Why Somali workers are the targets of violence in South Africa
By Robyn Dixon
The township was burning. A mob of protesters sprang up quickly that wintry June day in Atteridgeville, outside Pretoria, South Africa.
Ahmed Hashe was serving a customer in his small grocery shop when he saw them surging down the street, and he knew they were coming for him. They were carrying machetes, bars, knives, sticks and rocks, and they had blocked the roads.
The crowd had originally come together to demonstrate against the governing party’s mayoral candidate. But as political protests often do in South Africa, the gathering swiftly degenerated into frenzied looting of foreign-owned shops. Gleeful citizens carted away stolen groceries and furniture, including commercial fridges. Dozens of shops were smashed and ruined. Some were burned as a pall of black smoke rose over the neighborhood.
The 28-year-old Somali shopkeeper abandoned everything and ran, but he fell.
The protesters smashed his face with a rock, breaking his jaw, stabbed him in the back and left him for dead.
Shops like Hashe’s are frequently the target of violence in South Africa. Although unemployment among South Africans ages 15 to 34 is 37.5%, young Somali refugees find work quickly, usually by working in a spaza shop – a convenience store that sells basic groceries – owned by another Somali. It’s a tough and dangerous life, but after a few years, they can save the money to start up their own shops.
Their steady success breeds resentment.
Researchers say that local politicians and community business groups encourage the violence against the foreigners’ shops. There were 1,993 incidents of crowd violence in 2015 — five on any given day — according to police statistics, compared with 660 cases in 2004. About 1,500 Somalis have been killed violently since 2002, mainly in robberies and xenophobic attacks, according to the Somali Community Board of South Africa, which tracks the deaths. South African police do not track xenophobic attacks or foreigners killed.
Hashe woke the evening of the attack in a hospital bed, his eyes tiny slits in a swollen face. The only reason he survived was that the mob thought he was dead. His cousin, Hamza Farah Ibrahim, survived too. Ibrahim fled his own shop, Good Lucky Supermarket, and picked Hashe up.
Hashe’s friend, Shukri Shariff, had been beaten and killed by a mob in 2014, so he knew he was lucky to have survived. He recovered in a small room in a Somali boarding house, with medicines, milk and juice by his bed and a copy of the Koran by his pillow.
Many Somalis have lost their shops more than once. Abdul Khadir Farah, a 50-year-old father of five, has lost three shops to looting, has been robbed five times, and was left with a broken femur after being shot in April 2015. His shop was completely destroyed in Atteridgeville in June, leaving just a vacant block.
“I thought we’d be killed, 100%. And I’ve got a family to feed.” He sighs softly and shakes his head slowly. “So I’m a loser. I think a lot. I don’t sleep well. I think where will I start?
“They discriminate against you, isolate you. I feel pain, but I don’t have a voice to say anything back to them.”
Nine of Suleiman Hussein’s relatives have died in violent attacks. He left Somalia at age 19 in 1996, after his mother and brother were killed there. Now, as the chairman of the Pretoria branch of the Somali Community Board of South Africa, he is often called to collect the wounded and dying after attacks, including robberies.
Since 2009, based first in Port Elizabeth on the southern coast and later in Pretoria, Hussein has picked up 51 Somalis after violence; 21 of them died of their wounds.
“If Somalis get killed, no one asks, no one cares,” Hussein said. “Somalis often know who the attackers are, but they can’t go to court because they will be killed the next morning.”
In 2013, four desperate Somali brothers were trapped in their shop by a mob in Booysens Park township near Port Elizabeth. In a typical pattern, that protest began with a local issue — anger about local criminals. Police could not control the mob. Protesters turned vigilante and killed two alleged South African thieves before attacking Somali shopkeepers.
“We couldn’t get to them because there was a big mob with machetes,” said Hussein, who was standing with other Somalis about 150 yards away. “We were calling them on their phones, ‘Come out.’ They said, ‘No, we cannot.’” Members of the crowd poured gasoline on the shop and set it alight, and the four brothers tried to flee through the crowd.
“They broke the back door and they started running,” said Hussein. “[The crowd] caught one and cut his head with machetes. He fell down, got up, fell down, got up and thank god, we got him. But one went to the wrong side. The mob caught him. They took all his clothes and then stoned him to death and hacked him with machetes. His head was cut in two.” The other three men escaped.
After the looting of Atteridgeville, Mandla Matikinya of the ANC Youth League told the Daily Sun newspaper that looting foreign shops during protests was acceptable because it conveyed grass-roots discontent about local issues to national authorities.
“It’s OK because we can’t go to break schools and churches or our own shops. We are blocking the streets and break Somalians or foreigners’ spaza shop,” Matikinya said.
Matikinya’s view is “not an aberration” but part of local political culture, according to Loren B. Landau and Jean Pierre Misago, researchers at the Center for Migration and Society at the University of Witwatersrand. They say that local politicians drum up violent protests to attract attention and funding from municipal, provincial and national governments. Discrimination by police or local authorities fuels xenophobia, they argue.
“The simple answer is that local leaders need protests to maintain their power and legitimacy. And the protesters need to be fed. Looting is the way to fill their stomachs.
“If we understand protesters as infantry working for local leaders, looting sustains a mercenary army. Given the reluctance of police or citizens to aid foreign shopkeepers, they are easy targets,” they wrote in a June 30 article. “The benefit of pillage rapidly becomes an end in itself.”
One local political activist, who isn’t named, explains to the researchers, “We need the protesters to make our point, but when they are hungry they go and get food from shops to eat or take home to cook.”
After the June attacks, Small Business Development Minister Lindiwe Zulu blamed community leaders for orchestrating the attacks “for their own selfish interests.”
The biggest national wave of xenophobic violence swept South Africa in 2008, when more than 60 people were killed, but Somali traders say the pressure is constant. They say they have to pay bribes demanded by local police, and protection money to local thugs. Attacks are often orchestrated by rival South African shopkeepers, according to police. In the past, community business groups have called meetings and stirred up anger, sometimes for several weeks before attacks happen. In some cases, they have driven around townships in a convoy, ordering foreigners to close.
Ibrahim, the owner of Good Lucky Supermarket, saw his shops looted and ruined in 2004, 2008 and 2016, and was kidnapped for extortion in 2012.
“I came to South Africa just to save my life, but it’s worse than my country. I’d rather die in my country,” he said mournfully.
His cousin Hashe, the shopkeeper nearly killed in Atteridgeville, has also faced violent robberies. In 2013, he and his Somali partner woke up in their shop in the middle of the night to find a gun pointing at their heads. He was hit three times on his face with a rifle butt. One of the four robbers took flammable liquid and threatened to burn the two Somalis, so he told them where the money and cellphones were hidden.
“They started arguing. Some said, ‘Let’s burn them.’ We pleaded with them. You can’t cry. It will make things worse. You can only beg them not to kill you.
“They say, ‘You are Somalis, you are doing wrong and you are not supposed to be in South Africa.’ We can’t even respond to that. We just keep quiet.”