Hope and hatred in South Africa: an interview with Jonny Steinberg

| Mandy de Waal
Asad Abdullahi immigrated to South Africa from Somalia. Photo by Sam Barker.

Civil war, betrayal and murder are what Asad Abdullahi left behind in his childhood to travel thousands of kilometres to the land of Mandela, the country of his dreams. But in South Africa he’d experience violence unlike anywhere else in Africa. Mandy de Waal speaks to Jonny Steinberg about his new book ‘A Man of Good Hope’.

Asad Abdullahi is standing in his uncle’s house in the Eastern Cape town of Uitenhage. A Somali who fled Mogadishu, after waking up to see his mother shot dead in front of him at the onset of the civil war when he was eight years old, Asad is now looking at another corpse. The dead body of his uncle Abdicuur Abdullahi.

It is thirteen years since his mother was shot by militia and Asad is an adult now. He has been on a dangerous odyssey that has taken him from Ethiopia to South Africa with $1,200 in his pocket — a 7,000km journey. Asad’s dream was to arrive in that land of Nelson Mandela, a great constitution, freedom and the opportunity to create wealth. In South Africa, Asad believed, he could create a new life not only for himself, but importantly for all of his descendants.

After a journey bedevilled by predators like smugglers and corrupt officials, Asad arrives in Port Elizabeth where he is met by his uncle. “Abdicuur got out of the car, revealing a prosperous belly, and embraced Asad and addressed him as ‘my son’ and insisted on picking up the duffel bag [Asad had brought with him] and putting it very carefully in the back of the cabin, as if it contained recently blown glass,” writes Jonny Steinberg in ‘A Man of Good Hope’.

Later at his uncle’s home in Uitenhage at the age of about 21, Asad would slowly pull down the white sheet that covers Abdicuur’s body to see the “small and neat” gunshot wounds in his uncle’s chest and left side. “There was a switch in me,” Asad tells Steinberg about the experience of his uncle’s murder in 2004. “A change. It has happened. Now it will continue.”

“Asad never experienced daily violence in civic life like he did in South Africa,” Steinberg says during an interview with GroundUp in Cape Town. “But he also never experienced opportunity like he had in SA. It was certainly a country of extremes,” he says.

“What scared Asad most about the South African violence was how sudden and unexpected it was. It was not just the violence, but the nature of the violence that so chilled him … you can think that you are comfortable, you can think that you know the world around you and suddenly it all turns strange and nasty,” says Steinberg who reveals that he took some three years to write A Man of Good Hope.

Much of that time was spent in a car with Asad that was parked between the corrugated iron shacks of the ironically named Symphony Way Temporary Relocation Area in Delft, Cape Town, better known by its nickname, Blikkiesdorp. In his book Steinberg describes this place that was built in 2008 as, “Cape Town’s asshole, the muscle through which the city shits out the parts it does not want.”

After the violent death of his uncle, Asad finds brief respite in the small town of Sterkstroom, which hugs the Hex River in the Eastern Cape. His wife Foosiya makes the perilous journey to join him, and gives birth to their son. “Sterkstroom was treating him and Kaafi [Asad’s cousin and business partner] well. Business was good, the Somalis opened a second shop … and it was making almost as much money as the first. The people of Sterkstroom had accepted them and were kind,” Steinberg writes.

“In the book one reads how Asad and his business partner set up in the township and start getting to know the people around them quite well,” Steinberg tells GroundUp. “They get to know people by name, connecting to the family history of the people around them, and these connections start making Asad feel comfortable. Then something happens.” Steinberg clicks his fingers to symbolise the lightning-fast turn in Asad’s fate. How peace becomes peril in a heartbeat.

“Asad was in business with his cousin. The way the shop worked is that there was a cage that wrapped the cashier in. One morning there was no one in the shop, it was early, and his cousin went to go and read his Koran outside of the cage while sitting on a chair. A former employee who had been dismissed about six months earlier came in with two other men and stabbed Kaafi to death,” Steinberg relays.

This was no stranger who’d murdered Asad’s cousin. This was a man who lived down the road, and whose family had lived in Sterkstroom for generations. The man was arrested and let out of prison within 48 hours. “The whole town very quietly turned against Asad and said to the Somali: ‘He [the murderer] is one of ours. Not one of yours. We will protect him.’ A few days later this man walked into the shop to buy cigarettes from Asad,” the author says.

Why do South Africans do this? Why do they brutally murder immigrants who come to this country and whose businesses thrive in townships against the odds? “It is about making money - that is what it is about,” says Steinberg.

“I think that the forces that make for xenophobia in South Africa are very powerful. What people like Asad do is they go into poor communities and make money in front of poor people, and they do so without any protection at all. They have cash businesses. They are living in shacks. Everybody around them knows that the criminal justice system won’t go after anyone who attacks them, so people are really free to attack them and take their money. They move in utterly naked and unprotected. Nobody has ever made money like that in South Africa before.”

Steinberg says, “White people have made money behind powerful state institutions and the gravitas of power. Black people have started making money in poorer areas, but it means something different then. One of the things that it connotes is hope and aspiration. Someone can rise up from the ‘bottom’. People identify with this, and think: ‘maybe this could be me’. But people like Asad make money in a way that is radically different. It comes with no power and it is done without protection. What interests me is that people like Asad know this and come back all the time.”

Jonny Steinberg, author of Man of Good Hope.

“Part of it [xenophobia] is about citizenship, ironically. During apartheid a lot of black people came from various parts of the continent and integrated with South Africans pretty easily, and in an ironic way it is because of apartheid, it is because black people weren’t citizens, that the commonality of being black was much more important than some people being citizens and some people being not. Everybody was in the same boat. Now that black South Africans are citizens, they can claim a sense of ownership and say that we belong and you don’t. Part of it is an unfortunate by-product of democracy,” Steinberg explains.

“One of the things that happens in South Africa is that the police are involved in deporting about 3,000 foreign nationals a year. They do this as a state agency, as officialdom in uniforms. They do this in front of poor people in poor communities. After the xenophobic attacks of May 2008 I interviewed many people who were involved in attacks and listened to what they were saying. These people said that they were helping the state to do its work. They would say, ‘These are not our people. We are helping to get rid of them.’ This what I mean by citizenship, and this partly is what is creating xenophobia,” he says.

In the Nelson Mandela Metro of Motherwell, where Asad’s uncle had his shop, the hate is openly evident. “Abdicuur is a very proud man. People much younger than him would come up to the counter and ask for salt-and-vinegar chips. He’d bring a packet, and they’d say: ‘Hey! Are you fucken deaf? I asked for airtime’,” Asad tells Steinberg in the book. Abdicuur tutored Asad to react to this hatred with respect. “When the customer is wrong, he is right,” Abdicuur tells Asad before he is killed. “Most of our customers are unemployed or on welfare,” Asad tells Steinberg. “They are the laughing stock of South Africa but when they come to our shops, they are king.” But these are ‘kings’ who called the now dead Somali store owner ‘kwerekwere’.

A Man of Good Hope is the story of one such man’s odyssey through xenophobia in search of a better life. It is also a painful mirror for South Africans to look into, but one that we dare not look away from.

A Man of Good Hope is published by Jonathan Ball. It is available from Kalahari for R195, and other bookshops.

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