"Why do you want to kill us?"

Andrew Donaldson reviews "A Man of Good Hope", Jonny Steinberg's book on the Somali experience in South Africa

DURING the question-and-answer session at the launch of Jonny Steinberg's A Man of Good Hope at Cape Town's recent Open Book Festival, two Somalis rose to address the Fugard Theatre audience.

One of the men thanked Steinberg for telling the story of Asad Hirsi Abdullahi, a young man whose extraordinary odyssey began when he was eight, when civil war came to Mogadishu in January 1991 and militiamen murdered his mother and he was swept up in the great wave of Somali refugees who fled the country and drifted throughout sub-Saharan Africa and the world. But, the man continued, Asad's story was not particularly unique. "There are many Asads," he said.

The second Somali, Steinberg tells me, had more of a "rhetorical question" for the audience. "He wanted to know why South Africans kill people like him."

Much of A Man of Good Hope catalogues a relentless hatred of foreigners with accounts of the savage attacks on Asad and those like him, the so-called makwerekwere who own and run township spaza shops. The impunity with which these killings and robberies are carried out beggars belief. The police are of no help whatsoever, and murderers walk free.

One such episode, for example, concerns the slaying of Asad's cousin, Kaafi. The two men had agreed to work together after their only other male relative, an uncle, was murdered in Mayfair, in Johannesburg, in 2004 shortly after Asad's arrival in South Africa.

In May that year, Asad, Kaafi and Kaafi's wife and young child moved to Sterkstroom, a settlement about 60 kilometres outside Queenstown, in the Eastern Cape. They were the first foreigners to live there - and very soon they were running the township's only store. They prospered. It was a small community and the Somalis got on well with residents. 

Then, on a "quiet morning" in August 2005, three men - regular customers and well-known to the Somalis - entered the shop. One was Madoda, a man the Somalis had temporarily employed as a driver. Another was Aubrey, a member of one of Sterkstroom's older, more prominent families. The third was Mike. Kaafi was fatally stabbed in the robbery that followed. Madoda and Aubrey were arrested that afternoon. The latter had not even bothered to change the shirt he had worn when he attacked Kaafi, and it was spattered with blood. Mike, though, had disappeared.

Charges against Madoda were quickly dropped for lack of evidence, and the authorities appeared to concentrate their investigation on his accomplice. Then, one morning, out of the blue, Aubrey walked into the shop and asked an astonished Asad for a single cigarette. "I said nothing," Asad later told Steinberg. "I did nothing. I just stood there. He put his money down on the table. I just remained still." Aubrey told him, "Asad, there is nothing you can do. I have been here since my birth in 1984. You came only yesterday."

* * * 

STEINBERG says A Man of Good Hope is not the book he initially set out to write. He'd been interviewing men in Orlando West in Soweto who'd been gangsters in the 1960s who preyed on Zulu migrant workers and he wanted to compare the experiences of those who'd been hounded out of cities back then with the present experience of foreign nationals. "It seemed to me that people were always being chased out of our cities. I was looking for unusual counterintuitive continuities," he says. "What happens around that, over a 50-year period."

Word got out that he was looking for people who had been affected by the xenophobic violence that gripped the country in May 2008 and the journalist Pearlie Joubert introduced him to Asad. 

"He had the most extraordinary way of telling his own story," Steinberg says. "I got hooked, and abandoned that [earlier project] and decided to go out to East Africa and retrace Asad's journey. His past is so opaque and strange to South Africans, so it takes someone who could really transport himself back to open up the space for me to write about it."

Asad grew up in a bewildering array of homes, camps and settlements in Kenya and Ethiopia, where he was routinely betrayed and abandoned by those who had undertaken to look after him. By the time he was 17, though, he was streetwise and savvy enough to earn a living as a hustler in Addis Ababa, setting up deals between Ethiopian businessmen and Somali refugees. His relative success also meant that he was able to court and marry his first wife, Foosiya, a woman who had once insulted him. 

Then, in 2003, like so many of his countrymen, he struck out for Johannesburg, traveling overland through Kenya, Tanzania, Zambia, Zimbabwe and finally South Africa. The country, he found, was far wealthier than he'd previously imagined. It was also extremely violent - something that became apparent the moment he began to earn a living.

"I think one of the things that foreigners like Asad do is they make money in front of poor people," Steinberg says. "There are ways in which it has become tolerable for black and white South Africans to make money in front of poor people. So, for instance, if a black person in a shack decides to open up a spaza shop and starts doing well, and becomes quite powerful and has some money to throw around, it . . . well, it represents all sorts of things, but one thing it does represent is hope. People travel on his coat-tails, and imagine themselves going up in the world. You start to think you live in the sort of society where it's possible to start at the bottom and move up."

It was different for the thousands of entrepreneurs who arrived here after apartheid, who "walked naked into the settlements of the South African poor". Steinberg writes:

"They come neither with weapons nor with the protection of citizenship. There may be a police force, but it does not bother to answer their calls. Nor do they come with pretences or with artful stories. They do not want to make friends. They do not want to make South Africa their home. They want to make money.

"And that is what they do. Night and day. Without rest. They leave their shops to defecate and to restock. Otherwise, they work.

"They watch you closely. They learn never to run out of what you most want to buy. And they are always cheaper than their South African rivals. There is something magical, something insidious and relentless, about their moneymaking. Something less than human."

And the money made them targets. "What really interested me is," Steinberg says, "if that's the case, you live among the people, your shop fills up with money. It's cash. Everyone knows they can go and get a gun and just take it - the police aren't going to stop them - and they do. 

"Asad does this again and again and he gets hurt again and again. I was really puzzled as to why he keeps doing that. For me, that's one of the main thing's the book's about. This was a man who was kicked around a lot, wherever he was, and yet if you look at the trajectory of his life, it was really shaped by the decisions he made, and really radical decisions, to go from a known, reasonably comfortable world and leap into an unknown world. 

"And I think he keeps doing that for reasons that are quite foreign to me but from what I've started to understand is that he really, really wants to affect a revolution in his lineage. He wants his grandchildren to live lives that his parents could never even begin to imagine."

* * *

IN April 2007, there was another robbery, this time at a shop in Mabopane township outside Pretoria. It was a particularly violent episode in which Asad and three other Somalis were shot at and severely beaten. The gunmen invited onlookers to take what they wanted from the shop. "The four of us lay face-down listening to our customers walk around our bodies," Asad told Steinberg. "They were helping themselves to bags of mealie-meal, to frozen chickens, to airtime. Some of them took cartons of cigarettes."

The next day, customers returned to the shop. Not one of them said a single word about his injuries - an eye clubbed to a pus-encrusted pulp and a broken arm. Not one word of apology was offered. This was, in Steinberg's words, "a darkness more insidious than anything he had experienced". He writes:

"But this was something else. To watch the Somalis being tortured and then walk over them and steal their stock; to arrive the following morning and behave as if yesterday had not happened. [Asad] felt a surge of hatred. For . . . every single South African with a black skin. They were something less than human. He did not know much of the history of southern Africa, but he guessed that for generation upon generation, their ancestors had been slaves. Their masters had beaten them into a new shape, a subhuman shape They had become submissive, treacherous slave-beings, beings without self-worth, without honour. And then the whites had come and made them slaves again. Now they had been freed, but such beings could not handle freedom."

"Asad's view of South Africans is very pungent and racist," Steinberg says. "I wasn't concerned about whether or not it was justified, I was concerned about it said about him. You know, he and practically any other Somali, from the age of seven, could recite the first names of the last 28 generations of their families. 

"I've never before worked with somebody who understood the world through so much history. I think it is something that is both very powerful and affirming, and horribly imprisoning. He, on the one hand is deeply against this lineage chauvinism and is now married to a woman from an outcast lineage and he suffers for it, gets insulted for it, he thinks it's crazy, and yet, when you ask him why black South Africans do what they do, he says that it's because, in the mists of time, their ancestors were slaves, and they've never recovered their honour. So everything he sees in the world, he reads back to this [historic aspect]."

Steinberg says that Asad was deeply disturbed by the "public" sexual behaviour of South Africans. "It was one of the first things he noticed; men feeling women's bums in public, with their hands up their skirts. He was so utterly shocked by this. He was appalled. His first thought was maybe it's in their culture and he could forgive them for it. But his second though thought was that it's not in their culture. It's not in Christian culture, it's not in traditional African culture. So he literally saw these depraved people in the streets around him from whom he wanted to make as much money as he could."

Which brings us to Asad's own relationships with women. He cannot, for example, remember what his mother's face looked like - and yet she continues to be this "incredible presence" in his life. As Steinberg puts it, there are very, very good women and very, very bad women - and very little in between.

"He's loving and hating women all the time, and that's how he's negotiating the world," he says. "Which made his first wife, Foosiya, really interesting. Because she started off as a ‘bad' woman who dissed him, and he married her just to get revenge on her - and ended up falling in love with her in the process. He really just wanted to violate her, to punish her, and oddly ended up loving her because of her pain."

Part of Foosiya's pain is because she had been circumcised and her vulva partially closed. "Because she was having intercourse for the first time . . .  the blood and pain reminded him of his mother's death. So there's really complicated and interesting stuff going on with him and women that makes it really compelling to write about."

* * *

IN 2008 Asad was running a shop in Khayelitsha. The children were the first to hint at what was coming. As he told Steinberg:

"There were some schoolgirls who'd come to us every day asking for sweets. They were little: maybe six years old, seven years old. They would hold out their hands and say, ‘Sweets. Sweets. Sweets.' We would say: ‘Tomorrow.' What we meant was that every day was tomorrow.

"Once, I think maybe it was in March or April 2008, I said to a little girl, ‘Tomorrow.' And she said, ‘Tomorrowuzohamba [you will be leaving].' She knew what the adults had been talking about. She knew what the adults wanted to do."

Later, one early winter's evening, an old drunk stumbled into his shop looking for a single cigarette. "Somali," he told Asad, "have you seen what they're doing to your brothers in Alexandra? They're slaughtering them, Somali. There is makwerekwere blood flowing on the streets."

Asad's last years in South Africa were spent in refugee camps in the Western Cape, first at Soetwater, south of Kommetjie, then Blue Waters, near Mitchell's Plain, and finally at Blikkiesdorp, the controversial relocation camp slung up in Delft, some 30 kilometres north of Cape Town. Even here, he set up shop. And even here, he and other Somalis were not safe. The attacks continued.

One day, in July 2011, Asad called Steinberg "in this huge panic." It was the morning after a night of intense gunfire as rival gangs fought over drug turf in the shanty town and the body of a ten-year-old Somali girl had been found hanging from a clothesline in her parents' yard. Within 20 minutes of their arrival on the scene, detectives opened a suicide docket, ruling out foul play. This was unacceptable to the Somalis. They were hysterical. "And these rumours started going round Blikkiesdorp. ‘They're now after our children.'"

Steinberg says he called up a local talk radio station. News of the girl's death duly appeared as an item in a news broadcast. "As I listened," he later wrote, "I was struck by the deep inadequacy of news. How does one convey the enormity of what had happened? Thousands of listeners, in the bubbles of their cars, made their way home in the rush hour traffic. Somewhere on the edge of the city, locals had a go at foreigners. The police were not terribly interested. That is how it is."

Later he tells me, "I just think, because it's on the margins, in order to conceive of it mattering, you'd have to write a hundred thousand words rather than a thousand. No really, you'd have to go deeply into somebody's life and sort of dig into its sanctity and its sacredness and then a story like this starts making sense. I just don't think it does as a news story.

"I think stories like this begin to resonate with us when they seem to be about us too. When a hundred thousand people have to leave their homes because there are mobs in the streets, well, that's now about us. The foreigners fleeing are proxies for us. It could happen to us next. Then we're interested."

A Man of Good Hope by Jonny Steinberg is published by Jonathan Ball.

This article was published with the assistance of the Friedrich-Naumann-Stiftung für die Freiheit (FNF). The views presented in the article are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of FNF.

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