South Africa apologized Thursday for a mass deportation of Nigerians, trying to contain a diplomatic spat that has again focused attention on its sometimes strained relations with the rest of the continent.
“We wish to humbly apologize to them, and we have,” South Africa’s deputy foreign minister, Ibrahim Ibrahim, told reporters. “We are apologizing because we deported a number of people who should not have been deported.”
In Nigeria Thursday, Foreign Minister Olugbenga Ashiru said a special South African envoy was expected soon to convey the apology in person.
“On behalf of Mr. President and the federal government of Nigeria, I as foreign minister will accept the apology and I will be sending a letter back to my counterpart in South Africa accepting the apology of the South African government,” Ashiru said, stressing his government had responded firmly to the “inhuman treatment meted out to our own citizens.”
On March 2, South Africa deported 125 Nigerians who, according to airport health authorities, carried fraudulent yellow fever cards. Since then, authorities in Lagos, raising health concerns, have deported South Africans.
Nigerian government officials said they deported 42 South Africans on a flight Wednesday into Lagos. The officials said South Africa deported five Nigerians the same day.
Ibrahim said South African airport authorities did not properly check to determine whether the cards were authentic. He said South Africa was considering reopening a health clinic at the airport to ensure such deportations are not repeated.
South Africa and Nigeria are allies, but also sometimes rivals for influence in Africa.
Nigeria Foreign Minister Olugbenga Ashiru, speaking to his National Assembly on Tuesday, linked the deportations to what he called the “xenophobia” faced by Nigerian immigrants living in South Africa who fear police who arrest them without cause.
Ibrahim rejected Ashiru’s charge.
“We are not a xenophobic country,” Ibrahim said Thursday.
But in 2008, South Africa saw a wave of violence against foreigners from elsewhere in Africa that left scores dead. Most of the attacks occurred in squatter camps, where South Africans and foreigners — both camps impoverished — compete for housing and jobs.
South Africa has the continent’s most successful economy, and that draws immigrants from further north. But the wealth is far from equally distributed, creating volatility.
South Africans have economic might and, because they are celebrated for peacefully toppling apartheid, international diplomatic stature. South African periodically question whether that makes them arrogant, or results in their being seen as arrogant, when they meet other Africans. They also say the long years of isolation under apartheid left ignorance on both sides.
Such soul-searching was evident earlier this year, when South African politician Nkosazana Dlamini Zuma failed to win enough votes in the African Union to unseat Gabon’s Jean Ping as chairman of the continentwide body.