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Bridging the racial and ethnic divide: How are Africa’s largest economies tackling the behemoths of intolerance?


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Bridging the racial and ethnic divide: How are Africa’s largest economies tackling the behemoths of intolerance?

Bridging the racial and ethnic divide: How are Africa’s largest economies tackling the behemoths of intolerance?

2nd May 2017


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Racism and racial discrimination remain unpalatable features of the South African experience. In 2016, a series of racial slurs exchanged on social media attracted headline attention.

This was the year in which Penny Sparrow gained notoriety for making offensive racial comments in a Facebook post comparing black beachgoers in KwaZulu-Natal to monkeys. In January 2016, the F.W. de Klerk Foundation filed a complaint with the South African Human Rights Commission regarding 45 social media posts inciting extreme violence against white South Africans. Similarly, xenophobic attacks in 2015 and 2017 are symptoms of a country still beset by challenges in race and ethnic relations. There is reason to wonder, then, what progress South Africa has made in this sphere since 1994.


Apartheid – the system that placed race at the centre of law and administration between 1948 and 1994, when Nelson Mandela became president – represents perhaps the darkest era in South African history. Although racial fissures – and their exploitation – had been a feature of South African society long before 1948, that was the date from which it was institutionalised, when the National Party came to power under Dr D F Malan. Twenty three years after the abolition of apartheid, however, South Africa is still treating its old wounds – and is making progress in doing so.

A recent survey by the South African Institute of Race Relations revealed that South Africa is ascending from the abyss of racism as more and more citizens look beyond race in their relationships with one another. Seventy-two percent of people who took part in the survey reported no personal experience of racism; 82.4 % of respondents believed that merit rather than race should be the criterion of employment, and 84% agreed that the different races need one another and that there should be full opportunities for people of all colours. A comparison of results from a similar poll in 2001 reveal that the country has made some progress – though it remains clear that more needs to be done to ensure an end to racial discrimination.


South Africa’s problems, however, are not limited to its own citizens. Just as there remains a significant racial divide between South Africans, there is also bad blood between South Africans and immigrants from elsewhere in sub-Saharan Africa. While periodic reports from the South African Institute of Race Relations on levels of tolerance in the country indicate the gains of significant efforts to bridge deep-rooted racial fault lines, the resurgence of xenophobic violence in South Africa is lamentable and undermines the progress the country may have made in the past few years. The South African government’s continual denial of the troubling extent of xenophobia is appalling.

President Jacob Zuma himself said that “protesting” South Africans were not simply attacking immigrants, but were fighting against crime. The risk is that such statements can be construed by anti-immigrant protesters as an endorsement of their violence. If the government does not accept that there is a problem, it will not take responsibility for tackling it. Furthermore, some South African politicians blame foreign nationals for the country's social and economic problems. A political party with the sole mandate of expelling immigrants was recently registered by the Independent Electoral Commission. Positions such as this will only incite more hatred of foreigners in South Africa. If xenophobia is to be rooted out, it must start here.

Like South Africa, Nigeria has long struggled to unify its citizens. In Nigeria’s case, the difficulties arise over ethnic divisions. The Biafran War – or, you prefer, the Nigerian Civil War – was the deadliest tragedy to have befallen the country. But, 44 years later, ethnic rifts are still a major problem. According to a report by researcher Elias Njoku Chukwuemeka, titled Impact of Tribalism on Nigerian Democracy, 66% of the respondents believe ethnicity still influences Nigerian democracy and 64% agree that ethnic rifts influence political crises. The report also highlighted several ethnic imbroglios, such as the Sagamu Crisis and Kano Crisis of 2000, and the Ethno-Religious Crisis in Bauchi in 2001, which involved major ethnic groups in Nigeria.

The most recent was the Fulani herdsman killings. Various ethnic groups continue to disparage one another. In political circles, ethnicity plays a major role in key appointments, superseding competence. When political parties proposed the zoning system to choose the country’s leaders based on their ethnic background, the effect was to pitch ethnic regions against one another – as people devised stratagems to get “their candidates” into positions – rather than bring them together. There are also examples of favouritism in the workplace. Thus, Nigeria has become a patronage-based society rather than a merit-based one. There have even been continual calls by some Nigerians for ethnic groups to go their separate ways, and to split the country. The re-emergence of the Movement for the Actualization of the Sovereign State of Biafra (MASSOB) and their frequent protests reflects the ethnic tension in the country. How can Nigeria bridge its ethnic divide?

Nigeria’s ethnic problems were balefully exhibited in the last general elections where voting was clearly along ethnic lines. Nigeria may, as such, be described as a community of independent nations, an African adaptation of the United Kingdom, if you may. In this context, the country’s most significant project to unify the nation is, arguably, the Federal Character Principle, enshrined in the Nigerian constitution in 1979 and aimed at providing equitable representation in government across all regions of the country.

Another is the Niger Delta Development Commission, crafted to cater to an exploited yet largely neglected Niger Delta region. But these initiatives have been unsuccessful. One consequence of the Federal Character Principle is that best-qualified candidates are often overlooked in key appointments in favour of representational equity, which has led to inefficiency and the triumph of nepotism.

This is a grave disservice to Nigeria. In contrast, it has been suggested that Nigeria could offer more autonomy to its warring ethnic groups. This would give each region more control over its own resources and decisions, thus becoming less dependent on the Federal Government, and freed from perceived subservience to other ethnic groups.

Unlike in South Africa, there is a dearth of research on Nigeria’s ethnic problems. Much of it merely scratches the surface, and lacks the comparative consistency to enable any measurement of progress, or otherwise. In addition, the Federal Government’s tendency to overlook or obscure the problem by removing the ‘state of origin’ entry from official documents is a denial similar to President Zuma’s denying xenophobic attacks in South Africa. The risk is that turning a blind eye to the deep divisions in the country will only cause more pain eventually.

Worse, the rise of violence due to intolerance – coupled with a weak judicial system that fails to bring perpetrators to book – has put the lives of many citizens at risk.

Nigeria and South Africa, it is clear, must embark on devising strategies to slay their behemoths of intolerance with more urgency. Both countries need to come up with more effective policies to address these challenges. Denial and blame-shifting will only deepen the problems arising from intolerance, rather than fix them. 

Written by Olumayowa Okediran, policy fellow at the South African Institute of Race Relations and Director of African programs at Students For Liberty.


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