Johannesburg, South Africa – A little more than four months ago, Nigeria overtook South Africa as Africa’s largest economy. But for the legions of Nigerians who left the West African nation in search of greener pastures and for whom Gauteng – South Africa’s richest province – has become a home, they are not in a hurry to return to their native country.
Many moved into Hillbrow in Johannesburg in the mid-1990s. Their homes and businesses spread to the Yeoville, Randburg, and Windsor areas which some South Africans now call “Nigertowns” because of the Nigerian migrants. Their vibrant culture, fashion and way of doing business have expanded to the conservative streets of Pretoria, South Africa’s capital.
Fidel Obi, 50, has lived in South Africa for 19 years and runs a business dealing in hair extensions and groceries. He is unimpressed by the news that Nigeria is now the continent’s largest economy.
“This so-called growth has nothing do with the man in the street. People like me will never benefit from it because of poor governance and greed by those we have elected to run the country,” Obi told Al Jazeera.
“When they want to be elected they promise heaven on earth, but once they are in power, they forget to look after ordinary people. The lawmakers there are some of the highest paid in the world, and I am sure they will be the ones who will benefit from the economic growth, not us. If you don’t know a godfather or are not related to someone of influence, you will not get a job.”
The difficulty in finding work is the principal reason why some Nigerians do not want to return home. Statistics show Nigerian unemployment rising by 16 percent on an annual basis, the most affected being the youth – at 50 percent.
Jobless but happy
Superficially analysed, the employment situation appears somewhat similar to that of South Africa where 50 percent of the youth are unemployed. Yet youth unemployment in South Africa pales into insignificance when Nigeria’s population of 178.5 million is compared with South Africa’s 53 million.
For some Nigerians like Ben Dada, 30, life in Africa’s richest country, even for those without jobs, is still better than in Nigeria.
“I left Nigeria because I was struggling to find a job. I have been in South Africa for a year and I still don’t have a job, but I am not planning to go back home because of constant water and electricity cuts,” Dada said.
This so-called growth has nothing do with the man in the street. People like me will never benefit from it because of poor governance and greed by those we have elected to run the country.
Dada, who left his wife and children in Nigeria, secured a temporary job as a bouncer in a Johannesburg night club but is now out of work.
In the South African suburbs they now call home, Nigerians tend to keep to themselves. Many have opened their own businesses and employ people from across the continent who are not necessarily South Africans.
Many are business savvy and see a lot of opportunities where even South Africans do not. Some business ideas come out of a desire for cultural preservation and a bit of nostalgia, with many entrepreneurs importing West African foods, traditional fabrics, cosmetics, and Nigerian films in the form of DVDs.
On every street corner there is either a restaurant or a fast-food outlet selling Nigerian cuisine while the music of Lagos, Nigeria’s commercial capital, belts out. The youth have transcended their cultural dress and now dress a bit like American rap artists with their baggy, sagging trousers, huge shirts, and hairstyles to match.
Women are just as trendy as men, wearing knee-high boots, complete with immaculate make-up and hair extensions.
It was in the fashion world that retired teacher, now turned hairdresser, Ani Ojiofor, 50, found a niche seven years ago when she arrived in South Africa.
“When times are good we make a lot of money because many women do not mind spending when it comes to hair,” says Ojiofor.
She says her hair salon, based in Randburg north of Johannesburg, was doing well a few years after its launch, but it appears South Africa’s economic downturn is beginning to have an impact on it.
Nigeria growth vs South Africa
According to Statistics South Africa, an agency that gathers data, the country’s growth contracted by 0.6 percent in the first quarter of 2014 due to the crippling strike in the platinum sector, which has been described by the National Economic Development and Labour Council as the longest and the costliest in the country’s history.
Nigeria has recently rebased its Gross Domestic Product (GDP) to a revised estimate of $510bn in 2013, an 89 percent jump from the previous $269bn. This has helped it trump South Africa’s GDP of $350.6bn in the same period.
Chris Becker, an economist and chief Africa strategist at ETM Analytics, a macroeconomic advisory and consultancy firm in South Africa, says the rebasing of the GDP – taking into account sectors that generate money but have been previously neglected – is not in relation to the actual growth. It is, he says, just a realignment of numbers that were not calculated in the past.
I left Nigeria because I was struggling to find a job. I have been in South Africa for a year and I still don't have a job, but I am not planning to go back home because of constant water and electricity cuts.
“I don’t think we will be losing too much to Nigeria as an investment destination. Investors do not only concentrate on the Gross Domestic Product of a country. They understand the dynamics that go far beyond that. They would, for instance, base their decisions to invest on how developed the infrastructure is or on whether the environment to conduct business is conducive. They would also consider income inequalities.”
Becker says statistics barely encourage people to move to countries in search of better lives.
“Maybe in 10 to 15 years – if Nigeria’s economy accelerates and South Africa’s contracts – that’s when people may start thinking of moving back [to Nigeria],” he told Al Jazeera.
Dexter Mahachi, a researcher at Amari Africa Securities, which studies economic trends in Africa, concurs that Nigerians are unlikely to head home soon.
“The rebased GDP doesn’t offer new opportunities. Those industries that have helped to increase the numbers have always been there,” Dexter said.
“Nigerians who are operating businesses in South Africa are favoured by the availability of sophisticated infrastructure, electricity, running water, shopping malls that are frequented by people with more disposal income.”
John Chukwu, an economist at Cowry Asset Management in Nigeria, says Nigerians in South Africa are not qualified in the industries that are driving growth in Nigeria, and may even struggle to find work.
“They do not have proper skills needed by Nigeria’s economy. Most of them are uneducated. Those who are educated would be teachers and lecturers in tertiary institutions which do not offer salaries that are attractive enough for them to return [home],” Chukwu said.
Foreigners in South Africa have suffered xenophobic attacks but few Nigerians have fallen victim. In 2008, 64 people were killed and 1,600 displaced while hundreds were injured.
Poor South Africans have continued to attack outsiders accusing them of stealing their jobs and women.
“So far there are not many Nigerians, if any, who have been victims of these attacks because we do not live in the townships. People who are more aggrieved by foreigners are in the townships because they are unemployed,” said Dada.
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