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Humanising hate crimes

By November 21, 2014June 4th, 2023Mail & Guardian

A Man of Good Hope

by Jonny Steinberg (Jonathan Ball)

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

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

There arenai??i??t many places in the world where itai??i??s easy to be a Somali, and that includes Somalia. Itai??i??s one of those places, like the Central African Republic, where just about everybody except the locals gets to decide whatai??i??s right for the country. Thatai??i??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 Barreai??i??s presidency is overthrown and Asadai??i??s family, from a clan thatai??i??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 Nairobiai??i??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 thereai??i??s money to be made ai??i?? 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 Africaai??i??s violent underbelly ai??i?? heai??i??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 Asadai??i??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, theyai??i??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 ai??i?? a new life in a perceived better place in Europe, the US or South Africa. The transient nature of Asadai??i??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 victimai??i??s perspective. With the hindsight Steinberg is able to add, it becomes clear that xenophobia is a perversion that runs deep ai??i?? 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. Itai??i??s a love-hate relationship, but the love doesnai??i??t run deep.

Asadai??i??s wife, Foosiya, sums up the general sentiment: ai???The people do not want us 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, ai???South Africans refuse to let Africans inai???. She argued recently in a piece on the popular blog site Africa is a Country that if South Africans donai??i??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.

Itai??i??s easy enough to read between the lines in Steinbergai??i??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: thereai??i??s a culture of impunity in the township that affects all its residents ai??i?? 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


David has worked extensively with the UN on media projects in conflict and post conflict zones from the Balkans to the Central African Republic, including the conception and implementation of the hugely successful Radio Okapi network in the Democratic Republic of Congo. Current projects include establishing a Kanuri-language radio station in the Lake Chad Basin, targeting areas affected by Boko Haram. Dandal Kura broadcasts from studios in Maiduguri, and has been on the air since January 2015. David also provides political analysis on conflict zones and fragile states for various media outlets as well as think tanks. Through Okapi Consulting, David Smith conceived and implemented a United Nations sponsored radio project, Bar-Kulan (meeting place in Somali), established for the people of Somalia and the Somali Diaspora. His background in electronic media is extensive, including producer positions with the international public broadcasters of Canada and the Netherlands as well as managing a commercial transformation project at South Africa's Capital Radio. David’s work in development began in Zimbabwe shortly after independence as part of an education programme funded by the Canadian government to help get young Zimbabweans back into classrooms after the war in that country had ended. While on mission, he hunts down books by local authors and writes about both the book and the search for it in Book Safari, a column in the Mail & Guardian newspaper (Johannesburg).

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