Johannesburg, South Africa—In the early stages of Somalia’s civil war, most people had only two options, says Hadith Oslan, a Somali refugee living in Cape Town: to fight or to run. Oslan chose to run, fleeing his country’s political turmoil. “I thought I would be safer here,” he says.
Oslan (26) left Somalia and his family in 2003, moving to neighbouring Kenya. After saving enough money, he arrived in Cape Town in February 2005 and settled near Bellville. But routine threats and harassment by South Africans who saw him as a foreigner forced him to move to the predominantly Xhosa Masiphumelele informal settlement near Fishoek.
In June 2006, after finally scraping together R35 000, Oslan was able to buy a small grocery shop in the township—the Mandela Cash Store.
But two months later, a mob swept through the township, looting and destroying Somali-owned businesses. Caught in the rampage, Oslan was on the run again.
“At about 8pm we closed the shop and were preparing to sleep,” says Oslan, recalling the night of violence. “A [Somali] lady from across the street came and said people had just ransacked her shop.
“The mob then came to us … they had pangas and knives and were throwing stones … they were breaking gates and windows,” he said.
“There were maybe about a hundred people, and we were only two guys in the shop.”
Still afraid for his life, and having lost almost everything, Oslan says quietly, “I have nothing to go back for.”
Recent media reports estimate that over 30 Somalis have been attacked and killed in South Africa in 2006—the last incident took place on September 30 in Cape Town’s Delft South—and Oslan counts himself lucky just to be alive.
Ahmed Dawlo, director of the Somali Association of South Africa, said that attacks on Somalis have increased since 1997, when the first case was reported in the Port Elizabeth area.
“People are very fearful … Cape Town was not the first place … In the beginning, killings were one a month or so … but now, it is just out of proportion,” Dawlo told the Mail & Guardian Online.
A statement from the South African Human Rights Commission said the pattern of “xenophobic outbreaks” had recently “assumed national proportions”.
Attacks on Somalis have been recorded in Knysna, Stellenbosch in the Western Cape, Uitenhage in the Eastern Cape, Diepsloot in Gauteng and Khutsong in the Free State, among others.
According to Department of Home Affairs spokesperson Nkosana Sibuyi, most Somalis are in South Africa as refugees or asylum seekers and reside in townships and informal settlements around the country.
Dawlo, who works and lives in Johannesburg, said townships pose greater risks to Somalis because of the language and culture discrepancies, which appear more noticeable in these areas. He said metropolitan areas, which are generally more cosmopolitan, make foreigners feel safer.
Many Somalis feel they are being targeted, at least partly because of their dissimilarity from South Africans.
Oslan agreed, recalling that the mob only targeted and attacked Somali shop owners in Masiphumelele. “There are only three [Somali-owned] shops left of the 27 that were there.”
The Department of Home Affairs attributes the recent attacks to xenophobia, saying that the “hatred of the non-nationals” within the country was a driving force, but also added that business competition is a major source of discontent among many South Africans.
“Somalis have made a name for themselves [and] because they make more money than some South Africans, people feel they are taking over their jobs,” said Dawlo.
Mohamed Ebrahim Afaare, chairperson of the Somali Community Forum (SCF) in Rustenburg in North West province, said Somali entrepreneurs live in fear of being robbed or attacked.
Because of safety concerns, Afaare also had to close his grocery shop in 2005.
“Each and every customer, we think they will rob us,” he said.
“The resentment towards refugees and asylum seekers manifests itself in different negative xenophobic stereotypes,” Sibuyi said,
“Generally, the atmosphere among South Africans is that they are sceptical of foreigners,” Dawlo said, adding that the stereotypes of foreigners being corrupt and dangerous add to them being mistrusted and persecuted.
Dawlo in part blames the media for perpetuating these stereotypes, saying the systematic negative portrayal of foreigners contributes to the culture of intolerance.
Marivic Garcia, a social worker with the Victim Empowerment Programme at the Centre for the Study of Violence and Reconciliation agreed, saying “media reporting does add somewhat to that growing anger because what it reports is more around the negative things. And that’s what sticks in people’s minds.”
Dr Loren Landau, director of Wits University’s Forced Migration Programme, said many South Africans feel it would be better not to have foreigners around.
Garcia said South Africans tend to look inwards and protect themselves from the “other”, and in economically difficult situations, the “other” becomes the foreigner.
She explained that under apartheid, South Africa was sealed off to the rest of the world. Since democracy, there has been a sudden influx of foreigners and this led to many people feeling threatened by this virtually unknown “other”.
Dawlo, however, said this was not necessarily true, as “Asian and white foreign business people are accepted by the community, just not black foreigners”.
“Most people have these ideas and stereotypes about foreigners, Zimbabweans coming to take their jobs and Nigerians being drug dealers, but European tourists bring skills … We should be seen as bringing skills and services, not intruding or being associated with drugs and violence.”
Landau said South Africans were “historically conditioned” to react to the rest of Africa as being more “primitive, violent and corrupt”. He explained that Europeans appear as less of a threat to the communities where these attacks occur, because their presence is less often felt.
“Who [do] the majority of communities interact with? In Yeoville and Hillbrow, it’s not Europeans,” Landau said. “A German who moves to Cape Town and starts a consulting business is not a threat to a normal shop owner”, but a Somali shop owner probably is.
Garcia, who offers counselling to displaced people, said because of the legislation around refugees and asylum seekers, these groups become even more vulnerable to attack.
There are currently about 6 313 Somali refugees, and 17 196 Somali asylum seekers in South Africa, according to Sibuyi.
Regarding the processing of applications for all refugee’s and asylum seekers in general, Sibuyi said the total backlog amounted to over 90 000 cases, as at the end of August 2006.
“New arrivals can’t get asylum-seeker permits immediately, they just get a piece of paper with a stamp … some stay on the waiting lists for months [before they get the proper documentation],” Garcia said.
Oslan said it took him three months to get his asylum-seeker permit, and he is still awaiting official refugee status.
Without papers, asylum seekers cannot apply to have bank accounts, Garcia said, so they keep all their money on their premises, and this makes them obvious targets for attack. “I have clients who have been targeted by robbers … they are targets for crime,” she said.
Sibuyi said that many banks are reluctant to allow asylum seekers to open accounts, as the documents they possess do not have a 13-digit identity number required by most South African institutions.
Afaare, who started the SCF to work on obtaining rights for Somali refugees, said that another problem with having no documentation is that they are not able to apply for gun permits, making them defenceless in the event of an attack.
“There is no way for us to protect ourselves … so it is easy for them to rob us,” he said.
Garcia explained that since there is not a lot of official awareness about these temporary documents, many refugees are ignored by the system or “they fall through the cracks”.
Sibuyi said the department was in the process of informing official institutions about the documents refugees and asylum seekers possess, so that there is more understanding regarding their needs.
The government has also recently started initiatives aimed at the rapid reduction of refugee backlogs, as well as implementing counter-xenophobic strategies around the country.
But, as Garcia said: “Home affairs has an anti-xenophobia campaign within the department, but is it really working?
“How legislation is implemented [is important],” she said. “How can things be solved if there is corruption and misinterpretation on the ground?”
And in the meantime, Somali refugees who fled to South Africa for safety are just as afraid for their lives.
“We don’t hurt anybody, and we don’t know why we were attacked … Now we cannot work and live freely, because we are working with fear,” said Oslan.