Call it fatalism, resignation or sheer naivety, but Osman Adam (46) says he doesn’t waste much time pondering over what he will do when armed thugs break down his door. A highly probable eventuality, considering that just two weeks ago the previous owner of the store he now manages in Kroondal, an informal settlement on the outskirts of Rustenburg in the North West, died in a pool of blood in the doorway in which he now stands.
“When it’s your time, it’s your time,” he says with a shrug.
Not that Adam is any stranger to men with guns. The father of six, who fled war-ravaged Somalia three years ago, still walks with a slight stoop, the result of a bullet lodged in his back. A victim of an attack in his homeland, he has heard of increasing attacks on Somali traders living in remote areas of the country, and is seemingly unperturbed.
Following the killing of his countryman, and having heard other “horror stories” of Somali businessmen in townships being deliberately targeted by criminals, many tried to dissuade him from doing business in places such as Kroondal, where he would be isolated and could not count on the police coming to his aid if there was trouble.
Though the store, Matebeleng General Dealers, sells little more than humble staples such as cooking oil, bread and maize meal, it resembles a fortress.
The corrugated iron structure, with its bold sign: “Come one, come all!” is criss-crossed with rows of burglar bars, all enclosed in a perimeter protected by rolls of barbed wire. At the doorway stand big yellow drums of paraffin for sale.
Adam and his two assistants, like the rest of the residents of Kroondal, live without electricity and running water. It is blisteringly hot outside, and inside the store feels like a furnace. In running a simple business such as this, profits are minimal -- “extras” such as a generator are an unaffordable luxury.
But Adam, who previously had businesses in Port Elizabeth, Kimberley and Zebedelia township in Limpopo, doesn’t plan to be there forever. His plan is to make a success of this store and, once he is more financially established, to move on.
A notice pasted on the doorframe of the store informs customers of the new trading hours, which were previously from 6.30am to 11pm. “This shop closes from sunset due to circumstances -- we regret to limit the time that we are open.”
The “circumstances” are the killing of the previous owner, and the serious wounding of his assistant, when three armed men burst into the shop on the night of December 22 last year, and without saying a word opened fire. By the time police arrived at the scene the assailants had fled without taking any money -- leaving yet another a dead Somali trader. The incident brought the number of dead Somali traders in Rustenburg in the past two years to 12, all killed by acts of violence that some in the small tightly knit community say are deliberate targeting and others, such as Adam, say are just part and parcel of the South African crime wave.
Both Adam’s personal story and that of his dead predecessor have become familiar. Recent news headlines bear testimony to a series of incidents involving Somali traders being attacked, their stores ransacked and some killed -- by local criminals. In the latest incident, earlier this month, two traders were burned to death in their shop in Duncan Village in the Eastern Cape.
According to the Somali Association of South Africa, violence against Somalis has been increasing steadily with 42 killings last year alone. For this 15 000-strong community, many of whom see the violence as deliberate targeting, there is a feeling of being under siege.
Now some members of the community say that instead of being “sitting ducks” they are banding together to make themselves less vulnerable and, in some cases, doing the work that should be done by the police.
On the other side of town, in the township of Sondela, Dr Adam Sahel’s white Toyota Hilux bakkie pulls up outside a brown face-brick store. Soon other cars arrive carrying five more men. Coming out to greet them is the store’s manager, the tall, soft-spoken Yusuf Dadle (23). The men sit down on chairs on the veranda and are offered refreshments by a store assistant. They have become a regular feature here, dropping by regularly to “check up on things” at their countryman’s store. The men, 12 in all, are part of what they call an “emergency response team”, formed two years ago by Somali traders in Rustenburg to help their countrymen when they are attacked.
Today there has been no trouble, but as they all know this can suddenly change. As it did on the evening of January 7 this year. Dadle was at a neighbouring store when he heard gunshots from inside his store. Running towards it he barely had time to see two men pile into a car and drive off, leaving one young assistant dead at the back of the store and the other seriously wounded. The police came, eventually, says Dadle wryly, “about 50 of them in shiny cars”. After taking statements and calling the mortuary van to collect the corpse, they left. “That’s the last we heard of them,” he says.
“We see our job as helping the police to get resolution on these incidents because, as we know, if you sit and wait around for the police or an ambulance here you could die waiting,” says Sahel.
The team is alerted to potential trouble when a member gets a call from the store owner, and after alerting other team members, they rush to the scene. Here they will form a cordon around the store if it appears there is a crowd intent on looting, and if there has been damage to the store, help the owner secure the premises. If there has been a death they arrange for the body to be released to the family for burial in keeping with traditional rites, and if the deceased has no family here they relay the news to Somalia.
They admit that more often than not the criminals have already gone by the time they arrive, leaving little chance for apprehension. But they do assist in collecting statements from witnesses, if there are any, and follow up on cases with the local police office -- a practice they admit has yielded few successes.
“The police don’t tell us anything, if they know the facts or the truth, they just can’t be bothered to tell us,” says Dadle. In the recent incident he witnessed he was able to give a description of the car and other details, but says the police appeared dismissive of his attempts to help.
“Catching them should be not our job but the job of the police anyway, because we as foreigners can’t distinguish between who is a criminal and who is just a customer,” says Muhammad Ali (25).
But they still see their role as an important one, particularly when it comes to ferrying the wounded to hospital. In the January incident they had to take the wounded assistant to hospital in Rustenburg themselves after waiting an eternity for an ambulance to arrive.
None of the men admits to carrying weapons. Most are not permitted to do so because of their legal status as refugees, but they say that they want to act as a deterrent to local thugs who see them arriving in their numbers.
“Even if we aren’t really armed we want the criminals to see us coming in a big group and think we are armed, which will scare them off,” says team member Osman Gurre (30).