President Cyril Ramaphosa moved to try arrest the deteriorating relations between South Africa and Nigeria. Picture: Kopano Tlape/GCIS

Abuja - President Cyril Ramaphosa on Wednesday moved to try arrest the deteriorating relations between South Africa and Nigeria, as the tension between the two powerful countries was hurting South African businesses in the federal state.

On Wednesday, Ramaphosa paid a courtesy visit to his counterpart in the north African country, Muhammadu Buhari, to discuss economic relations between Africa's largest economies, amid concerns among Nigerians over the safety of their citizens in South Africa.

A high ranking South African diplomat in Nigeria said Pretoria was concerned that Nigerian authorities were deliberately sabotaging South African companies ­- such as MTN - with the aim of kicking them out of the country.

The South African government was also worried that a perception had taken root in Nigeria and among Nigerians in South Africa that South Africans were hostile to Nigerians, and that law enforcement authorities were not dealing with attacks on Nigerians.

"There is a perception by Nigerians that South Africans don't love Nigerians. Even in the Nigerian Parliament the safety of Nigerians in the diaspora gets debated. It is a serious issue that we have," he said.

"The Nigerians need us and we need their market of 200 million people," he added.

The senior official said Nigerian officials were frustrating SA businesses. 

In October 2015, the Federal Government of Nigeria fined MTN $5.2 billion for failing to disconnect subscribers with unregistered and incomplete sim cards.

"What the Nigerians have since done is to come up with with mechanisms to frustrate South African can companies. The penalty against MTN was meant to make sure that they pack up their bags and leave. How do you explain the $5 billion?" he said.

"The fact that we don't have an ambassador in Nigeria is also another challenge," he added.

South African relations with Nigeria have been at a low since the days of former Nigerian president Olusegun Obasanjo, who ruled the country until 2007.

Former President Nelson Mandela had raised the ire of the Nigerian government when he challenged its former president Sani Abacha in the 1990s.

Police Minister Bheki Cele told journalists that it was not true that police targeted Nigerians.

Cele, who accompanied Ramaphosa, said they dealt with crime irrespective of a person's nationality.

Speaking earlier in Nigeria's capital, Abuja, Ramaphosa condemned xenophobic attacks on foreign nationals, and made an undertaking that one of the issues he will discuss with Buhari is the safety of Nigerians.

Ramaphosa, who also has Defence Minister Nosiviwe Mapisa Ngcakula and Energy Minister Jeff Radebe in his delegation, among others, said he wanted to see relations between Nigeria and South Africa improve "exponentially".

Earlier Ramaphosa participated in a panel discussion during the annual meeting of the African Export-Import Bank (Afreximbank) at the Hilton hotel in Abuja.

During the discussion, Ramaphosa had to field a difficult question from one of the Nigeria's investors, Uju Ifejika, an oil trader, who said she would not invest in South Africa because of attacks on Nigerians.

"The continent is looking at an agreement that will address the movement of people. We (South Africa) have become an oasis that has attracted a lot of people into our country and it gives rise to a number of challenges. One of the challenges that we are having to deal with as a country is safety and security of our people as a whole," Ramaphosa said.

"Yes, South Africans have been exposed to unsafe environments. They have been exposed to criminality and we have historically had a number of challenges in this regard. But to overlay on this, we have also had a huge challenge of unemployment, and people have tended to react in a way where they want to safeguard their interests and have expressed their fears and their concerns through xenophobic type attacks on other people," he said.

"Our government has been clear and strong on this. We will act against anyone who seeks to attack anybody on the basis of their race, their origin or the way they look. We are very clear on that...In terms of safety and security, our safety and security institutions are now taking serious action against people who resort to criminality. I have brought with me here ministers who deal with safety and security matters."

Ramaphosa reiterated that relations between the two powerful countries would have improved by the end of the visit. 

Political Bureau