Abuja —It is no secret that Africa’s two superpowers do not get along.
Nigeria and South Africa — for all their leaders’ shared love of pan-African rhetoric — see themselves in competition for continental supremacy, and this has translated into a fractious, difficult relationship between the two governments.
But Cyril Ramaphosa wants to make things better.
“South Africa and Nigeria are joined at the hip whether we like it or not, and we better make use of these opportunities we have to improve the relationship between us,” the South African president told a crowd in Abuja on Wednesday, shortly before walking into a meeting with his Nigerian counterpart Muhammadu Buhari.
Evidence of South Africa’s commercial interests in Nigeria are visible everywhere in Nigeria’s quiet capital city: giant billboards advertise MTN’s data deals (1.5GB for just R37); South African private security companies patrol outside luxury hotels; there are Shoprite supermarkets and Standard Bank (known as Stanbic) ATMs; and the World Cup is broadcast on SuperSport.
Ramaphosa stressed the timing of this state visit was intended as a sign of great respect. “This is my first visit outside SADC [the Southern African Development Community], except for the G7.
This is a working visit to come to Nigeria, and I made it a specific issue. I want to see the relations between South Africa and Nigeria improve exponentially,” he said.
A nice sentiment, but it won’t be easy, said Dianna Games, executive director of the SA-Nigeria Chamber of Commerce.
“Relations between Nigerians and South Africans at a professional level are generally warm but at some levels, the relationship is stuck in a negative narrative that highlights the historical challenges between the countries rather than the benefits of working together. These include the fact that Nigerians say they feel unwelcome in South Africa because of sporadic attacks on foreigners, and often point to the commercial benefits enjoyed by many South African companies in Nigeria and lack of Nigerian brands in South Africa as evidence of an unequal relationship,” said Games.
The xenophobic attacks against Nigerian nationals on South African soil are an especially sensitive issue. In 2015, Abuja briefly recalled its ambassador to South Africa in protest, condemning the “ongoing xenophobia in South Africa targeting foreigners”.
Ramaphosa, with his ministers for police and security in tow, sought to reassure his hosts that he was taking action to safeguard foreigners.
“South Africa belongs to all who live in it, be they people who were born in South Africa, people of Nigerian origin, people of Ghanaian origin…so we want those people to have safety and security. Yes, South Africans have been exposed to unsafe environments, been exposed to criminality, and we have historically had a number of challenges in this regard. To overlay on this we have had a huge problem with unemployment, and people have tended to react in a way to safeguard their own interests, and have expressed their fears and concerns through xenophobic-type attacks on other people. We will act against anyone who seeks to attack anybody on the basis of their race, their origin, or the way they look,” he said.
There are other, more practical issues that need to be addressed too, said Games — and doing so would be in the interests of both countries.
“The countries have different things to offer and exploiting their various competitive advantages in a collaborative manner can only be good for both. There is a view in Nigeria that South Africa is not open to Nigerian investment but this is not a reality. Investors from Nigeria go where they see commercial advantage and potential for good profits, as do South Africans. More could be done to address any real issues that dog economic collaboration, rather than perceived issues, and this should include sharing of market information, entry requirements, and potential areas of collaboration both at a public and private sector level,” she said.