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Xenophobia: Somalis seek safety in numbers

July 7th, 2010 by Posted in English, South Africa

Somalis are fleeing to Johannesburg’s “Little Mogadishu” following threats of more attacks on foreign nationals after the World Cup.

By Nicole Johnston
Regional Media Coordinator Oxfam

Each evening in Mayfair’s “Little Mogadishu” in Johannesburg, the call to prayer drifts above the streets. Men hurry to mosque and hijab-clad women head home to prepare the evening meal. After prayers, men congregate in Somali restaurants and coffee shops, usually talking about business and news from home over a cup of qaxwo (Somali coffee). Recently, though, the talk has shifted.

Now, worries over intimidation of Somali traders in the townships and the threat of renewed xenophobic attacks after the World Cup are what dominate conversations. Trucks have been pulling up outside the houses of friends and relatives in the neighbourhood, Somali traders unpacking beds, TVs and sometimes the entire stock of their shops for safekeeping until, they hope, the danger has passed.

“These are the people who experienced the worst of the xenophobia in 2008,” said Amir Sheikh of the Somali Community Board. “They know if it starts again how it will end.”

Two years ago Somalis were murdered, beaten and had their shops looted and razed. Most arrived in South Africa with nothing, built up businesses rapidly due to their famed entrepreneurial drive and then lost it all in the attacks.

“Last time they lost everything and had to start from scratch. They can’t start over again and again — so they feel this is their only option,” said Sheikh.

Apart from losing their homes and businesses, many Somalis have suffered losses that cannot be replaced. Ebrahim Mohamed Ali’s brother was murdered in the bloody attacks in Johannesburg. The brothers had been here for 10 years and ran a panel-beating business in Newtown, employing 15 South Africans. A mob destroyed all their equipment, torched their clients’ cars and killed his brother.

Unable ever to feel safe in that area again, Ali moved to Mayfair where he opened a Somali coffee shop and employs three South Africans. Now he serves qaxwo and a delicious cake called doolsho in a community where he feels there is safety in numbers and where he is not constantly reminded that he does not belong.

“My features are like those of South Africans,” he said, with a chuckle. “I am a Bantu Somali. When I walk down the street, they think I am a Zulu. But then they speak to me and, when I open my mouth, they know I do not belong to them. Then they swear and say: ‘Fucking foreigner, we will kill you all.’

“We left our country because of war, but everywhere … they do not want us. Where can we go? Where can we be safe?”

Sheikh said that, while they hoped the threats were empty, people were not prepared to take chances. They had been told, “Once the World Cup is over, you will be gone. You have overstayed your welcome.”

But the threat was not just from ordinary township residents, said Sheik.

“The difference between now and 2008 is that this time the threats are institutionalised — they are coming from ward councillors and civic organisations.”

The result, he said, was that Somalis “are selling their shops at throwaway prices and moving out. They come to Mayfair because they feel safe. There is a large Somali community here and their friends can put them up. They feel this is their only option.”

But even in Mayfair they are not entirely safe. Every Somali I met complained that the police routinely harassed them and extorted bribes.

“They use us as an ATM,” said “Abdi”, who didn’t want to use his real name for fear of reprisals. “They come in here, especially on Fridays when they want money for the weekend. They know we have cash because of our businesses, so they can ask for R1 000 or R2 000 and you have to give them. What can you do?”

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