Cape of Less Hope                       

 

 

CAPE OF LESS

HOPE

 

OCTOBER 2006

 

 

 

 

 

 

   

Somalis under siege in South Africa

 

By Mohammed Allie

BBC News, Cape Town

October 19, 2006

 

A spate of murders over the past two months has left Cape Town's Somali community, especially those who run businesses in townships, fearing for their lives.

 

The Somalis claim 40 traders have been the victims of targeted killings since the attacks started in August.

 

Cape Town police however, say they are only aware of 20 such killings in the past 10 months.

 

While police initially insisted the killings were part of South Africa's high crime rates, beleaguered Somalis are convinced they are being targeted, pointing out that the perpetrators often did not touch money or other valuables belonging to the victims.

 

Police have in recent weeks admitted that xenophobia rather than criminality could be behind the attacks.

 

Often the perpetrators walk into the township shops run by Somalis and simply fire at the owner before fleeing the scene.

 

Unfair competition?

 

The xenophobic nature of the attacks against the Somalis was clearly illustrated in August when a group of about 200 locals attacked Somali-owned shops forcing them to flee the seaside township of Masiphumelele.

 

The action forced the provincial government to intervene to restore calm to the area.

                                   

Township businessmen, who are alleged to be directing the attacks, claim the Somalis are attracting their customers by offering cheaper prices and forcing them to shut up shop.

 

The situation seems to have improved following meetings involving members of the provincial government, the local community and the Human Rights Commission.

 

Security Minister Charles Nqakula has admitted that police do not have the exact figures on how many Somalis have been killed over the past two years.

 

In reply to a parliamentary question from Tony Leon, leader of the opposition Democratic Alliance, Mr Nqakula said obtaining such information would require too much time and resources.

 

"This attitude displays a monumental indifference to the plight of the Somali community, members of which are coming under attack on an almost daily basis," Mr Leon said in a statement.

 

Street patrols

 

It has been calm recently in the sprawling impoverished township of Khayelitsha where several Somali traders were killed in August.

 

Nash Mohammed, a Somali refugee, who has been in Cape Town for two years, says he had lost two family members over the past year and feared for his own life.

 

Speaking at his shop which blends in with the corrugated iron shacks of the area, Mr Nash says he feels safer now than he did last month when several Somalis were killed in townships across the Cape Town area.

 

"The local community here have formed street committees and they patrol the area, especially where there are Somali shops. We get along very well with the community. The problem seems to come from a small group of gangsters who are targeting Somali traders," he says.

 

A sign of how much a part of Khayelitsha he has become is that Mr Nash converses with his customers in the local Xhosa language.

 

"They have even given me a local name, Bongani and a clan name of Radebe," he says.

 

"We really don't have a problem with the Somalis in our area," says Nkosinathi Present, who popped in to buy some maize meal, by far the most popular product sold by Mr Nash.

 

"It seems to be the businessmen who are angry with the Somalis but if they have a problem why can't they talk it out? The Somalis are skilled businessmen and perhaps they can help the locals," she says.

 

As the Somali death toll climbs, police say they have arrested and charged nine people in connection with 20 murders.

 

It may seem a small percentage of the official figure of 18,500 murders committed in South Africa last year, but it is little comfort for a community who feel they are under siege.

 

Mutual rights

 

Since the advent of democratic rule in 1994 refugees from developing countries, especially Zimbabwe, Democratic Republic of Congo, Angola and Somalia as well as Pakistan and India, have flooded to South Africa in search of a better life.

 

South Africa, with a population of more than 44 million, officially has nearly 30,000 refugees and 100,000 asylum seekers but unofficially there are believed to be more than five million illegal immigrants in the country.

 

The refugees were not always been welcomed, especially in poorer black communities, since they were seen as competing for the same scarce resources and jobs.

 

Many African refugees have been victims of xenophobic attacks, much to the embarrassment of the government, many of whose members were offered a safe haven in exile by African countries during the anti-apartheid struggle.

 

Roll Back Xenophobia, a UNHCR-funded advocacy body, in partnership with government and non-governmental stakeholders, is about to embark on a campaign to reduce tensions between local communities and refugees and make both sides aware of their mutual rights and obligations.

 

South Africa is believed to have around 5 million illegal immigrants; Somali shopkeepers are accused of undercutting their local competitors.

 

Note:

DR Congo 9,516 refugees and 4,622 asylum applications

Somalia 7,118 refugees and 3,893 asylum applications

Zimbabwe 5,789 asylum applications

Ethiopia 2,795 asylum applications

Angola 5,774 refugees

Burundi 2,075 refugees

Rwanda 1,266 refugees

Source: UN, 2004

 

BBC News Limited 2006.

 

Fleeing War, Somalis Are Targets of Violence in Adopted Home

 

October 10, 2006

 

Masiphumelele, Oct 10, 2006 (UN Integrated Regional Information Networks/All Africa Global Media via COMTEX) -- Dozens of Somalis have allegedly been killed in South Africa's Western Cape Province in the past few months in what appears to be an escalating campaign of xenophobic violence.

 

South Africa already struggles with some of the world's highest rates of violent crime, and is home to immigrant groups from throughout the continent. But Somalis in this region say the killings - as well as a string of brutal robberies and assaults - reflect a growing national trend fuelled in part by destitution and prejudice.

 

Community leaders in Cape Town, the provincial capital, say at least 32 Somalis were killed between July and September. Police told IRIN they couldn't confirm the figure because records are not typically organised by the ethnicity of the victims. However, police said they have begun investigating individual cases and are attempting to verify whether the violence is part of a broader pattern.

 

"If you look at our refugee communities over the past three months, you can clearly see that the Somali community is being targeted," said Superintendent Billy Jones, spokesperson for the South African Police Service (SAPS) in the Western Cape.

 

Jones said attacks, mainly robbery related, have typically occurred in squatter camps and other impoverished neighbourhoods where Somalis have taken a foothold as informal traders. Cutthroat competition for trading outlets has escalated tensions within communities and successful Somali shopkeepers are sometimes perceived as a threat to more entrenched businesses, Jones said.

 

Yet unmotivated violence appears to be on the increase. Three Somalis were recently killed in separate attacks in the sprawling townships of Khayelitsha and Delft, Jones said. "In these last three incidents, it was clear cut murder. Cold-blooded murder."

 

Jones said SAPS Provincial Commissioner for the Western Cape Mzwandile Petros has convened two meetings with Somali representatives in recent months and has asked local police stations to beef up routine patrols near Somali businesses.

 

But personal accounts of individual Somali immigrants in South Africa illustrate the collective sense of vulnerability that pervades the community.

 

DIFFICULT JOURNEY ENDS WITH INSECURITY

 

Thousands of Somalis have flocked to South Africa in recent years, many fleeing the longstanding violence that has plagued the Horn of Africa since 1991. Most make the long journey in search of small-business opportunities and a chance at physical safety, and officially register as asylum seekers.

 

Yet newcomers are often dismayed by the violence they encounter around Cape Town, a global city on the southern coast popular with international tourists.

 

"When I was deciding whether or not to come to South Africa to make a better living, I heard that Cape Town was the safest city in the country," said Ali Yusef, 29, who left Mogadishu in 2002. "When I got here, and so many people were dying, I was confused. And now, it's getting worse, especially in the last two or three months."

 

There is no credible official figure of the number of Somalis in South Africa because most Somalis fleeing the war enter the country without official documentation. Community leaders in the Western Cape estimate between 6,000 and 7,000 Somalis live in the region, though Somali communities can be found in all nine provinces of the country.

 

One of those who made the long journey from Somalia is Abdi Agakonbo, 35. He left Mogadishu a year ago, after three members of his family were killed in the civil conflict. Unemployed, he begged from others to buy a ticket on a ship to Tanzania, and then hitched a ride to Mozambique. Once there, he travelled by foot for 37 days - walking from settlement to settlement every day, sleeping near the road for safety.

 

After crossing the South Africa border, he convinced a taxi driver he'd give him $50 if he drove him to Cape Town. On the streets of the city, Agakonbo called a number he'd been given back in Mogadishu. A Somali immigrant who runs several convenience stands around the city came to meet him, paid the taxi driver, and offered Agakonbo an entry-level position manning one of his stands.

 

Abdi Agakonbo, 35, fled the war in Mogadishu last year and traveled penniless for three months to get to Cape Town.

 

Today, Agakonbo sells sweets, cold drinks and single cigarettes under a tarp near a busy street. He earns $3 a day - barely enough to cover the $55 he pays in rent to live in a three-room apartment with 17 other Somali men. "But back in Mogadishu, there are no jobs. I would earn nothing," Agakonbo reasoned.

 

Agankobo's story is typical of Somalis in Cape Town, mostly young men who arrive penniless and work as assistants to more established Somali business people in the townships. Many point to the irony of facing such acute hostility in their adopted home.

 

"I came here because of the civil war in my country," Agankobo said. "If I can die here just as I can die at home, then sometimes I think it would be better to be at home."

 

PATTERN OF VIOLENCE AROUND COUNTRY

 

Somali residents in and around Cape Town are quick to point out that it is not the only region where Somalis feel unsafe. According to the UN refugee agency UNHCR, Somalis were driven out of KwaNobuhle, Eastern Cape Province in 2001, and related violence was reported elsewhere in the province last year. Similar hostilities have also been documented in the Gauteng, Free State, and North West provinces.

 

Abdi Hassan, 37, says he's experienced xenophobia in three different provinces. Soon after arriving from Mogadishu two years ago, he soon became used to insults while selling imported Chinese goods in squalid neighbourhoods near Cape Town.

 

"People around me called me 'friend of a dog,' 'foreigner,' and they spit on me," Hassan said of his arrival in the area two years ago. "Even the lowliest man in the neighbourhood, such as a drunk in the gutter, would curse me."

 

Hassan said South African traders often felt threatened by Somali business owners, who tended to charge lower mark-ups for similar goods. "The local shop owners come to you and say, 'You rob my business; give me something for free,' so you give them these things - sweets, cigarettes, whatever."

 

Hassan said he was eventually assaulted by three men, who strapped a belt around his neck as if to kill him and warned him to leave the area. The criminals took his goods and money, but he survived the attack.

 

Shaken, Hassan said he relocated to a township near Kimberly, in the Northern Cape Province, which he hoped would be more welcoming. But soon after finding work at a tiny Somali-owned shop, Hassan alleged locals came in and shot and killed his co-worker. He recounted that criminals held a cocked gun to his own head and warned him that Somalis would be killed if they didn't leave the township.

 

Still looking for safety, Hassan said he relocated to another poor neighbourhood in Limpopo Province in the north. Local residents appeared to like him, he said, but soon a local resident approached him saying she heard of plans to murder him. Hassan said he tried to open a case with the local police, but was told that there was no evidence to go on. Unable to find protection, he again fled.

 

SEARCHING FOR ROOTS OF HOSTILITY

 

What is striking about the attacks against Somalis is that they are apparently targeted above all others. Somalis often live in impoverished neighbourhoods among migrants from other nations - Zimbabwe, Malawi, Mozambique, Democratic Republic of Congo - but say they face the brunt of local hostilities.

 

On the streets of townships around Cape Town, Somali shops usually look similar to locally owned businesses, and both tend to sell common items such as popular canned foods, cleaning supplies and toiletries. While some local business owners say Somali traders threaten their livelihoods, some Somalis dismiss these assertions.

 

"That's business competition!" said Hassan Farah, 25, who operates a tuck shop near Mossel Bay, 400 km to the east. "People can say what they want, but don't they make their own prices? The people who kill are not business people. They're gangsters."

 

In the absence of a clear reason for the violence, many Somalis grasp for motivations. Some of the East African immigrants speculate that they are set apart from their neighbours because of the differences in their language or their physical appearance. Others wonder if it's because they are Muslim. Others admit they have no idea.

 

"I have to ask why it happens that we are killed every day," Farah said. "If we knew the reason, if we were told, 'You are being killed because of that,' then we could avoid it."

 

AFTER LOCAL UNREST, RETURNING TO TRY AGAIN

 

Of course, though the particular xenophobia against Somalis appears to be widespread, it's not universal. Even in the most impoverished areas, local residents and Somalis are working to negotiate non-violent solutions.

 

In August, local business leaders organised a campaign to drive Somalis out of Masiphumelele, a township 25km southeast of Cape Town. A few days later, on the night of 28 August, hundreds of residents looted all 27 Somali-run businesses, and 71 Somali residents were evacuated with the help of police and a local church. By morning, six businesses had been completely destroyed.

 

Last week, Raqiyou Yusuf, 31, opened her store in Masiphumelele for the first time since the unrest. Yusuf arrived in the area eight years ago, and she has many friends. As she stood in the doorway of her small store, customers popped in and out, returning her greeting of "Hello, sister." Some offered her a hug.

 

Because her store was nearly cleaned out in the looting, Yusuf spent more than $1,000 to replenish the goods stolen. Holding her receipts in the dirt-floored store, she told IRIN she wasn't sure how long she would stay. Somali businesses in Masiphumelele will soon meet with local business leaders in an effort to address the hostilities, but Yusuf is still anxious.

 

"I opened yesterday, but I'm scared also," Yusuf said. "I didn't buy a lot of stock, just a few cans and things. Also, I haven't yet brought my four children back here, and so now they are not in school. I just want to see what will happen and see if it will remain peaceful."

 

[ This report does not necessarily reflect the views of the United Nations ]

 

2006 AllAfrica, All Rights Reserved

 

 

Not So Welcome in South Africa;

Somali Shopkeepers' Lives

Shattered by Violent Attacks

 

Craig Timberg

Washington Post Foreign Service

1 October 2006

The Washington Post

 

The mob announced itself the night of Aug. 28 with a terrifying clatter of stones against the tin walls of Hadith Haji Adam Osman's tiny shop. As he cowered inside, watching one window and then the other shatter from the onslaught, Osman recalled, the young men waved machetes in the air and shouted: "Baraka hamba! Baraka hamba!"

 

In the slang of this township on the rocky, ragged foothills of Cape Town, "Baraka" is the word for Somali shopkeepers such as Osman, 26, who have traveled thousands of miles from their war-ravaged homeland in search of peace and prosperity in South Africa. And "hamba," a word from the dominant Xhosa language here, means "Go away!"

 

Looking back on that night, when dozens of Somali shopkeepers lost their homes, jobs and dreams for better futures, Osman counts himself fortunate just to be alive. In the past three months, community leaders say, 32 Somalis have been killed in attacks in townships as South African businessmen have violently defended their turf against the newcomers. The most recent death came Saturday in the township of Delft, also near Cape Town.

 

"When I see my fellow Somalians being killed, I also understand I am lucky to have survived," said Osman, a slender and short man with a wisp of hair on his chin and the thoughtful manner of a patient older brother.

 

The attacks on Somali immigrants have drawn attention to a vicious strain of xenophobia lurking in South Africa, a nation determined to portray itself as a model of harmonious diversity but tormented by some of the world's highest rates of violent crime.

 

The attacks are also a chilling reminder, South Africans say, of the violence that marked the final years of apartheid. Clashes in squalid townships such as this forced the government to abandon a decades-old racial order in 1994 but left the nation with a glut of cheap weapons and a legacy of brutality that lingers in the epidemic of rapes, murders and robberies.

 

Somalis say the recent attacks have convinced them that South Africa's townships are no safer than Mogadishu, the violent capital of a country so riven by power struggles that no government has controlled all of it since 1991.

 

"People are going back to Somalia now, no matter what's happening there," said Abdi Hakim, 35, whose grocery store in a township near Cape Town has been robbed twice this year. "If we're going to die, we're going to die there in our homeland."

 

Mohammed Abdullahi, 35, fled Somalia in 2003, leaving behind a wife and three children in Mogadishu. He eventually found his way to South Africa and opened a shop in Khayelitsha, among the largest and most dangerous of the townships near Cape Town.

 

On Monday, he said, six young men came to his shop shortly after dark. Without saying a word, one of the men shot Abdullahi in the right temple, leaving him for dead in a pool of his own blood but stealing nothing.

 

From his Cape Town hospital bed, where Abdullahi is recovering but is unlikely to see again, he struggled for breath in recounting the attack. As he raised his right hand in the shape of a pistol, he whispered, "I've been shot because I'm Somali."

 

The Somalis began arriving in Masiphumelele in 2002 with the opening of Baraka Cash Store, a modest grocery. "Baraka" means "blessing from God" in the guttural mother tongue of the Somalis, and as their numbers swelled the township's residents began calling them "Barakas."

 

The Somali shops did not look different from the ramshackle collection of hair salons, bars and vegetable stands that already lined the streets of Masiphumelele. But customers here, struggling for every penny despite being nestled in the mountains just a few miles away from South Africa's glitziest tourist spots, soon noticed that the Barakas sold their goods for less than the stores owned by South Africans. The Barakas also offered a warmer, more responsive brand of customer service, residents said.

 

The Somalis, mostly unmarried men in their twenties and thirties, worked all day, every day, then slept on cots in their shops at night. They also lent one another money, hired other Somalis as employees and developed strong ties with the region's distributors.

 

Rivals were not happy, and as more and more Barakas moved to Masiphumelele and opened shops -- the total reached 27 in a community of about 20,000 residents -- the township grew tense. There was a string of robberies. Some shops had their windows broken. One Somali shopkeeper said that every few weeks, a young tough would walk into his shop and say, "Tomorrow I am going to kill you."

 

On the night of Aug. 24, a group of the township's South African businessmen gathered in a community hall to vent their frustrations. By the end of the meeting, they had agreed that rather than compete against the Somalis, they instead would chase them away, giving them three days to leave.

 

One of the men at the meeting later told police, "We should not be surprised if one of the Somali businessmen is killed," according to a police report. Another was quoted as saying that if the Somalis did not leave, "we are going to send our dogs."

 

The three days passed without incident. Then shortly after 8 p.m. on Aug. 28, a mob of more than 200 men and women formed as Somalis across Masiphumelele were closing their shops.

 

Throughout that night, the crowd moved from Somali-owned shop to Somali-owned shop, bashing in doors, ripping holes in walls, tearing off roofs. Inside, the shopkeepers grabbed machetes and prepared to die protecting their property, they said. But when they saw the sheer numbers of the approaching mob, most fled in terror instead. Some, like Osman, prayed that steel-gated doors would hold as they furiously punched the number of the police on their cellphones.

 

By the time a group of 10 officers arrived, the situation was out of control, said Capt. Roy Matthee, head of detectives at nearby Ocean View police station. The officers frantically tried to rescue the Somalis and fired rubber bullets to disperse the crowd.

 

Over the course of that night, 400 rubber rounds were expended, but the shops were thoroughly damaged and emptied out -- in some cases, only the concrete floors were left. But not a single Somali was killed.

 

Police arrested two men for the attacks of that night, and charges of intimidation were filed against seven of the businessmen who attended the meeting of Aug. 24. All are now free on bail, awaiting trial.

 

Most of the shopkeepers spent the next several weeks in churches, community halls and mosques. Many are now planning their return to Somalia, they say, ready to leave South Africa as soon as they can raise the money.

 

The businessman who led the meeting, Khaya Aubrey Cwayi, 32, said he was sorry about the attacks, which he blamed on others. He said the business community of Masiphumelele would not object to having some Somalis return as long as they did not drain too much of the profits of other stores.

 

"It would be fine if we could have five or seven shops of the Somalians. Not more," he said. "If they are all over the place, those existing businesses will never make any money."

 

Osman visited his old shop last week. The landlord had repaired the windows, and the hole in the wall where the mob had forced its way inside was closed up as well. As Osman looked at the gutted store, which was empty save for some broken eggs and plastic milk crates, several old customers begged him to return to Masiphumelele.

 

They missed his low prices, they said, and his smile.

 

"Please come back," said Matilda Badla, 23, who lived across the street from Osman's old shop. "This week."

 

Osman sadly shook his head. He had no money to restock. And where he once felt hope, he said, now there was only fear.

 

"They want me to be here," he said. "I also like them. But circumstances will not allow it."

 

Copyright 2006, The Washington Post Co. All Rights Reserved

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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