South Africa: No safe haven for Somalis

Abdi Habarwa, shop owner in Port Elizabeth, Eastern Cape
Image caption Abdi Habarwa says Somali businesses are often targeted by local criminals

Many thousands of Somalis have fled famine and warfare at home, braving a treacherous journey across the continent to reach South Africa but some feel their new lives in Africa's richest country are little better than the misery they left behind.

"If we wanted to fight we would have stayed in our land. We didn't come here to die we came here to take care of our families," says Qorane Haji, 29, whose shop was looted and burnt down in recent months.

Mr Haji has been living in South Africa for over five years. He owns a shop in Motherwell, a township in Port Elizabeth, Eastern Cape Province.

More than 300 shops are owned by Somalis in the area, he says.

Most of the Somali population in South Africa lives in the Eastern and Western Cape provinces.

But business has not been easy.

Poverty and unemployment are high in South Africa - many people in the poor communities believe that foreigners are "stealing their jobs".

Somali-owned shops have been looted or burned down as a result.

In 2008, South Africa saw a wave of xenophobic violence which shocked the nation and shook up the world's view of the "rainbow nation".

Some foreigners were necklaced - set alight with petrol doused tyres around their necks - and their shops were burned down.

Mostly Somalis, Zimbabweans and Mozambicans were targeted during the violence which left more than 100,000 foreigners displaced and at least 60 people dead.

The government's response to the crisis was to increase police presence in affected areas and to send its officials to address disgruntled communities.

But after a while the police patrols stopped and with them, the visits by officials.

Those behind the attacks were never brought to justice - after some months it was as though the attacks had never happened.

No brotherly love

"When they came in 2008 my brother and I were sleeping inside the shop, he was in another room. A group of men came in, shot him and burned the shop down - I was lucky to escape," Mr Haji recalls.

It took him more than six months to rebuild the store then but the attacks have now resumed.

"Xenophobia is back," he says.

A few months ago - some men burned down his shop again. He says the ordeal made him feel "unsafe and unwanted".

His brother Anwar Haji, 28, agrees.

"No-one can save us, we came to South Africa to be safe but are being killed just because we are foreigners," he says.

Many Somalis own spaza shops - makeshift kiosks usually run from private houses or a shack of corrugated iron.

The authorities have dismissed reports of xenophobia, saying the attacks are due to business rivalry.

Image caption The Haji brothers are once more rebuilding their shop

This has done little to allay the fears of foreigners, who say they are victimised daily by locals who call them "makwerekwere", a derogatory term used for foreigners.

The Department of Home Affairs, in charge of registering refugees and asylum seekers says there are more than 32,000 documented Somalis living in South Africa.

But some say this is an underestimate because many more have come into the country illegally.

The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) says Somali nationals are the second largest group of asylum seekers in South Africa - after Zimbabweans.

'Unfair competition'

The latest influx of Somalis has sparked fears that relations between Somali and local shop-owners could worsen, says Abdi Habarwa, 45 a spokesperson for the Somali community in the Eastern Cape.

Image caption Somalis and other foreigners were the victims of vicious attacks in 2008

But Daluxolo Mpengu, 51, who heads the Nelson Mandela Spaza Forum of South Africa (NMSFSA), a new association established by South African businesses owners in and around Port Elizabeth, insists that foreigners are exploiting their market.

"We have found that some foreigners own more than one shop in the same area which is bad competition for us," Mr Mpengu told the BBC.

He says they don't condone xenophobia, but says foreigners need to abide by certain rules if that want to continue business in the townships or have their shops closed.

NMSFSA says foreigners are not allowed to open a shop within 500 metres of an existing business selling the same wares.

This rule will later extend to local shop owners, the association says.

Many residents, however, don't want the Somalis to be forced to close their shops and are happy with the low prices and wide variety of goods they stock.

Mr Habarwa also owns a shop in Motherwell and hopes the new guidelines will help to ease tensions.

He says he uses some of the money he makes to support his relatives living in the world's largest refugee camp in north-eastern Kenya.

"I am not the only one depending on the money the shops makes. This shop is helping me to give my family in Dadaab a better life," says Mr Habarwa.

He fears they could suffer if the continued attacks mean he has to close down his shop.

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