At the 66th Annual Grammy Awards, South African sensation Tyla won in the “Best African Music Performance” category, beating out four Nigerian heavyweights. Naturally, the episode kicked off another round of cultural jousting between Nigeria and South Africa—plenty of it was good-natured, but an equal amount of it veered toward chauvinism. It didn’t help that a few days later the Super Eagles and Bafana Bafana clashed in the semi-finals of the 2023 AFCON, and in the build-up, many billed it as an occasion for the two continental powerhouses to “settle matters.”
This prompted the question: settle what, exactly? Until now, the trouble with the long-standing rivalry between Nigeria and South Africa is that it has felt so infantile and internecine, lacking both amiable qualities of geopolitical-relatives dynamics or the ideological charge of great power competition. There’s a sense in which all of this ultimately feels like a projection of deep-seated insecurity, a petty dispute with no clear stakes. Who cares if Nigeria makes better amapiano than South Africa? Who cares if it’s the other way around?
Of course, petty disputes aren’t necessarily without consequences. On this score, South Africa stands most guilty of turning the rivalry deadly. The country’s reputation for xenophobia precedes it, but now a wave of right-wing populism has produced numerous political outfits keen to further entrench it in state policy. In January, one of these political hopefuls, Gayton McKenzie—the gangster-turned-politician who is now the frontman for the far-right party the Patriotic Alliance—provocatively tweeted that “Cape Town is the new Lagos.” Okay, this is the usual dog whistle that “Nigerians are taking over,” but it’s also kind of a self-own. If the complaint is that Nigerians are prolific in a city famously inaccessible to its black majority, defined by apartheid-era spatial inequality (and a European and American expat-driven housing bubble that’s pricing out locals), then this is an implicit admission that Nigerians are doing a better job at decolonizing it.
A day before the AFCON semi-final tie in Bouake, things were not looking good for Lagos-Cape Town—or following McKenzie, Lagos-New Lagos—relations. The Nigeria High Commission in Pretoria issued an advisory to Nigerians in South Africa, calling on them to “refrain from engaging in loud, riotous, or provocative celebrations should the Super Eagles win the match.” Several South Africans were incensed at the suggestion that locals would be hostile after a defeat. Head of Public Diplomacy at South Africa’s foreign ministry, Clayson Monyela, took to X to express his irritation, calling it an “unfortunate and regrettable statement.” Predictably, some of the replies to his tweet suggested that caution from the High Commission wasn’t so far-fetched.
And then, defeat came. I expected South Africans to be bitter. As Sean Jacobs notes, the country has been riding a wave after a number of triumphs on the international stage—sporting and otherwise. On the streets, South Africans rallied behind Bafana Bafana in ways not seen for a long time. Expectations were high, national pride soaring.
To my surprise, we were gracious in defeat. In victory, Nigerians were boastful and playfully smug. The memes were prolific and immaculate. Tyla’s Grammy win was immaterial, and Nigerians confidently declared that it was “Ourpiano.” South Africans wryly took it on the chin and mourned all our losses to the Nigerians, including but not limited to women and cities. The best was a meme going around that “Oluwanelson Rolihlanlha Ayomandela” was the first president of Nigeria from 1994 to 1999. Even onlookers, like the Kenyans, sensed something special was going on. I was perplexed. Was hearty banter the vehicle for West-South healing and reconciliation? Was the rivalry finally en route to being defanged?
Our staff writer, Khanya Mtshali, put it best when she tweeted that “Ironic rainbowism during sporting events is the new nation-building.” There is a way in which, as continental powers, South Africans and Nigerians take themselves too seriously. Debates over who took amapiano “global,” for example, still center on Western affirmation as the prize. While Tinubu gets international praise for his economic reforms, the cost of living crisis they’re prompting is hidden from view. When people fawn over South Africa’s robust democracy, the widening social cleavages they permit can get masked. In Africa (as in everywhere), there is ultimately little to distinguish us, and thus there is little to feel superior about. The ironic spirit, with its playful ambivalence about questions of identity and belonging, puts things at a distance from exceptionalism and its inevitable self-deceptions.
In Côte d’Ivoire, we asked many people how it was possible that a country that’s suffered two civil wars in the last 25 years could overcome its trauma. The answers were always along the lines of: Ivorians like to laugh and hold things lightly. By no means are the Ivorians unique in this disposition, but it is interesting to see it worn as a national badge of honor. I can’t say anything about the quality of their memes though. Boima Tucker tells me they’re great, so it’s too bad they evade us Anglophones. However, when the Super Eagles lose this Sunday, I’m sure the Nigerians will be grateful for that.
Allez les éléphants!