Trying times present us with challenges to live up to ideals that once where only imaginations and hypothetical. If we act in accordance to our ideals, we can feel relieved that at least it wasn’t only lip service. If on the other hand we fail, then we should seek introspection to rectify our cognitive dissonance. The challenges are not always straight forward; challenged to act for or against something you have taken a position on in the past. That is because some ideals may not have been simulated as such, but that doesn’t mean we have not taken a position were the situation to present itself since we often find our minds made up when the situation reveals itself. This is what happened when Nigerian’s called for boycott of South African goods and services, in reaction to the recent xenophobic violence in South Africa. Few are responding to the call and more are unable to grasp why on earth people would think of such a worthless performance i.e. some are more in tune with certain acts of activism. That little analysis is made before making a decision indicates preconceived decisions, as well as the difficulty to activate the activists in us.
Nonetheless, the response is disappointing because the majority of Nigerian consumers (who received the campaign message) just couldn’t be bothered to deprive themselves their satellite TV (DSTV) or port their phone numbers from MTN (which is easy these days), or disrupt their convenient weekly shopping at ShopRite simply to make a political statement to South Africa (by the way I have not been able to find a source showing ShopRite originates from South African but it seems to be included in the boycott list). Those who respond to this call should be commended for having inclination towards activism. I was tempted to join them, after all I have boycotted a number of companies due to their support for Israel’s oppressive and illegal occupation of Palestine… but I couldn’t bring myself to it so I wondered why I felt resistance to be part of this beautiful activism. This is what I hope to share.
It is not trivial that the method of reaction to South Africa is to boycott their companies especially given the countrie’s indebtedness to boycotts for the end of apartheid. Equally important is that this particular method of consumer boycott is ill suited for the purpose sought. I came to the conclusion that it is for two reasons. The first is the audacity to treat the xenophobic attacks in SA (which are historically minor despite the viral graphic) with the same strategy and language that is used for institutionally oppressive states like Israel and Apartheid SA. Secondly the cases of Israel and Apartheid SA were not meant to be short term quick fixes, but rather a long term struggle that must be sustained across several business cycles (years) until the effect weighs down the trends of their economic development. I feel the need to digress on these points.
We need caution when comparing two historical events as similar, or to a lesser degree when using the same strong words used to describe a past event to a present event, precisely to manufacture a connection between the two events. It is sufficient that oppression or injustice occurs to justify anger, or even rage. But the temptation to invoke past imagery and rhetoric is often careless, although surprisingly effective, which is why activists and politicians tend to use them. For someone who aims to be critical, I have a sensitivity to these exaggerations that I turn off my empathy once I feel a person is exaggerating their situation and manufacturing connections to manipulate me. For instance, when someone calls a mass shooting a repetition of the “holocaust” (which is different from understanding the event using holocaust), there is a tendency I would feel manipulated by the speaker/writer, which would douse my empathy. I would rather respond to a speech full of rage about how one or two people were shot or attacked or violated, because any injustice deserves the empathy for justice. It may seem so little a cause to ignore the main point of the speaker/writer which is that injustice or oppression is happening. Unfortunately, it may be so, but this is usually for events at a distant from me that I can’t find out things for myself. For instance, it doesn’t matter how many people claim Boko Haram are like (or worse) than Hitler’s Nazis, it would not affect my understanding of the situation because I don’t depend on them to know what is happening; they don’t mediate by understanding. In the case of the call for South African boycott, I feel manipulated to be lured into a boycott that effectively puts Israel and Apartheid SA side by side with these xenophobic attacks.
Then also, such boycotts are not the effective short term solutions to deal with an event like riots and lynching. These need more urgent interventions for instance leaders of victim countries could threaten the victimising country with a deadline before military action or diplomatic scandal. Yes deadline is important in this! How many monthly/yearly renewals of DSTV subscription does one have to boycott, or how many calls does one have to NOT do with MTN, or how many groceries does one have to NOT buy from ShopRite, before South Africa feel the impact on the taxes it collects from these companies and decide to put more effort in protecting the foreigners? All the foreigners would have been dead by then! Take examples of successful boycott movements against Apartheid SA and of Israel. The Anti-Apartheid Movement began in the 1960s with the support of the UN, and Apartheid SA came to end in 1992 (30+ years). The BDS Movement (Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions Movement) on Israel for the oppression on Palestinians began in 2005 and currently ongoing, but with some progress (10 years). Now how does that fit like a solution to the xenophobic attacks of Nigerians (and other foreigners) in South Africa. I think it can be understood in the background of Nigerians’ obsession with glory, and to an extent the activists calling for this might be taking the same strategy the violent South Africans are.
Many Nigerians are proud Nigerians, and this is difficult to justify unless in a poetic language e.g. we cannot be proud of institutions working in Nigeria but we can be proud of how Nigerians make joke of national shambles that other countries may be having a panic attack over. Nigerian’s panic attack, and reaction to trauma, is to make a joke out of it… poetic isn’t it. Another praise for Nigerians is that they are very hopeful, often assertive in their hope that they literally do not listen to words of discouragement (God forbid!). We are hopeful of having non poetic virtues to be proud of. This is why the GDP re-basing of the economy (over a year ago) was such a celebration for Nigerians. Nothing had changed as far as their economic lives were concerned, just the parameters for calculation of GDP was updated and then Nigerians were very excited… especially now that they are leading South Africa as Africa’s largest economy. Not much attention was given to what that means in terms of GDP per capita, or the GINI index, and who leads in these respects. Simply that Nigeria is the largest economy in Africa. (Nigerians have many dreams which have little to do with reality, two of which are: to maintain/reclaim the title of Giant of Africa especially from South Africa or any other “threat”; to return to the days when one Naira was exchanged for one British Pounds.) Nigeria vs South Africa, this is the background.
By calling for a boycott on South Africa, it was invoking that Nigeria vs South Africa competition that has become an instinct in us recently. Then how do I allege that Nigerians are employing the same strategy as the violent South Africans? Well, the attackers did more looting than killing. Looting in this context is really the release of long brewed internal envy mixed with greed. It is a classic maneuver during riots, people (including one’s neighbours) suddenly turn against a person’s hard earned wealth and take from it as much as they destroy it; and there is no support for the argument that they need these goods as essential to their lives. It is more believable that the aim is to rid the owner of their property, and derive satisfaction in that. There is a lot of (envy ridden) indignation around these looting, because many “locals” are envious of how “foreigners” can come and make a living and be so successful at it. Riots are opportunities to rid them of these wealth. So the Nigerian’s calling for boycott, it can be argued, are basically targetting those very profitable businesses in Nigeria that belong to “foreigners”. It is in this context that I have heard people arguing against the monopoly some of these companies enjoy, and how they get away with “exploitative” transactions. My question is: were they doing this before or only after the xenophobic attacks begin? Whereas BDS movement and Anti-Apartheid Movement went for not only boycott, but also divestment (which hurts even more) and sanctions, the Nigerian activists seems to be calling only for boycott (at least that is all I have heard of). Whereas the BDS and AAM called for consumer, cultural and academic boycott, the Nigerian activists seem to only call for consumer boycott. The more I see this disparity from BDS and AAM, the more the similarity with the envious looters in South Africa.
Let us chant something else, but not boycott for this situation. But let us chant, not only for Nigerians but for all the oppressed!