Xenophobia and the plight of Somalis in South Africa

KC JOURNAL NO 20 November 2008

In this article Dawlo discusses how Somalis have tried to make SA their home, and the xenophobia meted out to them especially because they are small traders.


Somalia does not have a diplomatic representation in South Africa. The central government of Somalia has disintegrated long before South Africa become democratic. Somalis started streaming into South Africa from 1993 due to the civil war that plagued their country. The Somali Association of South Africa (SASA) was established out of necessity for a voice, in June

  1. It was formed by a group of Somalis living in Johannesburg, professionals, business people and community elders. Soon the mobilisation spread to other provinces. Despite its humble beginnings, SASA has filled the absent role of Somalia’s diplomatic representation. SASA liaised with SA government departments, diplomatic corps, international NGO’s, local NGO’s, civil society and others, on matters concerning the Somali community. Today, SASA has a large membership, five functional offices and a huge network of individuals.

SASA has worked on five themes: assisting Somali refugees to manage their lives in a community with differing cultures and traditions: advocating the community’s rights promoting self-reliance, law abidance and integration, and coordinating social welfare programmes for vulnerable community members.


Somalis like many other migrants have made their home in South Africa after the democracy in 1994. Somalis come from a background of war, civil unrest, extreme public disorder and an uncertain future. There are 1 million Somali exiles/refugees around the world, living in neighboring states, the Middle East, Europe, North America and Australia.

Legal status

SA is home to 25 000 Somalis, a home Somalia did not offer: the opportunity to live in a “peaceful” society. SA graciously received us and gave us documents “to move freely within the Republic, study, trade, take up employment or enter into legal contracts”. Given SA’s bitter history of impoverishment for the majority of citizens, with unemployed and extremely poor, the immigrant community does not compete with the local communities for social grants, bank loans etc. Besides the Department of Home Affairs’ legal documents, Somalis have to survive on their own.

While the Refugee Act states that “a refugee can take up employment if he/she qualified to do the job” with this document, it is impossible to work professionally. One has to produce the 13-digit bar-coded Identity Document, and for Somalis, this demand is unattainable. SASA has the database of many qualified maths and science teachers and doctors who are forced to sell goods at the flea markets. Yet the SA government imports doctors from overseas, and there is a teacher shortage.

It is also difficult for asylum seekers and recognised or documented refugees to lease a flat or a shop. This makes the community vulnerable to exploitation. Often intermediaries – between landlords and tenants – extort money from the refugees and asylum seekers.

Somalis and informal trade

Despite setbacks, Somali immigrants manage their lives and are claming a space within the South African community. Somalis are traditionally acute business people – traders, merchants and entrepreneurs – important in the economies of East Africa, in countries like Kenya, Ethiopia, Tanzania, Uganda and Zambia. Somali refugees in the United States for example, started with small informal shops as a first step toward larger enterprises. Entrepreneurial dynamism and adaptation are important elements for Somalis; often the only avenue open for them is to engage in business. Based on meager resources, they conduct informal trading on pavements in main cities, selling tomatoes and chips. The common claim that immigrants deprive South Africans of jobs is a myth. Generally, informal traders employ more than one local person to assist his/her trade. With entrepreneurial skills inspired by a Somali adage that “a quick loss is better than a late gain”, Somalis have brought a new style of trading based on very low profit margins and extended working hours. Trimming their personal wants and needs, they normally keep their operational costs to a minimum. Based on this approach, Somalis have filled the widening gap between the rich and the poor of South Africa.

One can argue that Somali migrants have repaid the hospitality of their South African brothers and sisters in the townships by showing them how to start life from scratch and to prosper, how to live within your means, how to go beyond poverty and structural development inhibitors and get ahead in life. This is a concept alien in many previously disadvantaged South African communities. They have also contributed to the betterment of township dwellers by making important services close to their homes. Some Somali shop-owners give goods on credit, at no interest, to community members. For instance, when the recent xenophobic attacks settled down, some shop-owners went back to the communities to collect their loans to restart their shattered businesses. Many South Africans have been inspired by these entrepreneurs and shown appreciation.

Somalis and xenophobia

As we know, xenophobia started long before the Alexandra attacks against foreign nationals in May 2008, especially against Somalis. There were incidents of immigrants pushed from moving trains; some were burnt to death in their businesses and homes. On 11 Sept 2001, just 8 days after the end of the World Conference Against Racism and Xenophobia (WCAR) in Durban, where 14 000 delegates from around the world signed the Durban Declaration denouncing all social ills including xenophobia, 120 Somali-owned shops were looted in Motherwell township, in Port Elizabeth. Many shops were burnt after they were looted. Some local business people who accused Somalis of undercutting prices triggered that attack. Since then, there have been systemic killings of Somali traders in the Western Cape in 2006/2007.

This year alone, before the Alexandra attack, there were 10 major attacks against immigrant communities in 5 provinces: in Jeffrey’s Bay and Duncan Village (Eastern Cape), Valhalla Park and Worcester (Western Cape), Soshanguve, Itereling, Mamelodi and Atteridgville (Gauteng), and Klipgat (North West). In all these attacks African nationals were killed, their businesses destroyed, and their homes demolished, culminating in the surge of widespread violence in May 2008.

Over the years SASA has communicated the severity of these attacks to the SA authorities. But our persistent calls did not receive the attention it needed. In some cases the wrong reasons were attributed to the killings and lootings. The persistent government and media comments that Somalis are being targeted because they don’t integrate, is untrue. This myth was debunked during the recent May xenophobia c attacks when Mozambicans, Malawians and Zimbabweans who have been part and parcel of South Africa’s communities’ for time immemorial, were targeted.

Many Somalis live in the communities where they trade, learn local languages, cultures and ways of life. They share communities’ difficulties and good times. They contribute to uplifting communities by providing much needed employment opportunities etc. Many take their cheap services to places where even the vibrant mobile networks do not have coverage. Despite positive contributions, the killing of Somalis has continued. All these killings are results of xenophobia-motivated attacks. The total number of Somali exiles killed in South Africa over a period of ten years is close to 500 persons – including 23 traders killed since June 2008, after the government’s call for ‘reintegration into communities’. A Somali woman and her three teenage children were butchered in Tambo Village, Queenstown (EC). The woman and her daughter were gang-raped before a horrific killing.

Culture of impunity

Violent attacks against African nationals have reached disproportionate levels. Yet, few instigators and perpetrators are convicted in a court of law. While crime has increased in the country, we are talking about xenophobia: how does a government and citizens condone attacking a segment of the population, in a particular place, for sometimes a full day! For instance, a mob violence against African nationals started in Jeffrey’s Bay on 6th October 2008 around 18:00 hours and continued till the early hours of the following morning in the full view of the police! The media reports accused the police of “escorting the mob” and standing by during the long hours of these heinous crimes. This attitude of the law-enforcement agencies has contributed to the perception that the government does not care about the security of immigrant communities.

Conclusion and way forward

While the government said were caught off-guard during the recent upsurge of xenophobic violence, these incidents have been simmering for the past decade. Instances of violence against African nationals in townships and informal settlements have increased steadily. We therefore recommend a few guidelines to find solutions to the hatred and xenophobia that has gripped our beautiful SA:

1. The collaboration of all stakeholders to ensure workable solutions for the cohabitation of South African and migrant communities are needed now more than ever before. Government de- partments, UN agencies, international and local NGO’s, political parties, migrant associations and civil society, should spearhead this.

  1. Crime intelligence and crime prevention opera- tions of the South African Police Services need to be improved to preempt criminal gangs from tilting the already burdened man on the street, with a legitimate grievance towards the govern- ment. These criminals manipulate public anger to incite violence against African nationals for their shortsighted self-interests.
  1. We believe the time has come to collectively engage some media outlets that persistently and publicly promote xenophobia within South African communities. We respect the freedom of expression, but we must hold accountable the xenophobic press that portrays African migrants as criminals, drug peddlers, HIV carri- ers, job- and women-stealers etc. The media is a powerful tool and they owe us a responsibility towards nation building.
  1. We recommend that all municipalities, espe- cially those with sizable migrant communi- ties to set up migrant help-desks. The City of Johannesburg has taken up this initiative and this is a good start for government to reach out to migrants and vice versa.
  1. Migrants are not saints and sometimes they con- tribute to social ills and at times breach the laws of this country. This can be rectified if we work together collectively. Through empowering the migrant community leaderships and organisa- tions, the government can ease the integration of migrant communities into mainstream society.

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