Cape Town — What does it symbolise that American and British visitors to South Africa do not need a visa, but Nigerians and many other Africans do?
This was one of the questions posed by the director of the United Nations African Institute for Economic Development and Planning, Adebayo Olukoshi, to the former deputy president of South Africa, Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka, during a panel discussion at the 2012 Open Forum being held in Cape Town and hosted by the Open Society Africa Foundations.
Entitled "In the shadow of giants: Nigeria and South Africa", the discussion focused on the tensions between Nigeria and South Africa, and what could be done to improve the relationship to the benefit of both countries and the continent.
In an effort to identify one possible source of the problem, Mlambo-Ngcuka suggested that poverty was an underlying factor, together with competition for jobs between locals and migrants, and who was more enterprising. She also bemoaned the fact that "consumption politics" had swallowed earlier forms of pan-African solidarity, leading to jealousy and rivalries.
Olukoshi said poverty was a domestic challenge for his country too. "If Nigeria functioned just 50 percent better than it does today, it could have a huge impact," he said.
Tracing Nigeria's solidarity with the African National Congress from the mid-1970s, Olukoshi said Nigerians were left wondering what had happened to their relationship with the organisation that came into power in South Africa after the democratic elections of 1994.
The speed at which visa regimes had solidified after the fall of apartheid had shocked Nigerians, said Olukoshi. "It's easy for an American to get in to South Africa. A Nigerian cannot - with or without a yellow fever card," he said, referring to the recent dispute between Pretoria and Abuja over vaccination certificates.
"The visa regime on this continent is totally unacceptable," said Olukoshi. "South Africa and Nigeria can take the leadership role on this matter."
Calling on the two countries to address the governance challenges they each faced, he suggested that there were measures that governments could take at all levels. He lamented the lack of visionary leadership on the continent and said that a significant symbolic gesture could go a long way in "re-setting" and harmonising the relationship between South Africa and Nigeria.
Mlambo-Ngcuka said South Africa had much to do in order to ensure that it did not apply double standards in how it treated visitors from different parts of the continent. She added, however, that she was uncomfortable with the idea that Nigeria and South Africa were being described as the two giants of Africa as this encouraged greater rivalry.
"Do we want to be pushing this notion? It comes at the expense of solidarity between the two countries when we rather need to work together on behalf of Africa."
Olukoshi said that in the context of current global challenges and threats, South Africa and Nigeria - as well as other African countries - should develop better methods of co-operation.