Somalis Fear South African Violence More Than War at Home

Franz Wild, Bloomberg, October 22, 2013

Ali Omar Mohamed fled Somalia’s civil war two years ago to seek a better life in South Africa. Now after being robbed at gunpoint and seeing scores of his countrymen murdered in xenophobic violence, he’s ready to leave.

Mohammed, a 21-year-old shopkeeper, is part of a growing tide of immigrants who say they prefer returning to a war zone rather than face the hatred and jealousy they are subject to in South Africa where they’re called “the enemy.”

“It’s better to die in your country where your mother and father can see you and not worry so much,” said Mohamed, who sleeps in a small room attached to the shop in the northern Johannesburg shantytown of Diepsloot. “As soon as possible, I’ll go back.”

About 2,000 Somalis, or almost 8 percent of those living in South Africa, have returned home this year as parts of the Horn of Africa country become more stable after African Uniontroops drove Islamist militants out of the biggest towns, the mission head of Somalia’s embassy in the capital, Pretoria, Mohamed Ali Mire, said in an Oct. 9 interview.

Over the past six months, disputes between Somali shopkeepers and South Africans have deteriorated into looting and burning sprees of dozens of stores in parts of Johannesburg and the coastal city of Port Elizabeth, according to police.

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Somalis and Pakistanis, who’re able to tap their close-knit communities for capital to start businesses, dominate convenience stores known as spaza shops in townships and shantytowns on the outskirts of South Africa’s major cities.

Conspicuous by their distinctive languages and Muslim religion in a mainly Christian country, their business acumen has stoked jealousy among many citizens in South Africa, where one-in-four are unemployed.

“There are too many foreigners here, they undercut everyone. Every corner, there is a Somali shop,” Magdalene Thabana, 56, said as she sat on a red plastic stool selling bags of scones across the road from Mohamed’s store. “I don’t have enough money to start a shop.”

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A wave of xenophobic violence led to about 60 deaths, including some Somalis, and as many as 50,000 people being forced to flee their homes and shops in 2008. Since then, Somalis have been the hardest hit by outbreaks of xenophobic violence, police spokeswoman Brigadier Marinda Mills said in a phone interview.

While South Africa’s murder rate has dropped by more than half to 31.1 per 100,000 people since 1995, it remains six times higher than that of the U.S.

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In Gauteng, South Africa’s most populous province that includes the metropolitan sprawl of Johannesburg and Pretoria, 7.1 percent of the 12.3 million population are foreign nationals, according to data from a 2011 census.

While the majority of Somali emigrants are in neighboring countries such as Kenya, they make up the second-largest group of refugees and asylum-seekers in South Africa after Zimbabweans, data from the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees shows. {snip}

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In South Africa, the situation for Somalis is deteriorating.

“Somalis are subjected to a high rate of fatalities and loss of livelihoods,” Munyaneza said in an interview. “This is unprecedented. They’re being attacked with impunity. The Somalis are the ones who are the hardest hit amongst the foreigners.”

Somali Prime Minister Abdi Farah Shirdon wrote to South African President Jacob Zuma in June to urge him to contain violence against his countrymen.

Somalis have increasingly been denied legal documents from South Africa’s Department of Home Affairs in breach of agreements such as the 1951 Refugee Convention, Amir Sheikh, the chairman of the Somali Community Board, which represents Somalis in South Africa, said in an Oct. 9 interview at his office in Johannesburg mainly Muslim suburb of Mayfair.

For many Somalis, returning home is now a safer choice than remaining in South Africa.

“They are tired of the on-going xenophobic attacks, and the constant hurting and maiming of Somalis,” Sheikh said. “It’s better to go home and die in dignity than to die far away from home.”

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