Xenophobia and Immigrant Business in South Africa: East Africans in Johannesburg

The xenophobic attacks in South Africa earlier this year highlighted the tenuousness of migrant life in South Africa. South African attacks on foreigners are overwhelmingly directed at African immigrants (particularly Somalis working in South Africa’s townships), although recently Bangladeshis and Pakistanis have been targeted as well. The flare-ups in early 2015 are only heightened versions of what many migrants experience on a day-to-day basis in South Africa. Violent forms of exclusion from the “host society” (which is not necessarily a unitary entity in itself) structure immigrant business practices; and importantly, it is not only South African nationals who cause problems for African immigrants. Two articles that we recently published in academic journals highlight immigrant business strategies and the differentiation between and within certain immigrant groups within the context of post-apartheid Johannesburg. Below I provide a brief overview of the articles and include links to the publishers’ pages.

The first article, published early this year, focused on broad immigrant business strategies and experiences of African immigrants in three areas of Johannesburg. In “City on edge: Immigrant businesses and the right to urban space in inner-city Johannesburg” (Urban Geography), Richard Grant and I drew on nearly a year of fieldwork in three neighborhoods of Johannesburg to sketch a comparison of how the business strategies of different immigrant groups mapped onto the urban landscape of post-apartheid Johannesburg. The study compared business dynamics and immigrant viewpoints on life in South Africa in three areas known as immigrant-dominated neighborhoods in and around Jo’burg’s inner city: the Jeppe/Delvers Ethiopian business district, the Somali ethnic enclave in Mayfair, and the diverse area along Rocky/Raleigh Street in Yeoville.

The study reveals how the different migration patterns, business strategies, and practices of integration are reflected in—and reinforce—the geography of immigrant businesses in each of these areas. The Jeppe/Delvers Ethiopian area is dominated by wholesale and retail businesses specializing in textiles and other goods imported from Asia. The concentration of Ethiopian workers in the neighborhood led to the growth of Ethiopian restaurants and coffee shops, as well as stores selling cultural clothes and Ethiopian goods (this area was also the focus of a fascinating article in Urban Forum written by Tanya Zack, who also published a chapter about “Jeppe” in the book Rogue Urbanism). The foundation of the business area lies in retailing and wholesaling clothes to mainly South African consumers, as well as businesspeople who transport the clothes to townships and other areas of the country and re-sell them. The perils of work in this area are not generally anti-foreigner attacks, but rather police raids and confiscation of goods. The location of this business zone in a group of high-rise buildings creates a fairly unique dynamic in which the opportunities as well as risks are structured by business location, with the ground floor offering the prospect of numerous patrons, but also the threat of easy raiding by police.

Similarly, police raids on informal businesses were described as the main threat to small-scale businesses in Yeoville, where immigrant- and South African-owned businesses are mixed in storefronts and on the sidewalks in front of formal shops. Immigrant workers and business owners in this area in general reported more positive relationships with South African citizens than did Ethiopians and Somalis, who focused largely on the violence or harassment that they had experienced. Yeoville hosts a diverse array of migrants from the Southern African Development Community (SADC), West Africa, Central Africa, South Asia, and some East Africans (I met some Ethiopians who lived in the neighborhood at a club just north of Rocky/Raleigh Street). Many of the study informants in this area said they had never seen xenophobia or felt excluded. South African nationals in Yeoville also reported working more closely with migrants and offered more positive perspectives in general than did South African informants in the other two study areas. The micro-politics of Yeoville are also the topic of an interesting study by Obvious Katsaura.

The Somali ethnic enclave of Eighth Avenue, Mayfair, is a very different type of business zone, catering primarily to ethnic Somalis and other migrants from East Africa. The majority of newly arrived Somali migrants work in South Africa’s townships in small retail stores, often in the most dangerous parts of the country, where gang violence and robbery are extremely common. The Somali ethnic enclave in Mayfair serves as the social hub of the Somali migrant economy, as well as the entry point for both newly arrived refugees and capitalist investors bringing capital from Europe and North America to invest in South Africa’s markets. The danger experienced by Somalis working in the townships, the practice of sending remittances to families in the Horn of Africa, and the need to temporarily escape from the perils and long working hours of township retail, all contribute to the development of a tightly-knit enclave in Mayfair, just west of downtown Johannesburg. Along the Somali-dominated section of Eighth Avenue can be found numerous young Somali men who have been shot, burned or stabbed while working in the townships. It seems the retail market niche was a prime place for bootstrap entrepreneurship about ten years ago, but is increasingly a realm of migrant foreign investment. In this “refugee capitalism,” former refugees who have become citizens of countries in the Global North employ recent refugees in their South African business ventures, which is more fully explained in a forthcoming article in the Journal of Ethnic and Migration studies.

Exploitation and violence within immigrant groups

Building on our publication in Urban Geography, Richard Grant and I sliced our surveys and ethnographic data in a slightly different way, looking at how dynamics within immigrant groups in Johannesburg are shaped by the broader group strategies and the geographies of business and niche market focus. This resulted in “Enclaves on Edge: Strategy and Tactics in Immigrant Business Spaces of Johannesburg,” published in the September 2015 issue of Urban Forum. Based on some of the informant accounts that highlighted the ways in which group dynamics created exploitation within immigrant groups, and how violence against foreigners in South Africa is sometimes fomented by foreigners, we revisited the histories of several immigrant groups as well as recent studies of East Asians and South Asians to explore how our data on African immigrants in Yeoville, Jeppe, and Mayfair compared with longer-established immigrant groups. It goes without saying that immigrant groups are not homogeneous, but often the literature has treated them as fairly unitary groups.

The later part of our period of fieldwork in Johannesburg really highlighted the fields of exploitation that were evident within groups. As I worked my way into the Ethiopian community in Jeppe, I began to find numerous accounts of Ethiopian immigrant workers who had never been paid for their labor, sometimes even after years of working for other Ethiopians. The strategy used by employers was a doubled-edged practice: employers often held onto wages for their employees, since the employees lacked access to formal banking services and were frequently targets of robbery. This allowed employees to take all of their earnings in one lump sum and immediately invest in their own business, which minimized the risk of being robbed. However, several informants reported that they had never been paid, often after having disagreements with their employers. The concentration of Ethiopian business and a fairly saturated labor market also make it difficult for Ethiopian employees without skills or capital to find alternate jobs if they wish to do so.

The Somalis in Johannesburg also pointed to numerous fractures within the migrant group. It is somewhat misleading to represent the Mayfair enclave as strictly Somali, since there are many Oromos and other East African Muslim immigrants in the neighborhood and involved in the migrant economy that, at least at the time of fieldwork from 2010-2012, was numerically dominated by ethnic Somalis. Recent Somali refugees often get hired by relatives to work in the townships outside of South Africa’s major cities, many of which have high crime rates influenced by gang violence, drug and alcohol use, and other variables. Recent immigrants do not always have information on which areas are safe, meaning that some of them end up taking a job in a very risky area because they desperately need the money to remit to family members in the Horn of Africa. The involvement of Somali diaspora investors from Europe and North America in the township shop economy also points to clear differentiation within the Somali “community” in South Africa. As the article in urban forum argues, within broad practices of ethnic and migrant group cohesion, there are strong social and economic divides.

Again, for more information about the dynamics of immigrant business – particularly Somali and Ethiopian business – in Johannesburg, visit the publishers’ pages through the links above (you can also download versions of some of these documents from academia.edu).

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