Thami Mseleku is the South African High Commissioner to Nigeria. In this interview, he speaks about Nigeria’s support for his country’s freedom, how the relationship became cold, the vilifying word ‘xenophobia’, and efforts made that drastically reduced attacks on Nigerians and other nationals in his country.
How long is the bilateral relationship between Nigeria and South Africa?
To understand it better, we have to go back a little bit in history. When Nigeria got its independence and joined the independent nations of Africa, they collectively decided that Africa is not free until every inch of the continent is independent, particularly, we in South Africa which was the last part of Africa to be free.
So, Nigeria really participated and played a very key role in the struggle for the liberation of Africa in general and South Africa in particular. Many of our leaders who actually exiled to Nigeria, studied here and they were trained here.
I can give you an example of people who lived in Nigeria then, our former president Mbeki spent a lot of time here in Nigeria. He also came in and out many times soliciting support from different Nigerian governments for the South African struggle.
Also, many people, young and old, moved up and down in support of anti-aparthied movement, contributing the very little they had to the welfare of our people in exile. That was where the relationship started.
So, our diplomatic relationship started in 1993/94 when we became free and we have been growing from strength to strength.
How cordial is the relationship so far?
At the moment, the relationship is cold for various reasons. One of the key reasons was that Nigeria would be looking inward at its own issues and South Africa would also be looking inward at its issues and therefore it appears that the relationship has gone cold. It was never a kind of hate relationship but it’s cold because we are all busy with our respective problems.
At some point, the relationship between our two presidents – Olusegun Obasanjo and Mbeki, was exemplary. Both former presidents relentlessly pursued the agenda of economic liberation and decolonization of our African continent, joined by the president of Algeria who died recently. They actually charted the way for the establishment of the New Economic Programme for African Development (NEPAD).
Now, we are back to the level where President Buhari and President Ramaphosa actually decided to visited China in 2019. Our president came here in 2018 to start the process and then, President Buhari visited South Africa and they launched the bi-national commission which is the highest level of relationship, where the commission that has been established is at the level of the presidents’ co-chairing the relationship.
The BNC came up with a number of agreements that will take us forward but top on the agenda is the agenda of the African continent, not just the benefit of the two countries.
What is your immediate plan on this diplomatic mission?
We are here to develop a relationship with Nigeria for the benefit of the two countries and the African continent. At the level of the two countries, we are in the process of implementing the agreements of the Bi-national Commission, some of these agreements relate to, for example, establishing a joint advisory committee on the investment and economic development, which will advise the ministers and therefore the presidents on how we can cooperate and collaborate in that agenda.
Also important, in the context of that, is the implementation of the Africa free Trade Agreement, because without these two economies leading that implementation, that agreement will not be worth the paper it’s written on. Without being arrogant to other African countries but because these are the biggest economies: Nigeria being the leading economy in terms of trade and other things and South Africa being the most industrialised and first and second in terms of economic terms.
On the political side, we are also preparing for the possibility of hosting President Ramaphosa here in Nigeria for the national commission, it happens every two years so it was in South Africa in 2019 and it will happen here 2021. President Buhari has invited president Ramaposa to come for that BNC on the 19th of October.
Right now, President Ramaphosa is busy with local government elections, so he is still looking at whether he will be able to come or not. That is why we are not sure yet whether it’s going to happen but we are preparing for it.
Finally, we have business to business. Usually, when the two presidents meet, there is a parallel meeting of business people. We want to ensure that the young people also have the same kind of interaction like the business people. So, we have what we call the business dialogue that we are trying to actually establish between the young people in South Africa and Nigeria through their structures and leaders.
We are currently working very hard with the Ministry of youth and sport and culture to see that we launch that before the two presidents meet. We want those young people to start the dialogue and speak to their leaders about what young people want in both countries, including how they themselves are going to participate as leaders in ensuring that Africa moves forward. Those are the main points of the agenda at the moment.
What’s the trade relationship between Nigeria and South Africa like?
Nigeria’s main readable goods are actually oil and gas, and therefore there is a lot of relationships at that level. In fact, Nigeria is giving us a slot where we can actually buy oil. South Africa also trades with Nigeria in many goods like spare parts, minerals and fruits.
But, the trade relationship between the two countries would be enhanced with the African free trade zone, so that is why we are focusing on ensuring that that happens.
Do you give any support to Nigerian youth for development?
Not specifically. What we have is a situation where many of the Nigerian young people who want to study in South Africa are given opportunity. We give them visas to do a degree, Masters and PhD in South Africa. The universities admit them and we facilitate their stay.
South African universities were rated among the best in the world. Do you also see Nigerian universities one day becoming part of the list?
One of the ironies of the question you raised is that if you go all over the world, you will find that leading academics, leading scientists, leading experts in ICT, leading experts in various areas are Nigerians. So, my starting point is how do you accept them back? How do you make them come and teach in your universities in Nigeria because it’s the quality of the academics that will lift the quality of education in your universities?
So, for me, the first challenge you have is how do you attract your own people to come back and actually work in your universities. If there are reasons, you have to actually address those reasons but it’s important for Nigeria to get the best of its own people because you have them.
‘South Africa belongs to all who live in it’ can you shed more light on this?
What people don’t understand about South Africa is, first and foremost, we have a constitution that actually declares that South Africa belongs to all those who live on it black and white.
At the time that statement was made, to those who made it, it was largely to deal with the fact that some people believed that certain parts of South African belonged to whites and other parts belong to blacks. Then they declared that South Africa belongs to all who live in it.
I came to Nigeria after the so called 2019 xenophobic attack. I heard parliamentarians making statements about how xenophobic South Africa is, because when people use politically motivated language, they want to achieve something that may be good for them. But, that doesn’t define South Africa.
South Africa is not xenophobic; we come from a country that is racist and we changed that, and that is why we have this foundation, we came from the country that has been supported by the whole world and we embraced that, we are an internationalist country.
Attacks and counter attacks have drastically reduced in South Africa, what did the government do to tame them?
When we had those kinds of attacks, we made sure that we acted and quenched the anger on both sides, we brought in security forces. We didn’t end there; we went to those communities to find out why this is happening on both sides. We went to Nigeria in diaspora commission and asked, what is happening?
When we went to the communities, we encouraged Nigerians and other nationals in those communities to bring out the triggers of the crises.
One of the triggers was the issue of small businesses. Let me tell you what we realised. It may not apply to Nigerians alone but many of those people in small businesses, like the Somalis, who are now living well in South Africa because they have a lot of background support from businesses in their countries.
When they come to a town or village where the locals own shops, by the time they start their businesses, the locals’ shops will be closed, because they have the means and they tend to work collectively in one place. So, what would the locals do when they find themselves in the competition? They either try to fight them fairly competitively or they start saying things about them in order to make people turn against them.
Other issues are those dealing in drugs, human trafficking and then they buy our police. The communities are reacting this way because the police have not been active against obvious drugs traffickers.
So, even those who are not part of the drugs trafficking are considered the same by the community.
The police are sometimes sent by drugs rival groups to harass other groups because it is a competition between them.
When you hear that a policeman tortured a Nigerian, find out who actually sent the policeman, it may be some of the Nigerian groups that sent him because it’s been proven that most Nigerians who died in South Africa were actually killed by other Nigerians.
So, we have to also deal with that by asking the Nigerians to isolate the criminals among them. That has worked for the diaspora and we hope it will remain that way.