It is said that when two elephants fight, only the grass suffers. Given the challenges facing the African continent, we simply cannot afford for this to happen.

Therefore, I am glad the South African government has made an unreserved apology to the Nigerian government for the high handed and inconsiderate manner in which 125 Nigerians were treated recently at OR Tambo International Airport (Back from brink as SA apologises to Nigeria, March 9). I am sure the apology has been accepted in the spirit in which it was given.

Nigeria and SA need to work together. Bodies such as bilateral commissions are important, but not enough. Mutual respect is essential. The perspective held by some South Africans - that Nigeria is a corrupt lawless country where rules can be bent and all Nigerians are 419ers - is neither true nor helpful. Neither is the view that SA is a xenophobic, violent country still controlled by a corrupt untransformed white elite bent on using undereducated black politicians to further a neo-colonial agenda.

Although perceptions can be strong, as a Nigerian who over the past 17 years has worked very closely with senior members of the African National Congress-led South African government and the business community, they can also be wrong.

Irrespective of the high quality of my personal experience, it is not a full data sample and therefore isn't of much value in the context of how a lot of Nigerians perceive SA.

In the African context, Nigeria and SA are giants. Neither country is likely to back down to the other. There will always be tension as a result of the rivalry both countries feel as they vie to extend their spheres of influence.

However, this has to be managed and the bigger picture must always be kept in the frame. Both countries have high unemployment and have some way to go if they are to meet the United Nations (UN) Millennium Development Goals. The majority of citizens of both countries are very poor. They are the grass that will suffer most if the elephants fight.

Commerce is the engine of development. Therefore rather than put up bureaucratic obstacles - such as making it mutually difficult to obtain visas and other documents - both governments should do whatever they can to enhance trade, cultural relations and understanding. African countries need to move away from irresponsible actions towards each other and realise that when they do this they play into the hands of parties that may be keen to encourage this. Despite their quest for a permanent UN Security Council seat, the recent debacle over the presidency of the African Union Commission and differences of opinion over Libya and Côte d'Ivoire, both countries need to step back and lead the continent by example.

This will require better communication and understanding. This is the time to press the reset button.

C Charles Okeahalam

Johannesburg