Somali migrants constitute a diaspora whose members have, through transnational mobility, created a Somali diasporic space on different continents. This mobility is not new, especially for sailors employed in sea ports of the British Empire. Small Somali communities can be found in port cities as far apart as Perth and New York.
By the end of the 19th century, the biggest Somali presence outside Africa was in Britain, along the Welsh Coast — these were seamen of the British Merchant Navy. During the 1930s, Somali leaders in Britain served as political intermediaries for Kenyan Somalis trying to uplift their racial status in colonial Kenya.
There are a number of cases of Somali transnationalism in Africa and elsewhere in imperial and colonial times and after World War II. Somalis travelled into southern African countries such as Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe) to work as miners; they were present in Yemen and the Gulf states after Somalia’s independence, where they were able to organise trans-Indian Ocean business.
Therefore it is no surprise to observe a stratification of identities among Somalis in post-apartheid South Africa along the lines of specific transnational experiences and journeys. Not all Somalis are considered the same, even though they insist on a pan-Somali identity as it was in the past during their struggle for independence.
Who are the Somalis in South Africa? They come from different parts of Somalia, including the self-declared states of Somaliland and Puntland. Some are originally from Ogaden in Ethiopia or from Kenya but were settled in Somalia for generations.
Somalis in South Africa represent different categories of transnational migrants who have crossed different borders at different times and in different ways; Somali migrants are not the same in terms of journey experiences or trajectories. This plurality of migrant routes plays a role in differentiating Somali subgroups, who have different approaches to dealing with uncertainty in their new country, and particularly in Johannesburg.
Undocumented Somalis face the highest levels of uncertainty. Some haven’t renewed their passports because no Somali embassy existed in South Africa until 2013. These Somalis insist on a pan-Somali and Islamic identity to secure assistance and solidarity from national and religious counterparts.
Travelling to South Africa, they tend to use diasporic routes, which provide them with contacts they can trust and the right to hospitality. As one interviewee said: “You know the Somalis, we are not like other people, and we help each other. When I come to you, you have to give me a place to sleep … what I need to eat.”
Cross-border activities give existence and power to the pan-Somali imaginary, which transcends the other imaginary, nationalism. Somali migrants continuously look for information and solidarity in different parts of their diasporic space. Refugees are the most vulnerable.
Somali migrants who hold a passport, either from Kenya or countries such as Canada, have the option of transnational mobility. Having a passport helps Somali entrepreneurs to import goods and set up economic partnerships with other members of the diaspora. A passport confers a higher status in the Somali economic hierarchy.
Gender is another differentiating factor. Women’s mobility is enabled by Islamic marriage. Travelling alone as a single woman is unsafe and considered immoral. Women often get married in transitory places such as the United Nations refugee camps in Kenya or once they have settled in South Africa. Being female can secure a safer journey from South Africa to Europe, and being pregnant or giving birth in Europe can guarantee women longer stays as refugees. This is a strategy often used in the past by female refugees from various countries in Africa and elsewhere. The travelling female body has social consequences in family circles too: women gain confidence after proving they can survive migratory journeys.
Thus migration routes, binationality and gender identity are important in understanding the stratification of Somali immigrants in Johannesburg. Yet economic status gives us another dimension of stratification: class identity coupled with religious identity.
Somali entrepreneurs in Mayfair, Johannesburg, have extended their ethnic urban space through business networks in townships. This, defined by the organisation of economic relations among Somalis, has had a major influence on shaping different social classes.
Mayfair was established as a working- and lower-middle-class Afrikaner neighbourhood. Since the late 1980s, it has been inhabited largely by South African Indian Muslims. Today the suburb, from Hanover Street in the east to Mayfair West, is predominantly Muslim and home to most of the Somalis in Johannesburg. Not only has the demography of Mayfair changed as a result of Somali settlement, but religious beliefs and practices have also been transformed.
Unlike other African Muslim migrants, such as the Senegalese or Malians who settled mainly in Hillbrow and Yeoville, Somalis prioritised socialisation with South African Indian Muslims, establishing a Muslim neighbourhood; they wanted to live in Muslim territories. Islam rather than race or Africanism became their mode of identification.
In Mayfair, Somalis have developed an ethnic market to sustain their business networks. Eighth Avenue, where the Somali mosque and various businesses are situated, represents a nexus between the centre of the city with its urban townships and more rural areas. In Johannesburg, different classes disperse into different entrepreneurial spaces, with wealthier Somali traders working in the city and others in townships or more peripheral areas.
On Eighth Avenue, however, these different traders find a shared space. Trading risks are high for foreigners in the townships. Since 1994, more than 100 Somalis have been killed in South African townships. Most were shopkeepers who provided basic commodities such as bread and sugar.
Several interviewees in Mayfair said Somali shopkeepers in the townships are often employed by entrepreneurs in the cities, but some choose to go into these higher-risk areas using their resources because they can make more money there than in the city.
Uncertainty and risk seem to have different meanings for different class groups among Somali immigrants in South Africa. The Somali market in Mayfair, established more than a decade ago, offers Somali migrants a sense of security and belonging. In contrast, the townships are considered transitory economic places, strongly linked to the city that provides services and commodities for the shopkeepers.
Townships represent places of vulnerability, but cities are considered spaces of ethnic, clan and religious solidarity. Somali religious territory, marked by mosques and madrassas, gives meaning to notions of a Somali collective identity. A pan-Somali identity based on religion is being enacted in Johannesburg.
Islamic identity has been a major source of social capital for Somalis seeking help and solidarity from South African Muslims of Indian origin, who have their own economic and religious territory in Fordsburg, next to Mayfair.
The Muslim transnational movement, Tablighi Jamaat, has helped Somalis in Mayfair to territorialise their religious identity. Being associated with Tablighi Jamaat offers a way of being and a means to recognition as an urban Muslim.
In the past, the movement played a major role in Indian Muslims’ place-making in Lenasia, south of Soweto. Members of Tablighi Jamaat focused their religious proselytism in territories where large numbers of Muslims and mosques were already established. “We have our own culture, Islamic culture from Somalia,” said one interviewee.
In the case of Somalis, class needs to be understood in economic and religious terms. Religion is important and upper-class Somalis can distinguish themselves by living in a city where they can pray in a mosque near their business activities, shops and offices. By deciding that the absence of mosques in townships presents a risk and a danger to morality, Somalis may be said to reinforce their own vulnerabilities in these spaces.
For Somalis, overcoming uncertainty in South Africa is first a matter of gaining resources, including a passport, finance and social capital. But vulnerability is also related to social class, shaped by Somali economic spatiality and religion.
Networks linking Mayfair and the townships dominate now, but new internal migrations are spreading within the city-region as Somalis participate in and contribute to Johannesburg’s ethnic, cultural and spatial diversity.
Samadia Sadouni is an associate professor of politics at Sciences Po Lyon in France. This is an edited extract from Changing Space, Changing City: Johannesburg After Apartheid, edited by Philip Harrison, Graeme Gotz, Alison Todes and Chris Way (published by Wits University Press)