People who are entrepreneurial enough to risk death and set up business among people who loathe them cross our borders daily, writes Jonny Steinberg
WHEN the story of our times comes to be written, a place will surely be reserved for the Somali traders in our midst, for their experiences allow us to hold up a mirror to ourselves.
To be Somali in SA is to face a stark choice. There are urban enclaves where Somalis outnumber South Africans and one can be both foreign and safe — Mayfair in Johannesburg, Bellville Town Centre in Cape Town, Marabastad in Pretoria. But earning a living in these places is tough. Business is oversubscribed, wages are low, conditions of work are awful.
To make good money, one must set up shop in the townships or the shack settlements and live among South Africans. Business here is easy.
Most of SA’s informal retailers are survivalists; what they do is more a form of welfare than entrepreneurship. They are no competition for serious accumulators.
And so the money piles up. But so does the danger. Spaza shops are cash businesses; the home in which your children sleep fills with banknotes.
Both you and your customers know that anyone can kill you and take your money, for the police are not very energetic when it comes to investigating a Somali’s murder.
Hence, the Faustian choice many Somalis must make: be safe but poor in Mayfair or prosper and risk death out in the world.
It is extraordinary how many Somalis opt for the latter. Between 2010 and 2012, I spent several hundred hours shadowing a man called Asad Abdullahi.
On arriving in SA, he worked as a storekeeper for his uncle in New Brighton until his uncle was killed in a robbery. He then set up a business in the rural hamlet of Sterkstroom with his cousin but abandoned it when his cousin was stabbed to death by a former employee. He sold up and used the capital to establish a spaza shop in Mabopane until one afternoon armed robbers beat him with their pistols while his patrons helped themselves to his stock.
Whenever I asked Abdullahi why he kept going back for more, he grew angry with me. “If you stop thinking of the future, you are no different from a goat,” he said. “When I die, I want to have given my children a life my parents could never have known. To do that I must earn money.”
How do things look from the other side of the shop counter — to the South Africans who buy from Somalis? SA has never seen wealth accumulation Somali-style, and the sight of it is profoundly disturbing.
White South Africans, of course, garnered great wealth from black labour during the course of the 20th century. But they never did so by confronting black SA in the raw. They always protected themselves: through a welter of laws, via a powerful and well-armed state, and now, after apartheid, by building high walls.
With Abdullahi and his kind, it is different. They come neither with weapons nor with the protections of citizenship. They simply set themselves up among the poor. There may be a police force, but it does not bother to answer their calls. Naked and without protection, they simply make money.
Nor does death seem to stop them. When a storekeeper is killed, Somalis come from miles to grieve. But then the wife of the one who is murdered simply sells to another. And if he is killed or runs off, another will come. I do not think SA has ever seen money made in this way before.
Black South African entrepreneurs have, of course, begun making money too. But again this is different. When a South African resident of a rural village or an urban shack settlement begins doing well, his success gives those around him occasion to dream. His neighbours are permitted to wonder whether they will be next. At the very least, the idea is affirmed that it is possible to start poor and make it, that we live in a country where this is possible.
Watching Somalis accumulate does not trigger such encouraging thoughts. They seem, after all, to come from another world. They do not want to make friends. They do not want to make SA their home. They want to make money. That is what they do — all the time. They leave their shops only to restock. Otherwise, they work.
White and black wealth is tolerable in SA thanks to the evolution of ever-so-delicate codes. White wealth is associated with generations of state power. Black wealth is associated with possibility and hope. Somalis do business in the absence of any of these codes. Their accumulation of money exudes neither hope nor the aura of power. It is simply resented.
And so we have a perfect storm. Daily, people cross our borders who are entrepreneurial enough to risk death. They set up business among people who loathe them. The cycle goes around and around.
• Steinberg’s book about a Somali trader in SA, A Man of Good Hope, has just been published.