Why Somali’s have failed to integrate into the S.A Township communities
By Hassan Isilow
There has been a lot of debate relating to the integration of African migrants into the South African community. These debates have largely been conducted in the media, with participants including both South African citizens and migrant representatives. At some point, migrant organisations such as the African Diaspora Forum (ADF), and local government officials were involved in sensitizing township communities on the importance of peaceful living.
The Somali Community Board of South Africa (SCOB) has also tried to teach Somali nationals how to co-exist with the township communities where they own businesses.
However, I believe the Somali people have failed to pass the integration test, largely because of their unique culture, religion and language barrier.
Let me begin by discussing religion as a factor in the integration process. It should be noted that all Somalis are Muslims, so they find it difficult to freely associate with their township host communities who are non-Muslims. For instance, if a female customer comes to buy an item in the Somali shop, they will avoid hand contact with the customer while receiving cash.
At times, while giving the customer change, the money falls down because the Somali shopkeeper does not want to touch the female customer’s hand. Township women who are not Muslims can not understand this “Islamic” culture, so they have misinterpreted this to mean Somali shopkeepers look down on them. In the African culture, it’s very wrong for one to throw money at someone.
Perhaps these shopkeepers should write a note in their shops saying: “Dear female customers, put your money on the counter and we shall serve you, because we do not touch women’s hands”. This might go a long way to explain the situation to people who are strange to their culture. It might even get locals interested in learning more about Islam as a religion.
On the opposite end of the scale, other African migrant communities are mostly Christians, who attend church service together with their host communities. This has drawn them closer and as a result Christian migrants are more accepted in the township communities, primarily because of the religious factor.
It is also true that Muslim communities in suburbs have been very supportive of the Somali community and other Muslim migrants. For instance, Muslim suburbs of Fordsburg and Mayfair in Johannesburg have openly welcomed Muslim migrants. The examples given above add credence to my argument that religion plays a great role in the integration or assimilation process. Migrant Muslims who run businesses in predominantly Muslim suburbs of Cape Town or Johannesburg are much safer and easily accepted in the community, compared to those operating in Guguletu.
Christian African migrants living in the townships have gone a step further by intermarrying with the host communities. This has created a closer connection between the two. Since Somali’s do not intermarry with their township host communities, they have been viewed as “racist” capitalists who are out to make money from the poor communities. I think Somali’s should start marrying township women and make them Muslims. By so doing, Islam would spread in the townships and a closer connection would develop between the two communities. After all, there are so many beautiful women in the townships.
A business tycoon friend of mine, Mahad Abdi, has been trying to change perceptions about Somali’s in townships by helping several community-based organisations with money and food. Today Mahad is very popular in Khaylitesha and I wish many other Somali’s would emulate him.
Finally, let’s look at language as a factor hindering the Somali integration process. Somali’s come from a non-English speaking country. When they come to South Africa, they learn English while running their businesses, which means they can not communicate properly with customers. I think Somali business owners need to take special lessons in English, Xhosa and Afrikaans. Learning the language of the host community is the first step towards integration.