President Cyril Ramaphosa and Nigerian President Muhammadu Buhari. Picture: GCIS
President Cyril Ramaphosa and Nigerian President Muhammadu Buhari. Picture: GCIS

The rising tide of xenophobia that is threatening SA’s image, economy and relations with other states was one of the issues brought into focus at the 74th UN General Assembly debate in New York last week, with heads of state pledging their support to combat the scourge.

President Cyril Ramaphosa was notably absent from the week-long event, having chosen to remain in SA to deal with escalating tensions. But with SA’s important trade relationship with Nigeria at stake, he will host Nigerian President Muhammadu Buhari on October 3.

"SA’s interface with Nigeria is primarily one of trade and investment," says Dianna Games, executive director of the SA-Nigeria Business Chamber. "Naturally, issues elsewhere in the relationship have a potential impact on business relations, as was seen with the retaliatory attacks on SA brand names in Nigeria in the wake of the [xenophobic] attacks."

Back in June, things looked rather different: the SA-Nigeria Investment Conference predicted a positive outlook and improved economic relations between the two states.

In 2017, SA exported R5.7bn worth of goods to Nigeria, while importing goods to the value of R22.8bn. (Both metrics were down on the previous year — 10.9% and 25%, respectively.)

The most recent data from Nigeria’s National Bureau of Statistics shows that the country’s exports to SA in the second quarter of 2019 totalled 213.152-billion naira (about R8.9bn) — down 34.5% on the first quarter, when exports totalled 325.535-billion naira. Nonetheless, for the first half of 2019 exports from Nigeria to SA have already equalled about R22.5bn. The vast majority of that is oil: it accounted for 98.8% of Nigeria’s exports to SA in the second quarter.

But relations between Nigeria and SA have been strained by recent events. With more than a dozen people killed since the outbreak of xenophobic attacks in the beginning of September, hundreds of Nigerians have gone back home from Joburg.

In mid-September, Ramaphosa sent a special envoy to conduct shuttle diplomacy in more than half a dozen African countries affected by attacks on their citizens, including Nigeria.

Condemnation: A woman sings as she holds a banner during a civil society groups march against the recent rise of xenophobic attacks in Joburg. Picture: Getty Images/AFP/Michele Spatari
Condemnation: A woman sings as she holds a banner during a civil society groups march against the recent rise of xenophobic attacks in Joburg. Picture: Getty Images/AFP/Michele Spatari

But Games says more may be needed. "What is required is a closer political relationship at the highest level, to ensure more speedy and responsible crisis management for future problems, and greater collaboration in areas where it makes sense."

Perhaps not surprisingly, international relations & co-operation minister Naledi Pandor only briefly touched on events back home during her 22-minute address to the General Assembly last week.

"The incidents of violence and looting … were regrettable and shameful," Pandor told representatives of 193 member states. "[The government] is working hard at addressing the security lapses and intolerance that led to this violence. We are working tirelessly to tackle crime and lawlessness and to ensure that the arrested criminals face the full might of the law."

In his address, Buhari hinted at another spark that may have inflamed the rift between SA and his country, targeting social media as the culprit in facilitating the spread of hate speech.

"[The Christchurch massacre in New Zealand] and similar crimes, which have been fuelled by social media networks, risk seeping into the fabric of an imagined digital culture," Buhari said. "They cannot be allowed to continue to facilitate … religious, racist, xenophobic and false messages capable of inciting whole communities against each other leading to [the] loss of many lives."

Despite the two countries contributing nearly half of Sub-Saharan Africa’s GDP and jockeying each quarter to release growth figures simultaneously, Nigeria and SA continue to witness below-average growth compared with the rest of the continent.

"At a larger level, there is a dispute about the economic size and political influence that each seems to believe determines which [country] is the more important to the rest of Africa," Games says.

The racially charged events in SA — and the moribund economy underlying them — look unlikely to be remedied prior to the implementation of the African Continental Free Trade Agreement. The agreement, expected to facilitate $3.4-trillion worth of trade, will come into effect in July 2020, just nine months from now.

But to safeguard its position on the continent, SA needs to prevent attacks against foreigners. For that, the government will need to adopt policy that bolsters the rule of law, tackles crime, boosts economic growth and increases awareness of the country’s obligations. Every time attacks occur, the perceived hostility to other African countries deepens — with implications for SA companies that operate elsewhere on the continent.

In the end, bolstering the trade balance with Nigeria and improving diplomatic relations between the countries, while also reassuring investors that the domestic agenda is sound, may be a tall task.