Ethiopians living in South Africa are said to be emerging as one of the most financially successful communities in that country. Now, many Ethiopians own buildings, shops and various other formidable business establishments. In fact, in a space of two decades, they managed to forge what has come to be known as an Ethiopian quarter occupying neighborhoods traditionally inhibited by East Europeans and Indians. Nevertheless, most successful businessmen of Ethiopian origin have also lived through the most turbulent time in that country’s history; the fall of apartheid and the formation of the rainbow nation. And they remember it all, writes Tibebeselassie Tigabu from Johannesburg, South Africa.
When discussing the history of the apartheid movement and South Africa’s symbol of freedom the late Nelson Mandela (fondly known as Madiba) with a regular Ethiopian, your discussion is sure to touch upon the military training that the latter received in Ethiopia for a period of six months. Of course, that and, an Ethiopian passport which was issued to Mandela in 1962 under a cover identity of David Motsamayi which he used to travel across Africa.
The popular story of Ethiopia’s great contribution to the fight against apartheid aside, Ethio-South African relations traces their roots back to the late 19th century with an Ethiopian slave called Bisho Jarsa.
Bisho was one among a group of Ethiopian slaves freed by the British warship in 1888 off the coast of Yemen, and then taken around the African coast and placed in the care of missionaries in South Africa. This compelling story was published by British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) five years ago under the titled: “How an Ethiopian Slave became a South African Teacher”.
According to the article, her grandson, Nevile Edward Alexander, testified that his grandmother spoke a language, which sounds like one of the indigenous Ethiopian languages, and that no one understood her.
Coincidently, Alexander, a veteran of the movement against apartheid and advocate of multilingualism, was also a political prisoner in the 1960’s with Nelson Mandala in Robin Island.
His fellow prisoners Nelson Mandela and Walter Sisulu were fascinated by his part-Ethiopian origins but at that time he did not know his grandmother came to this country through slavery.
His mother told him about his Ethiopian origins when he was in his teens but not all the details,the BBC’s story goes on narrating.
According to the article, Bisho reached Lovedale, South Africa, on the 21st August 1890. She was among the 183 children who were sold in to slavery from Ethiopia; most of these children died, according to theBBC.
In 1903, the Lovedale authorities asked this group of people whether they would like to return to Ethiopia. Some opted to do so and around 17 of them sailed back to Ethiopia in 1909.
But, Bisho decided to stay in South Africa and later managed to lead a respectable professional career as a teacher. Under the apartheid regime, Bisho’s family was classified as colored/ mixed race/.
Now home to more than three hundred thousand Ethiopians, South Africa saw the most recent mass migration of Ethiopians towards the end of the apartheid era. The first batch of Ethiopian migrants of recent history arrived in South Africa at the most difficult time in the country’s history: it was a period of transition for South Africa having just emerged from the brutal apartheid regime. This period was marked by a deep-rooted crisis fueled by racism and violence. But, it was also filled with hope for the future.
Samuel Getu Shiferaw, 47, is one of the early comers to South Africa. Having lived in Johannesburg for 21 years, Samuel remembers that the time of his arrival coincided with the historical voting of the first black president, Nelson Mandela, into power in South Africa. He also recalls the colorful celebration of black South Africans following the announcement that Mandela will be president of the country.
The first couple of days were harsh for Samuel whew he was forced to sleep on the street covering his body with nothing but paper box and enduring the gut wrenching cold. The company of his friend really made the bare asphalt and the cold bearable, Samuel remembers. That situation was only temporary; soon strangers offered them food and beverages.
Their desperate situation caught a man’s eye and directed them to the Salvation Army to be provided with free food and shelter. They heard the man’s advice and headed to the center. While waiting in line suddenly their ear picked up something familiar; two pedestrians talking in Amharic. Excitingly, they called their Ethiopian fellows who seem to know better about South Africa. They did not leave them there. Rather, they took them to a refugee center. The comp was filled with refugees from all over Africa. Around 150 refugees slept in a one room. Samuel says that the number of Ethiopian refugees was insignificant; only 20 in number but they were very influential.
During that time, their refugee status did not allow them to work or to go to school. So, persistent Ethiopians went on hunger strike to change this law and he proudly says that it was successful.
“This did not only benefit us but our effort helped all the refugees,” says Samuel.
In a couple of years, the number of refugees increased and the program was interrupted. So, Samuel and his friends had to look for other alternatives to survive. One of the choices was to impersonate Ethiopian Jews so they can get free shelter and free food in a Jew center. Though they were accepted they could not adopt the conservative rules such as curfew; so their stay there was rather short. Samuel smiles when he reminisces those times. The Jew center was not the only one which offered food and shelter; others such as the Greek Orthodox Church and the Catholic Church were there and Samuel and his friend used to visit them all. Looking for a better viable solution they even went to a Muslim agency claiming to be Muslims.
Samuel, with his broken Arabic language, was able to recite the prayers and was favored to get edible supplies. Though many of them were supplied once in a week, he became the exception to take supplies home every day. He did not consume the supplies he took from the agency. Rather, he sold them to the street vendors.
This became short-lived when he was asked to interpret the Islam prayers into Amharic that was in direct conflict with his religious belief.
They were persistent to survive and adopted various survival modes. A shrewd entrepreneur, a colored South African, came up with an idea of creating a story for the refugees and collecting charity funds from various organizations. He was able to raise a lot of money in a short time. Looking at that opportunity Samuel wanted to take his idea on his own and went to Carlton Center, a shopping center located in downtown Johannesburg, with the necessary document to beg for money.
In an effort to bring out his documentation Samuel made the fatal mistake of sending his hand to his pocket in sudden movement which was mistaken for trying to draw a weapon and was apprehended on the spot by security officers. When they finally understood that he didn’t have any weapon on him and came to learn about his story, even the security officers were touched by his story and ended up giving him a lot of money.
Though 1994 marked the end of apartheid in South Africa, it was also a time of turmoil, bloodshed and also countless strikes. Samuel remembers the controversial killing of Chris Hani, leader of South African Communist Party, the truth and reconciliation process, and the unfolding of the negotiated revolution. He recalls the faction in ANC which was opposed to the negotiation with the Nationalist Party, a group that ended up being murdered and imprisoned. Samuel also remembers one of the brutal shell massacres that gunned down more than 19 people including prominent figures.
In addition to that, he says, a number of companies were hit by a wave of strikes over salary increment and demand for a better working condition. In response to the strikes, the government organized a strike task force that replaced the vacant places with available labor force. Ethiopian refugees came in handy in those places especially for technical jobs that did not need expertise. During those days, Samuel managed to secure a job in a publishing house and a bank. “It had its own risk. If the strikers catch you, you will face the consequences of being beaten up. Luckily for me, I did not face that,” says Samuel.
Before coming to South Africa, Samuel was a sophomore Physics student in Addis Ababa University at the Arat killo campus. When students were forced to give national military services during Derg rule, he joined the training force. He escaped that life and fled to Kenya. His stay in Kenya was good but he wanted to move to a country where there is a tremendous job opportunity. South Africa, the newly independent nation, gave him a bright hope so he started his long and treacherous journey.
He crossed the borders of Tanzania, Malawi, and Mozambique on foot, on overloaded trucks, buses and swam across rivers to reach South Africa. The journey took eight months altogether but he also faced with harsh realities, moments of despair and a glimpse of humanity in unexpected places.
He smiles when he remembers a police officer who guided them along their journey and advised them to follow a strategy to escape border guards. He also remembers being caught in a cross fire in Maputo following a clash of two contending parties there and how he was thrown in jail because of that.
The road taught him tough lessons such as how to hide money, who to bribe and how to depend on strangers who don’t even speak the same language as his. They knew the borders were not heaven to migrants especially in South Africa. He remembers the shocking video of four white policemen who ordered their dogs to attack Mozambican illegal detainees as part of a training exercise. He heard harsh treatment of Ethiopian migrants at the border especially those who came during the apartheid era. He says he is among the lucky ones.
Samuel is also one of the pioneers in street businesses, an occupation which is attracting a number of Ethiopian migrants these days, vending merchandise such as sweets, cigarettes, and socks. There was a season for various merchandises, which grew and transformed into umbrellas, TDK cassettes and belt across various periods.
He was traveling back and forth bringing merchandise from other cities of South Africa and selling them on the street. Two Ethiopians who came after him opened two shops that was a new chapter for the full-blown Ethiopian-owned business in Central Business District area.
Next to their shops, Samuel says, there was a dressing Salon and he asked the woman who owns the property if he can buy it with eight thousand rand. Surprisingly, the woman told him five thousand rand is enough. He started a wholesale business of shoes. He even brought his siblings as the business grows. The Ethiopians pushed in owning many shops through time. Although alien to racism at the time, Ethiopian community’s interaction with white South Africans was largely limited at the beginning. This situation changed when Ethiopians started to make money. As the businesses owned by Ethiopians start to grow through time, many Ethiopians started to hang out in places frequented and owned by white South Africans.
Though apartheid had ended in paper, Samuel says on the ground these places continued their segregation policy. These establishments refused to serve black people. Many Ethiopians were told food and drinks were finished, the waiters did not come their way.
Eshetu, who wanted to withhold his last name, came to South Africa some twenty years ago. He too says that there were incidents where restaurants openly told Ethiopians that they don’t serve black people. Eshetu believes that remnants of that racism are still observed in South Africa.
Some of the establishments that improved their situation welcomed black people half-heartedly. Ethiopians went to bars in-groups and watched soccer games but if white people came into the bar the TV station was switched to rugby or caters to the white customers’ interest that, according to Samuel, would usually start fights.
According to Samuel, that was not acceptable among Ethiopians and fighting became a common occurrence. One of them was his uncle, a former military man.
This situation, Samuel says, gets worse when one goes outside of the urban areas, to areas such as farms. He remembers one such incident when he traveled to Brits, one of the fertile towns in North-West province of South Africa, to sell shoes in a flea market. He took his Ethiopian girlfriend to a crocodile farm. The white waiters deliberately ignored them for hours. Samuel could not take it anymore and tripped one of the waitresses when she passed by. The police were called to meddle and Samuel did not lie but rather told the police that he did it deliberately. The police let him go. He then went back another day but only to witness change in attitude.
“Though apartheid was over some of the white communities who still want to keep the legacy of apartheid get sick when black people go to these spaces,” says Samuel.
Eshetu’s introduction to South Africa was through stories of struggle against apartheid. He even drew a picture copying his English textbook of an apartheid symbol a man’s hand chained in handcuff.
There were also songs that reflected the struggle for the end of apartheid that gave him an idea of the country. When South Africa was freed from apartheid his older brother came with a collection of his traditional designing clothes.
After a year, Eshetu followed transiting through various countries and finally via Swaziland to reach t South Africa. The traditional clothes were not successful. So he joined the popular business among Ethiopians in South Africa selling shoes, belts, and other merchandise. Eshetu did not suffer like Samuel because of his brother’s presence.
During the first years they were not engaged with the country’s situation but through time they even witnessed bloodshed. He remembers bloodshed between the ANC and The Inkatha Freedom Party (IFP). It was shocking for him to see people carrying guns freely.
“Dying was easy. We saw so many dead bodies; it was a struggle to restore humanity,” says Eshetu.
In the early days, the Ethiopian community was unified and strong. According to Eshetu, Bizuayehu Alemayehu, an economist by profession and a minister during Derg time, was the one who pushed the agenda of Ethiopian refugees in the South African government.
It was not allowed to do business on the streets of Pretoria and also in some areas of Johannesburg before; all changed because of the constant negotiation by Bizuayehu. In addition to that, despite our refugee status, Eshetu says, Bizuayehu managed to influence banks to allow Ethiopians to open bank accounts.
Through the years, Ethiopians were able to control the area known as Jeepe that according to Eshetu was formerly controlled by East Europeans and Indians. Two decades ago, many South Africans did not know about Ethiopians; many of them were considered colored. Now, things have changed completely and many of the Ethiopians are financially successful.
Samuel says many Ethiopians own buildings, shops and various establishments. In a matter of two decades, they were able to create an Ethiopian quarter. In addition to that, Ethiopians helped their families by contributing to the remittance of the country. Eshetu believes the consumerism culture helped them to be financially successful; and above all both Samuel and Eshetu are grateful to the generosity of South Africans.