By Jennifer Sigamoney
Globally, South Africa’s democracy is venerated and remains a symbol of hope for the rest of the continent. Consequently, however, to the initiation of true, representative egalitarianism in 1994, South Africa has attracted more asylum seekers than any other nation.
The focus of this article is a small Somali community of political refugees, domiciling in Fordsburg/Mayfair, Johannesburg. Statistics from a 2012 African survey reveal that approximately 89% of Somalis in SA live in this area.
My initial encounter with Somalis began in 2013, when I was required to select a research study topic for my Master’s Degree in Research Psychology. My opting for investigating Somali immigrants arose from the information and observations in the media, which engendered the perception that refugees were invariably a burden to the host country, in conjunction with the impression that refugees/migrants were subjected to humiliation, abasement and abjection. My interest was activated and I was motivated to research migration, particularly the effects, impact and attributes of relocation.
In the course of my research, I learned about the triumphs and tribulations of immigrant life in South Africa and became engaged in discovering Somali refugee displacement experiences. I sought a more comprehensive panorama of knowledge pertaining to Somali existence and survival in locales where opportunities for education and employment are limited; social support and services are entirely inadequate or non-existent; and where hostility toward Somalis is extremely pronounced and often violent.
Media reports engendered the perception that all political or refugee-seeking immigrants constitute a burden to the host country and I considered that this would apply to the Somali settlers. This proved to be a misconception and during my visit to Mayfair/Fordsburg I realised that not all migrants are dependent. Several re-located individuals are self-sufficient, despite the humiliation, bias, disrespect and challenges they experience. Consequentially, I was prompted to consult a few Somalians about the factors and attributes effectuating their resilience, determination and self-direction.
My conversations with Somali migrants revealed a multitude of elements contributing towards coping mechanisms for challenges, which facilitated their self-sufficiency.
I discovered the major reasons of this comprised education; xenophobia; community support; religion; culture; and self-sufficiency.
Mayfair is approximately 1 kilometre, with the predominance of the enterprise there being a wide range of Somali owned and operated businesses. Compared to other migrants Somalis appear to be the largest, and most visible, ethnic community in the locale. The following themes emerged:
My conversations with younger Somalis implied that their reason for relocation is to be educated, gaining an enhanced standard of living. As many exceed the age limits set by government schools, enrolment in a private school becomes a requisite.
My investigation revealed that the Somalis residing in Fordsburg/Mayfair are supported by the Somalis and the Muslim Indian community. When a Somali is in need the community pools their resources to assist. Food is supplied gratis if the Somali does not have sufficient funds. A participant in the study referred to the Muslim family who becomes his guardians. Another participant mentions assistance when she required medical attention. In addition, the South African Muslims supply aid to Somalis when necessary.
The violence associated the recently occurring xenophobia did not directly affect the Somalis in Fordsburg/ Mayfair. Somalis who own businesses in the township and rural areas informed me that they are frequently targets and victims of crime, especial looting and killings.
Religion and Culture
Somalis have been welcomed by the South African Muslims living in Fordsburg/Mayfair. I discovered that they view their culture as being analogous to their religion. The identity of the Muslim community and the sense of a shared belonging assist the Somalis when contending with challenges .There is mutual support, along with assistance from religious leaders and institutions. The location of a mosque steered the Somalis to Fordsburg/Mayfair, Johannesburg, with Islam their primary focus. This location is primarily Somali, who aspire to being a true community, with the associated protection, security and aid. They regard their fellow Muslims with great esteem and uphold their religious identity.
Looting and Crime
The Fordsburg/Mayfair Somali enterprises depend on the protection of the local community. In addition, on the subject of crime one participant mentioned “They killed my brother and took the car from Soweto last week.”
There are myriad of issues and challenges with which Somali refugees contend. Immediately on arrival they have to assiduously strive for subsistence and survival, adapting to a new milieu. Somali females do not utilise public transport, due to a fear of being raped; in addition many basically function as single parents, as their spouses frequently seek work in different areas. Employment opportunities are scarce, exacerbated by prejudice Rents are exorbitant, with several families living in a single apartment, making the home crowded and uncomfortable. Stress leads to difficulty in sleeping, ennui and illness. However, despite the multitude of issues Somalis remain resilient and determined.
Although Somali immigrants contend with a multitude of challenges, difficulties and issues, they continue to be resilient, and resolute in their daily lives and endeavours. My overall perception and finding is that the Somali community in Fordsburg/Mayfair has become self-sufficient, without waiting for assistance from their host country.
Research has evinced that, despite the traumas associated with emigration, many Somalis are empowered and self-sufficient in their host country. My study of the Fordsburg/Mayfair Somali community established the factors affecting to their empowerment and resilience, encompassing, inter alia, education; religion; language; employment; culture; displacement; resettlement;; self-sufficiency; and self-concept.
At the time of writing, Jennifer Sigamoney worked as an intern at North-West University Potchefstroom. She is now completing her Masters in Research Consultation at the University of South Africa.