How hospitable are Somalis

Fear of bare existence

Rumors in the streets, reports in the media: After the World Cup, South Africa is threatened with a new wave of xenophobic attacks. So far, the horror scenario has not materialized, but the warnings are not entirely unfounded.

We made an appointment with Abdinasir Ahmed from the Somali Association in South Africa (SASA) in the Johannesburg district of Mayfair. The quarter is also known as "Little Mogadishu". Because it is a stronghold of immigrants from Somalia. Abdinasir, a journalism student, is a volunteer at SASA, an organization run by Somalis that supports their compatriots. He receives us in a sparsely furnished office. Behind him on the wall are a few posters from the South African Ministry of the Interior condemning xenophobia and calling for tolerance.

Half empty shelves in Somali stores

Abdinasir comes straight to the point. In a calm tone, he reports what is burning on his nails: The Somalis in South Africa are constantly exposed to attacks. 2008 was by far the worst year for South Africa's migrants. In May, the mob against foreigners raged in the Johannesburg township of Alexandra. From there, the unrest spread to many other townships in the country. According to the police, 62 people were killed and 100,000 were evicted from their homes.

But even before 2008, says Abdinasir, the Somali community in South Africa experienced xenophobic attacks. In 2006 alone, 120 Somalis lost their lives in the Western Cape Province. Now the fear is growing that a new wave of violence could roll in after the soccer World Cup.

Many Somali business people are concerned and are reluctant to buy new goods, so the shelves in many stores are half empty. They want to be prepared, says Abdinasir, if riots break out. What is the fear based on? More and more Somalis who are threatened by South Africans are reporting to SASA. Foreigners are said to be evicted from their shops and homes after the World Cup when the international public's attention wanes.

SASA wants to "build bridges between South Africans and Somalis," explains Abdinasir. A soccer tournament has recently been organized for this purpose and the public is informed about the life of the Somali community in South Africa via the Internet and at information stands.

"Yes, we Somalis are enterprising," explains the thin young man. “We arrive in South Africa with nothing, bare feet, driven away by the civil war that has been raging for years at home in Somalia. We don't drink alcohol and we don't gamble away our money. We save everything and invest it in our business. But we're not taking away the work of the South Africans, as many claim, they even work in our shops. «Abdinasir is convinced that South Africans are hospitable. In his view, the violence against Somalis is politically motivated.

The government has not remained inactive after the xenophobic riots in 2008. Special units were formed and intelligence work in the townships was intensified. The army and police are currently even more present. Their presence is intended to show that, unlike in 2008, the state is prepared and that this time around unrest is to be answered quickly and hard.

Politicians distract from their own failure

Abdinasir thinks that is not enough. There is a lack of educational opportunities in the townships that educate people to be tolerant, he complains, visibly disappointed. Above all, there is a lack of consistent persecution of political leaders who sow hatred against migrants. In Port Elizabeth, in the Eastern Cape Province, he said a member of the local council threatened Somalis with eviction if they did not close their shops themselves.

Elections to the municipal, city and district parliaments will take place in South Africa next year. Some politicians raise the mood for themselves with xenophobic slogans. The allegation that the migrants are stealing work and accommodation from the locals is also intended to distract from their own failure, as many are more concerned with doing business in their own pockets than the problems of the people, the lack of water, electricity and education to solve. The migrants are used as scapegoats.

Walk through "Little Mogadishu"

Abdinasir takes us on a tour of “Little Mogadishu”. The city's Somalis come together in this small Johannesburg neighborhood. Here in the community they feel safer. However, they are also exposed to assaults and xenophobic rioting in "Little Mogadishu".

On the streets we meet women in their traditional long robes in muted colors, mostly brown or gray. Most women’s faces are unveiled, as is customary in Somalia. Men dominate the street scene. They stand in front of the shops and talk in Somali, which is related to Arabic.

Abdinasir leads us down a small shopping street that looks like an Arab souk: one shop follows the other. The shops sell fabrics, cheap shoes, electronics and other everyday items. Of course, there are also small telephone shops from which you can inexpensively call home, Somalia, or anywhere else. At the end of the small street is the outwardly unadorned mosque. It is housed in a former warehouse. We look into the extension and see a green tiled room where the ablutions take place before prayer.

From the mosque we continue to a large hall. Abdinasir keeps shaking hands briefly. He is known in the neighborhood. Outside the hall is the inscription »Shopping Center«, lots of cars are parked in front of it and at the main entrance we have to squeeze past the big BMW of a very enterprising Somali. Inside the complex there are numerous shops with the well-known range of goods. It's still pretty quiet on Monday lunchtime. "In the afternoon, when it gets warmer, everything in the neighborhood is on the street," says Abdinasir.

He shows us the »Kismayo« restaurant, which is located in the heart of the shopping center. In addition to a large bar, there are several tables and chairs in an inner courtyard. They are all lined up so that you can see the big TV. The Arab news channel »Al-Jazeera« is currently on. Traditional Somali cuisine is served in the restaurant and of course you can also have a »qaxwo«, Somali coffee, here.

We want to know from Abdinasir whether you can also get khat, the traditional drug in the Horn of Africa. At first he doesn't seem to have understood, when asked he presses around a bit, after all he told us in his office that the Somalis don't drink alcohol and that is why they are so efficient. In short and very quietly, he finally admits that there are probably some who chew khat. But they are very isolated in the neighborhood. Later he shows us the shop that sells the drug.

Are Somalis persecuted in South Africa for their Islamic beliefs? Abdinasir answers the question in the negative. The fact that Somalis are Muslims does not play a role in the attacks. "Muslims have been living in South Africa since the British colonial era."

For a place on the rag rug

On the way back from "Little Mogadishu" we drive towards the Oriental Plaza. Above all, South Africans of Indian origin live here. The country has long been a patchwork of diverse population groups. After the end of apartheid, new patches were added - Africans from all sorts of countries. Abdinasir is fighting to ensure that Somalis also find a place on this carpet. Many of his compatriots just want to leave because of the threats.

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