Somalis find a safe haven in Bellville

Published May 11, 2011


Zara Nicholson

BEHIND a main road lie a huge array of retail shops, all in a small area buzzing with activity as people stream into colourful, jam-packed bargain shops and browse around pavement stalls.

The area is marked with people in distinct, long Islamic scarves and dresses worn by Somali women with many of them tagging their children along wearing similar outfits in miniature.

This is “Somali Town” or “Som Town”, and it is in the midst of the Bellville CBD, at the end of Durban Road. It has been dubbed “Som Town” as it is the central or safest place for Somalis to live and run a business.

Over the past few years, thousands of Somalis fled the civil war in their country hoping for a better life in South Africa, but xenophobic attacks have left them fearful except in this central spot in Bellville.

It is estimated that about 5 000 Somalis live and own businesses in the Bellville CBD, and each month about 50 more Somalis enter the area.

In the midst of a busy day, Yasin Abubaker, a local shop owner revealed why so many Somalis flock to Bellville.

“As a Somali you are seen as a stranger and a soft target in South Africa.

“In the townships a lot of Somalis always get attacked and killed. It’s really dangerous but Bellville is the central place and it’s the only place we feel safe,” Abubaker said.

At least 10 buildings at the end of Durban Road are densely occupied by mostly Somali shop owners who sell anything from groceries to clothing and accessories.

Their shops are packed with merchandise flowing on to the pavements and decorating the windows and walls.

To Somalis, Bellville provides the kind of business freedom which is not enjoyed in townships.

“People see us as though we just come here to grab their opportunities but they ignore the contribution we make to the local economy. It really makes me sad that we are treated with so much hatred and I fear that the xenophobic attacks could start again. We have no guarantee that it won’t happen again,” Abubaker said.

He has been in the country for 15 years and in Bellville for the past three years co-owning his shop with his cousin.

During the wave of xenophobic attacks in 2008, scores of Somalis and Zimbabweans mainly came under attack in townships around the city and Abubaker said he was lucky to escape with his life.

“Crowds of people came in front of my shop and threatened me and the police told me to empty my place and run for my life, I was lucky. Since then it’s been better, there have been no further threats against me or anyone else in Bellville but we still hear of Somalis being killed in townships,” Abubaker said.

Ali Farah, 23 has been in South Africa for eight years and said he was “very happy” in Bellville.

“This is a place of safety, it’s better than anywhere else in Cape Town.”

Farah smiles when he talks about his life in Bellville, but his fear is evident when he talks about Somalis being targets in “the location”, another name for townships.

Abubaker said although they came to South Africa to find shelter, the prejudice against Somalis was frightening and the “hatred of foreigners is a big issue”.

Asked about the claims that Somalis brought crime into the area, he said: “Crime is a common thing.

“It happens everywhere in South Africa. Here in Bellville we don’t have daily threats.”

Many Somalis said they were not able to go back home as their country still had problems but said they hoped to return to their “motherland” one day.

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