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.”
Two diplomats from the Nigerian High Commission who accompanied Ibrahim to the news conference at South Africa’s foreign ministry refused to comment beyond a joint statement that described tit-for-tat deportations. The two countries say the incidents will not affect their relations.
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.
Associated Press writer Bashir Adigun contributed to this report from Abuja, Nigeria.