Not So Welcome in South Africa

Hadith Haji Adam Osman, 26, a Somali shopkeeper, ponders the remains of his shop, gutted by an anti-Somali mob.
Hadith Haji Adam Osman, 26, a Somali shopkeeper, ponders the remains of his shop, gutted by an anti-Somali mob. (Photos By Craig Timberg -- The Washington Post)
By Craig Timberg
Washington Post Foreign Service
Sunday, October 1, 2006

MASIPHUMELELE, South Africa -- 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."

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