/ 20 November 2014

Humanising hate crimes

Culture of impunity: Somali Abdirahman Ali Mohamud is buried in Philippi
Culture of impunity: Somali Abdirahman Ali Mohamud is buried in Philippi

A Man of Good Hope

by Jonny Steinberg (Jonathan Ball)

Xenophobia, bad governance, police violence, extreme poverty – we’re familiar with the terms and we know they are problems that must be dealt with. But it’s hard to go beyond the headlines when it’s not personal.

In his new book, A Man of Good Hope, Jonny Steinberg makes it personal by dissecting a young Somali’s search for freedom, stability and dignity. Asad Abdullah is the face that makes this story personal.

There aren’t many places in the world where it’s easy to be a Somali, and that includes Somalia. It’s one of those places, like the Central African Republic, where just about everybody except the locals gets to decide what’s right for the country. That’s a big part of the reason why the Somali diaspora is so large.

In A Man of Good Hope, Steinberg charts the journey of the young Asad from the time his family and his country implode. In 1991, Siad Barre’s presidency is overthrown and Asad’s family, from a clan that’s on the wrong side of the political fence when the wind of change sweeps violently through Mogadishu, has to leave the country in a hurry.

As a refugee, Asad develops a dream to start a new life in the United States. While struggling to survive in the Somali ghetto that is Nairobi’s Eastleigh district, he comes up with a vague plan to get to the US. The plan involves travelling with clan relatives to Ethiopia but that is where things go wrong, as they often do in a country where the large ethnic Somali population is viewed as a sort of enemy within. There are stories going around of another place where life is good and there’s money to be made – South Africa.

Arriving in South Africa, after crawling under the fence at Beitbridge and a journey through hell, is the second part of the story and where things go from bad to worse for Asad.

Steinberg knows a thing or two about South Africa’s violent underbelly – he’s written about prison gangs in The Number, about the violent faultline between farmers and the vast pool of rural unemployed in Midlands, and about the challenges of being a good cop in a bad system in Thin Blue. The common thread in all of his work is the spotlight on the person.

Through Asad’s eyes Steinberg paints a graphic picture of the drive refugees need to survive.

Much of the first half of the book is devoted to his journey to South Africa: a time of loss, pain and fear.

As is the case with refugees in most places, they’ve got to work harder than the locals to survive and they know that, for the most part, they are not welcome. As difficult as life was in the Somali quarters of Ethiopian and Kenyan cities, they were all steps towards something else – a new life in a perceived better place in Europe, the US or South Africa. The transient nature of Asad’s life prior to arriving in South Africa renders the first half of the book into something of an extended preface.

The book becomes particularly disturbing after Asad arrives in the Eastern Cape and attempts to start a new life as a township trader. In his measured narrative to Steinberg, Asad explains xenophobia from the victim’s perspective. With the hindsight Steinberg is able to add, it becomes clear that xenophobia is a perversion that runs deep – to some extent, black South Africans are re-enacting the rules of the old apartheid state when they violently take out their frustrations on the new arrivals.

Violent as these relationships often are, there is also a softer, almost symbiotic relationship between Somali shop owners and the dirt-poor and unemployed township residents to whom they sell their wares. It’s a love-hate relationship, but the love doesn’t run deep.

Asad’s wife, Foosiya, sums up the general sentiment: “The people do not want us here.” She returned to Somaliland without her husband, believing certain death awaited any Somalis remaining in South Africa.

People like local commentator Sisonke Msimang have been writing about xenophobia from a South African perspective. Having spent her formative years in exile, she presents a unique and nuanced perspective on why, as she writes, “South Africans refuse to let Africans in”. She argued recently in a piece on the popular blog site Africa is a Country that if South Africans don’t start to embrace rather than repel the continent they belong to, the tables may turn and the rest of Africa may decide to shut them out.

It’s easy enough to read between the lines in Steinberg’s writing: feeling betrayed by a distant government that has not succeeded in improving their circumstances, the instigators of the violence let off steam using a weaker, unprotected element of society.

South Africans are also taking their frustration out on foreigners because they can: there’s a culture of impunity in the township that affects all its residents – and a dead Somali is unlikely to result in a jail term for the killers. In this environment not even the tenacious Asad can surmount his fears and, following one too many brushes with death, he finally gives up and moves to Kansas City.

David L Smith is the director of Okapi Consulting, which analyses conflict zones and fragile states