. They allege that Nigerians carry drugs, but in a sane society, is it not the police’s job to fish out criminals? Why should the citizens be brutalising foreigners, particularly their fellow Africans? It’s not right.”
Also, the House of Representatives has passed a resolution condemning the xenophobic attacks against Nigerians in South Africa.
The House also urged the President Buhari administration to recall the country’s ambassador to South Africa due to the xenophobic rally which held on Friday in South Africa.
The resolution followed a motion by Rita Orji, a Peoples Democratic Party lawmaker from Lagos State, who decried how Nigerians are being unjustly targeted in South Africa.
Another lawmaker, Sergius Ogun, PDP-Edo State, said the poor treatment being meted to Nigerians was deeply troubling, given the role Nigeria played in ending the South African Apartheid regime.
He said, “I want us as a House to condemn it and I also want our government to take a stand on it.
“How can we say that we are the giant of Africa when in other African countries, our citizens are being killed?”
While supporting her colleagues, Nnenna Elendu-Ukeje, PDP-Abia State, said Nigeria should take extra-diplomatic measures in dealing with the latest deadly assaults because “the attacks on Nigerians in SA have persisted” despite all diplomatic solutions explored by the government.
The House Minority Leader, Leo Ogor, said it was time for all stakeholders to “call a spade a spade” as “this isn’t the first time this is happening.”
He added, “South Africans continue to kill Nigerians for no justifiable reason and this is completely unacceptable.”
Meanwhile, the Secretary General of NUSA, Mr. Adetola Olubajo, told Saturday PUNCH that the association would send a petition to the South African government based on the recent attacks.
He said, “The Nigeria`s Consul General in South Africa, Ambassador (Mrs.) Uche Ajulu-Okeke, was here today (Wednesday) and we have started compiling the costs of the properties damaged.
“A police case will be opened and valuation done before sending a petition to the government through our mission here in South Africa. The Consul General went to the police station and visited the burnt buildings.”
On Nigerians who want to return to the country, Olubajo said it was unfortunate that most of the victims’ passports had been burnt.
However, he said the Consul General had written to the Immigration Service in the country for issuance of new passports, he said.
In a similar vein, Dabiri-Erewa has encouraged Nigerians who want to return home to do so, saying “This is our country. No matter the challenges, home is always best.”
Nonetheless, she said the South African police had assured Nigerians living in the country of protection henceforth.
She told Saturday PUNCH that this was after the Federal Government issued a “strong” statement warning that further attacks on Nigerians would attract “dire consequences.”
She said, “This is the first incident happening under this administration and we will follow through.
“Investigations are on to determine who and what should be compensated. I will pursue my call for the African Union’s intervention whether the attacks continue or not.”