Category Archives: Somalia

Risky business and refugee capitalism – the Somali township economy in South Africa

This article is a brief overview of the findings of the article “Risky business and geographies of refugee capitalism in the Somali migrant economy of Gauteng, South Africa” in the Journal of Ethnic and Migration Studies. This piece builds on two previous pieces written with Richard Grant, which appeared in Urban Geography and Urban Forum; a summary of them can be found here.

The article is available for download here: 

“Risky business and refugee capitalism” are the terms used to describe the primary aspects of Somali migrant life in South Africa. “Risky business,” because the majority of young Somali male migrants who are able to find employment in South Africa work in retail shops in South Africa’s townships where livelihoods are earned at high risk of robbery, injury, or even death during daily violent crime or flare-ups of anti-immigrant violence (such as those in 2008 and 2015, dates which frame the 2010-2012 study period). “Refugee capitalism,” because many of these retail stores are owned by groups of investors who do not work on the premises, contrary to previous discussions of immigrant “bootstrap entrepreneurship” and immigrant self-employment. In fact, one of the main findings of the research that went into this article is that the Somali migrant economy involves a lot of investment from Somalis living in North America or Europe who use family networks and Somali money transfer operators (commonly called hawala/hawilaad [plural]) to invest in South African businesses, where, by all accounts, there is money to be made.

What is interesting is the way in which the local economic geography of Somali business—by which I mean the way that business dynamics map specifically onto the urban geography of the Gauteng City-Region (Johannesburg and Pretoria and their surrounds)—are connected with international circulations of people and money. This is what the article explores, showing how the Somali ethnic enclave in Mayfair, Johannesburg links the international circuits of the Somali diaspora economy with the specific South African township retail niche where most Somalis in South Africa find profitable investment opportunities.

Now a word about background for those readers who are perhaps less familiar with the South African context. For most of the 20th Century, South Africa was ruled under the apartheid system, which enforced a strict racial segregation by creating areas of the city in which certain racial groups could live. Even after the apartheid system was replaced by democratic governance in 1994 (with Nelson Mandela becoming the first democratically elected president of the Republic of South Africa), racial groups remained heavily divided both socially and geographically. The term “township” refers to settlements on the outskirts of South Africa’s cities to which Blacks were relegated during apartheid. Particularly in Gauteng Province, most townships remain predominantly Black, whereas Whites, Indians, and others are more likely to live in more central areas (actually, the inner city of Johannesburg was largely abandoned in the 1990s as Whites moved out to the northern suburbs, but that is a topic for another time). Townships are also commonly called “locations” (a reference to enforced segregation under apartheid), and I use the terms interchangeably.

As South Africa’s economy grew from the 1990s onwards, Black South Africans in the townships gained purchasing power, but the dynamics of the job and real estate markets left many still unable to find formal employment or move closer to the cities. Thus, huge segments of South Africa’s population live in the townships surrounding the cities, and since South Africa implemented a pension system, many people scrape by with marginal employment or informal entrepreneurship. Nevertheless, people need basic goods. This provides the context for an exploration of Somali township businesses: “Historically, most townships were residential zones where Blacks were barred from conducting formal business. The collapse of apartheid opened opportunities for entrepreneurs to bridge spatial divisions by purchasing goods from urban (usually White or Indian) wholesalers and re-selling them in marginalized and sometimes dangerous areas where many business people were reluctant to take the risk” (p. 5).

When I say “Somali”…

It does not necessarily mean just Somalis, in this context—and certainly not just Somalis from Somalia. Individuals identifying as ethnic Somali and speaking Somali as a first language also come from Kenya, Ethiopia, and Djibouti (and Somaliland, which is functionally independent from Somalia though not recognized as an independent country by the powers-that-be). And tied closely to the Somali community in South Africa and elsewhere are closely related groups such as Oromo and Gabbra, as well as Muslims from coastal Kenya and Tanzania.

“Two contexts of violence—war at home and xenophobia in South Africa—frame Somali identity and experience in South Africa, frequently described along the lines of ‘out of the fire, into the frying pan’ … After arriving in South Africa, many Somalis look for opportunities to move on to other countries. A number of men working in the townships send money to wives and children left behind in Kenyan refugee camps to await resettlement. Husbands then seek to re-join their families if the wives and children are selected for refugee relocation to Europe or North America” (p. 6). This observation pertains to a number of the informants for this study, who sent money to their families until their wives and kids were relocated overseas, and then embarked on the lengthy process of proving marriage and paternity in order to become a refugee in North America, where life is considered better than it is in South Africa.

The township retail economy

This article is certainly not the first to point out the danger that immigrants face in South Africa’s townships; the study cites several others that provide statistics on anti-foreigner violence, which “is most likely to occur in poor (but not the poorest) townships with a high population of young males (Polzer 2010)” (p. 7). A later section of the article observes that it is not just South African nationals who engage in anti-foreigner violence; foreigners themselves frequently fight each other, and the Somali economy is rife with rumors about Somalis paying South Africans to target other businesses. The study quotes one informant who states that Somalis shoot each other over business competition in South Africa’s townships.

In this context, the distribution of risk is rather striking. Employees bear the brunt of physical risk, willingly placing their lives on the line on a daily basis in order to provide for their families. Investors, as is customary in Somali culture, tend to spread risk by holding shares in multiple businesses. Often it is family and clan networks that provide workers with employment and create connections across the worker/investor distinction. One of the most interesting stories for me is the story of Q in the article, who worked for his uncle. He provided the following story, described on p. 8 of “Risky Business”:

“[Thieves] killed in my uncle’s shop in the locations … They killed two guys; they shot them… My uncle called me. I left my job here [in Mayfair] and went to my uncle’s shop…. My uncle gave me a gun. He said I must stay there. I was working—me and my uncle’s brother’s son were there—only the two of us…. Early in the morning they came to us—the same guys who killed those [other Somali workers]. They just tied us up. That day I survived. I could have died. I told [my coworker], ‘Give whatever money you have. Let them take it’. Because life is more important than money” (p. 8).

The motivation for continuing to undertake such risky work is the obligation of sending remittances to family members at home in the Horn of Africa. Remitting money is expected; it is “compulsory”; it is the main reason why many informants arrived in South Africa in the first place. The township shop economy offers the possibility of remitting the expected amount (usually about $150 per month), and sometimes workers can make enough in a month to save up money and eventually become a shareholder in a shop, or even purchase their own shop. Although the sample size was not sufficient to get a significant T-test result, the difference in income between shareholders and employees is telling: Shareholders reportedly earning from $650 to about $900 per month, with an average of $780. Employees’ incomes ranged from $150 to $300, with an average of around $260. Employees surveyed reported remitting about 54% of their incomes, whereas shareholders reported remitting about 40% on average. In the townships, Somali workers live inside the shop and usually eat from the stock which is purchased wholesale, so living expenses are minimal. ‘The small amount of start-up capital required and the high turnover make the locations a potential stepping-stone for entrepreneurs. ‘In town, actually, the sales are so small. In the locations it’s better’, reported one informant who in 2011 became a shareholder in a large shop in Pretoria West after working in other locations for over seven years. ‘That’s our foundation we started from’” (p. 9).

The Eighth Avenue ethnic enclave

Richard Grant and I had written about some of the dynamics of the Eighth Avenue Somali enclave in earlier articles, and the JEMS piece shows more fully how the geographies of Somali migration are linked through this space. The several blocks along Eighth Avenue that some informants called Johannesburg’s “little Mogadishu,” serve as the hub of Somali migrant social and economic infrastructure. Social infrastructure, in that it is the place to go if you want to find a job, and also the place to go if you want to hang out with other Somalis, eat Somali or Oromo food, chew qat, or generally relax and take a break from the dangers of township work. The economic system is grounded largely in the Somali money transfer system (hawilaad), through which investors send money to South Africa and migrants in South Africa send money to family members in the Horn or elsewhere.

Business in the Somali ethnic enclave is based largely on circulation, rather than on production. Most of the businesses involve food, money transfer, lodging, and technology (Internet cafés are popular). The second part of the JEMS article explores these dynamics more deeply and shows how they create forms of investment and urban upgrading in Mayfair. One of the main points in this section was to explore how “cosmopolitan” disembeddedness—a topic of conversation in the work of migration specialists—may produce forms of visible investment and become “grounded” in the infrastructure of a neighborhood or city. I don’t really buy distinctions such as “locals” versus “cosmopolitans,” and I show why by indicating how an individual’s practices can change over time from more locally-grounded interests to broader horizons such as international refugee resettlement. Only time will reveal the long-term dynamics of investment and circulation that will change Mayfair, probably in unpredictable ways.

Just the beginning

One problem with academic writing is that by the time it is published, it might be out of date. Things change rapidly. I have since shifted my work back northwards to the Horn of Africa, but I will continue to explore the intersection of mobility, finance, and political-economic geographies in my other work. I hope that “Risky business” will provide a useful jumping-off point for others who wish to engage with the ways in which Somali life in South Africa is changing, and how various scales and types of international linkages are created and navigated in the shifting South African setting.

Sheikh Sharif Sheikh Axmed, leader of ARS, joins TFG and becomes president of moderate Islamist coalition, gaining support in central and northern Somalia (probably not as much support as the map suggests, but these are general areas of support, broadly speaking).

Maps of Territorial Control in Somalia, 2007-2010

I just came across this series of maps of territorial control in Somalia in my map archive. Note that these maps are based largely on James Dahl’s map series on territorial control in Somalia and on UN maps of displacement, combined with my own research on conflict events. Forgive me if I mix my Somali and English while transliterating.

Clearly, any map purporting to show areas of control in Somalia is likely oversimplified; alliances are constantly shifting, and multiple insurgencies may exist within an area shown to be under control of a certain force. However, this represents an attempt to map the story of the aftermath of Ethiopia’s invasion in 2006, and show how foreign intervention may have affected the growth of extremist insurgency, specifically in southern Somalia. “Unaligned” territories reflect those areas where it was unclear who was supported or in control. This is a work in progress, so please provide feedback if there are inaccuracies or changes that need to be made.

2007-2009: The Aftermath of the Ethiopian Invasion

December 2008: Cabdullahi Yuusuf Axmed resigns as president of TFG.

2009-2010: The TFG strikes an alliance and begins an offensive

As the TFG in exile brokered a truce with ASWJ, ARS, and ICU elements, they began to gain support and nominal control over parts of the country. Sheikh Sharif Sheikh Axmed, formerly of ARS, was elected TFG President. Along with AU forces, the TFG launched an offensive against the now divided Al Shabaab and Xisbul Islaam forces in southern Somalia.

Again, please let me know if there are corrections to be made. This is an ongoing initiative to map territorial control in Somalia, part of a more comprehensive effort at creating conflict maps of Somalia.

Trials and Tribulations of East African refugees in South Africa

The Chairperson of the Somali Association of South Africa provided me with this flyer, handed out in Mayfair in 2012. It somehow got lost in my files until now. East African refugees in South Africa all suffer from xenophobic threats and violence. In particular, Somali Refugees in South Africa have experienced hardships due to their focus on township businesses. Their spaza shops provide steady income to owners and investors, but put the lives of workers at risk. Even in central Johannesburg, Somalis and other refugees are subject to scams like this that attempt to foment violence against them.

South Africa Refugees

Many East African refugees are safe neither at home nor abroad. Migrants to South Africa face violence from the moment of their arrival. This faux-FBI handout from 2012 gives evidence of the type of reception that many of them see in South Africa. More on this to come.


Westgate Centre's location in relation to Nairobi Central and Eastleigh, the center of the Somali population in Nairobi.

Five things you should know about al-Shabaab and the Westgate, Nairobi attacks

So far at least 62 people are confirmed dead in Westgate, Nairobi, after al-Shabaab carried out the attack that they have been threatening in retaliation for Kenyan occupation of Kismayo. You can read about the attack on the BBC news or elsewhere. What I am interested in is the situation surrounding the attack and the implications for future regional dynamics. Hopefully we will be able to gain more understanding of the attacks as time goes on. I will be watching the news closely in the coming weeks. Meanwhile, here are five preliminary points I’d like to make in the immediate aftermath of the catastrophe.

  1. Al-Shabaab’s terrorism in Kenya is tied into the successes of foreign troops in Somalia. Like many terrorist attacks, there was some forewarning that something like this would occur. In fact, despite being totally disgusted and horrified by what al-Shabaab has done, and totally against everything that the group stands for, I cannot say that it was completely unprovoked. Killing harmless citizens is definitely an illegitimate form of warfare, but al-Shabaab claims that this attack is in retaliation for Kenyan troops’ continued occupation of Kismaayo and surrounding areas, Jubbada Hoose (Lower Juba), Somalia. Al-Shabaab’s attack comes about two and a half months after Kenyan troops were involved in firefights in Kismayo that left 65 dead. Now that is hardly an excuse for the violence of the past three days, but that is likely one of the excuses that will be used by al-Shabaab in recruiting Somalis from the area to its cause. Prior to its occupation by Kenyan troops, Lower Juba was a stronghold for al-Shabaab – who, driven from much of their previous territory, have decided since 2010 to begin exporting their violence beyond Somalia’s borders.
  2. Al-Shabaab’s agenda appears to be steered significantly by groups outside of Somalia, and the group works without the support of most Somali people. Al-Shabaab did not appear until 2006, and did not turn their attention beyond Somalia’s borders until 2010, after the War on Terror was well under way and focused on the Horn of Africa. The group probably used events such as U.S. airstrikes that, while targeting “terrorists,” killed civilians in Dhoobley and other areas, to recruit disaffected locals. The War on Terror in Somalia was driven by fears that Somalia’s lack of government and “chaos” made it a likely place for international terrorists to seek refuge; however, it doesn’t appear that international terrorists were present in large numbers in Somalia prior to the Ethiopian invasion of 2006. Actually, during 2006 the Union of Islamic Courts had apparently succeeded to some extent in bringing down the number of cases of piracy in Somalia (Bjorn Moller, 2013), and possibly had a deterring effect on terrorism in the country as well. The 2010 attacks in Uganda marked the first export of terrorism from Somalia. The 2006 invasion and subsequent international attacks seem to have caused radical Somali elements to look beyond their borders and to welcome international terrorist groups to support their cause. These groups took advantage of the situation to push their own agenda, and al-Shabaab has gone along with that. It remains to be seen where this will lead either al-Shabaab or al-Qaeda, and it also remains to be seen whether foreign intervention in Somalia under the “war on terror” paradigm can have any positive effects (for anyone, really).
  3. Although some of the attackers are likely from Somalia, there is also a sizable and prominent Somali population native to Kenya – this attack is not about ethnic Somalis vs. Kenya. Wars have been fought over the issue of the division of Somalia between four separate countries in East Africa. One of the points of the five-pointed star on Somalia’s flag represents the Somali homelands of Northeastern Kenya – formerly called North Eastern Province (and before that, Northern Frontier District – NFD) – now the counties of Mandera, Wajir, and Garissa. Not only is a significant fraction of Kenya’s population made up of ethnic Somalis; they also play a prominent role in politics. Among others, I would point out Maxamed Yuusuf Xaaji (Mohamed Yusuf Haji), an ethnic Somali from Garissa, Kenya, who currently serves as Kenya’s Minister of State for Defence. Many Somalis support Kenyan politicians from other ethnic groups – when I heard Raila Odinga speak in Sandton (South Africa) last year, I traveled to the venue with a number of Somalis who strongly supported him. On another note – this is a topic for another post, but I do find it interesting and possibly problematic for Kenya’s future cohesion that the Somali-dominated areas have historically been largely neglected by the Kenyan state. In a recent book chapter, Kidane Mengisteab (2013) draws on the 2006 APRM Country Report for Kenya (see pp. 47-48), which suggests that in Northeastern Kenya, 73.1% of the population was considered impoverished, compared to 35.3% in central Kenya; primary school enrolments were charted at only 17.8% (compared to 52% in the next lowest region); and apparently only 9 doctors were present in the entire North-Eastern region, compared to over 100 doctors in basically every other region (statistics as of 2000). With discontent already welling over the past years in the coastal region near Mombasa, it remains to be seen whether and how this marginalization may affect regional relations in Kenya in the future.
  4. (Related to #3) – Although this attack marks a violent turn in regional dynamics, this is not the first violent Somali group that has been wont to haunt Nairobi’s shopping scene. Nairobi hosts some prominent Somali warlords who made bank off of the chaos of the 1990s and decided to retire. I was in Yaya Shopping Centre, Nairobi with some friends from Afmadow area last year, and they pointed out a former Somali warlord and his posse while whispering stories about the atrocities he had committed in the 1990s. In the interest of my friends, I will not drop names. I am not saying that these former warlords are in any way related to al-Shabaab’s attacks, but this provides a glimpse into the complexity of the historical and current connections between Kenya and Somalia with regard to violent groups.
  5. This attack is a caution flag for other countries currently involved in Somalia. Again, al-Shabaab by no means represents the feelings of the majority Somalia’s citizenry. But they use foreign incursions to legitimize their behavior to their potential followers and members. The group was formed when the Union of Islamic Courts (UIC) fractured during the Ethiopian invasion of 2006, and elements connected with al-Shabaab began making connections with terrorists in Ethiopia in order to strike at that country in reaction to their invasion. They are liable to use any foreign intervention in Somalia as an excuse to strike beyond Somalia’s borders, and are particularly focused on Ethiopia and the United States as enemies of their ambitions to control southern Somalia. As long as foreign forces are present, threats will likely continue. Unfortunately, al-Shabaab has ruined it for many Somalis living in the regions they purport to defend. Attacks over the past years have forced groups like Medicins Sans Frontieres (MSF/Doctors without Borders) to withdraw their humanitarian programs from Somalia (August 2013). This will cause more suffering for the people of Somalia.

Hopefully this has shed some light on a few factors related to the Westgate Mall attacks. International actors pursuing a violent agenda have hijacked the cause of Somalia and use it to legitimize their acts of terror while in reality hurting the very people that they claim to support.


Kidane Mengisteab, 2013. “Poverty, Inequality, State Identity and Chronic Inter-State Conflicts in the Horn of Africa,” in R. Bereketeab, ed. The Horn of Africa: Intra-State and Inter-State Conflicts and Security. Pluto Press: pp. 26-39.

Bjorn Moller, 2013. “Militia and Piracy in the Horn of Africa: External Responses,” in R. Bereketeab, ed. The Horn of Africa: Intra-State and Inter-State Conflicts and Security. Pluto Press: pp. 178-196.



Map showing Alanley Market

Clashes in Kismayo


(click map for larger image or to download)

Official discussions about Jubaland’s status as an autonomous state in Somalia began as soon as Hassan Sh. Mohamud took office in September 2012. In December, the government in Mogadishu met with Ahmed Mohamed Islam (Ahmed Madobe, following the common Somali use of nicknames for leaders), leader of the Ras Kamboni Brigade (formerly allied to Hizbul Islam), to discuss the prospects for the autonomy of Jubaland. The Ras Kamboni Brigade appears to be in de facto control of Kismayo, a city whose security is currently officially under the control of Kenyan AU/AMISOM troops.

In May, Madobe and several other militia leaders declared themselves president of an autonomous Jubaland, self-appointments which Mogadishu has deemed unconstitutional. On June 7, Defence Minister Abdihakim Mahmoudis Haji visited Kismayo for meetings; when one self-declared president – Iftin Hassan Basto – was on his way to meet Haji, the Ras Kamboni Brigade stopped Basto in the area of Alanley Market (Suuqa Calanley). Clashes erupted between the Ras Kamboni Brigade and the Ormale militia loyal to Basto. The UN and HRW reported that at least 31 civilians died in fighting between June 7 and 8, as militias reportedly rained mortars on areas of the city – particularly on Dalaada, part of Alanley district along the road to the airport.

Someone in Kismayo sent me a text message (SMS) on June 28 that heavy fighting had begun at 15:00 hrs that day, following clashes in which seven were killed on June 27. The fighting appears to have taken place after Col. Abbas Ibrahim Gurey (Abbas Dheere) was detained by AMISOM Sector II troops in Kismayo. The militia loyal to Col. Barre Hirale, a close ally of Abbas Dheere, attacked the Ras Kamboni Brigade and AMISOM troops. The Ras Kamboni Brigade reportedly took full control of the city, but the Somali government has accused Kenyan AMISOM troops of violating their mandate by taking sides in the conflict.

More on Kismayo and Jubaland to follow.