According to crime statistics, the Fordsburg and Mayfair areas are two of the safest foreign-inhabited areas in Johannesburg. The Muslims in the area, which is increasing yearly, believe it is because of their peaceful nature. Can this be true?
Mayfair and Fordsburg have become places where refugees, asylum seekers and immigrants from the world come to find and protect one another.
For Mayfair, an area rich with foreign businesses and residents, the once “whites only” zone went through two xenophobic waves virtually unscathed.
Some residents, such as Amir Sheikh, have hailed the area as a safe haven for foreigners because of the peacefulness of Muslims, who make up the majority of the population.
Others though, still look over their shoulders and hold on tight to their children when walking in the streets and complain that ordinary crime is on the rise.
Somalis first foreigners
The vast majority of Somalis immigrated to this area in the early 1990s as their home country burnt with civil war.
“Early Somalis came here with almost nothing,” said Sheikh, who is chairman of the Somali Community Board of South Africa.
Luckily for these families, there were many Indian people of Islamic faith already living in the area.
This was partly due to a court judgment in the 1980s against apartheid’s Group Areas Act. A court ruled that Indian people could not be evicted under the Act if they bought or rented properties in Mayfair as the state couldn’t provide adequate alternative accommodation.
The wealthy and well-established Muslim Indians in the area helped the Somalis who shared their faith through one of the five pillars of Islam, zakāh . Zakāh is an annual payment made under Islamic law on certain types of property and used for charitable and religious resolves.
These Indians then took “shares” from their businesses and spread them among the destitute of the Muslim community, which included the Somalis.
As the years went by, foreign nationals from many different countries (most of which were Muslim) found solidarity living in the Mayfair and Fordsburg area, which had become increasingly commercial.
In Central Road you can find a spaza shop owned by a Bangladeshi, a clothing store owned by an Egyptian and a takeaway owned by an Indian. In the same street you would see Zimbabweans working as sales ladies and Mozambicans as chefs.
“The truck at the borders already know to drop them [foreigners] here,” said Sheikh.
As to why the foreigners choose to settle in this area, local immigration practitioner Pieter Britz gave two reasons: The area has a lot of work for them as immigrants and some of their families are already living there.
Sheikh, however, believes foreign Muslim people choose to start their new lives in the area because “it is the only area close to the CBD that hosts people of Islamic faith”. This allows Muslims there the freedom to work and still practise their religion, such as taking breaks from work during the day to pray at a mosque.
According to Sheikh the crime rate in the area has dropped over the years, since his arrival in 2003, which he believes is due to the rising number of Muslims in the area as they are “peaceful people”.
Although the crime statistics in the area dropped to a recorded low in 2013, it increased 15% in the past two years.
Egyptian Salama Elshereef and his cousin have been working and living in Fordsburg since 2006. They followed their family here after they came to the country in 1997.
“Egyptian people here have a lot of businesses in all Islamic areas in South Africa. They helped me work my way up to owning a business.”
Elshereef agreed with Sheikh that the area became safer and more peaceful as the number of Muslims in the area grew.
“Where there are Muslims you will always feel safe,” said Elshereef, but contradictory to this statement he also noted that crimes of all sorts have shot up since the beginning of 2015.
“Crime is coming back to the area because it is getting business. Lots of foreign markets are getting busier, making more money and the thieves know,” said Elshereef.
Even with the belief that crime in the area has increased, Elshereef would still rather stay here than go back to Egypt.
“In Egypt life is better when talking about safety, but business here is better and I feel better near my family … that’s why I came here for them, not because I believe it’s safer,” said Elshereef.
Zimbabwean Vanessa Chalmers said the area with all the different foreigners is “mostly friendly”.
Although “in all honesty” Chalmers said it is safer in her home country but “the economy, schooling systems and technologies are better in South Africa”.
The 21-year-old Chalmers said the area isn’t that violent although “there is always this one bum that is looking for trouble”.
‘There is fighting all the time. Shooting and stealing’
Ethiopian Hadra Ahmed is a newcomer to the vibrant foreigners’ hub. She came to South Africa in 2009 and, after living and working in Durban with her brother for five years, she moved to Mayfair in August to get married. Her fiancé owns a bistro and has been in the area for two years but she is not comfortable with the idea of living here.
“This is not [a] good area to raise kids,” Ahmed said before talking about her young daughter and her second child, which is on the way.
Ahmed went on to talk about how a Pakistani guy was hijacked on the corner of Bird Street and 9th Avenue, in front of the restaurant she has her coffee stall in.
“There is fighting all the time. Shooting and stealing. They stole the man’s car and drove back to shoot him.”
Although she believes the criminals to be South African, she doesn’t think they killed the man because he was a foreigner. “People here from all nations get attacked and killed, even South Africans.
“I like this country, but I’m scared when xenophobic attacks happen,” said Ahmed. Only bruises and an empty shop remained when her brother was attacked in Durban in 2008 with the first xenophobic wave.
“Here it is safer, but attacks still happen.”
Yet, she would rather stay here than go back home. “Life here is better, we do own business. There we can’t” due to economic conditions,” Ahmed explained.
Sheikh said he knows of one xenophobic attack that took place within the Fordsburg/Mayfair area. A Somali man was strangled to death in Carr Street in front of his garage in May 2008. Nothing was stolen.
Anti-foreigner sentiments were again spread in 2012 by a group that called themselves the South African Blacks Association, according to a media report.
The group circulated pamphlets and letters in the area warning foreigners that “we are coming for you”.
They threatened to rape and kill foreign women along with the following: “We will burn your houses, your so-called luxury cars, we will kill your fucken [sic] puppies [children] and burn down your shops.”
As xenophobic violence affected South Africa in 2015, Mayfair’s Christ Church set up a refugee camp on its grounds with the support of Gift of the Givers, an African disaster relief organisation, and the community.
“This is truly a safe haven for us foreigners because when the xenophobic attacks happened other foreigners came here to find shelter,” said Sheikh.
Amir’s view of South Africa as hospitable and receptive has not changed due to the xenophobic attacks.
“The same person that gives you space to trade and doesn’t know your country of origin cannot actually be a xenophobe. Still there are people that cling to the element and claim things when there are tensions somewhere.”
Non-Muslims also welcome
Britz and his practice assist roughly 30 to 40 immigrants a month.
“I find that our clients integrate into the area easily … They have strength in numbers and know people here, they speak the same languages and know the same type of socialistic statuses.” Then again, most of his clients are Muslims.
However, Sheikh said that while the area is dominated by Muslims, non-Muslims are also welcome.
“Non-Muslims have no difficulty coming into the community… we co-exist well,” said Sheikh.
He explained that people from the SADC region come to live and trade in the area.
“[It] doesn’t mean when you [are] of other faith that you are not accepted and accommodated into the community.” To strengthen his point, Sheikh used the example of the area’s ward counsellor, Barry Musesi, being “a black Christian from Limpopo”.
Although, over the years Sheikh has noted a change in pattern as the Muslims, especially the foreigners, are no longer as united in the area as they used to be.
“There is some inter-Islam racism and dislikes. There are talks about Somalis taking over everything … and a fear that we own most of the businesses in the area.”
Yet he believes that even with all the cultural differences they are still more united through Islam – with an understanding that their interactions are mutually beneficial.
But as a Zimbabwean Christian, Chalmers finds it difficult to integrate into the community, purely because of the tightly knit Muslim groups. She has been working in Fordsburg at Calisto’s Portuguese Restaurant for the past two months. She has been in the country from the beginning of 2015 to study accounting through South Africa’s distance university Unisa.
“Some of the Muslims are not that friendly, but with my work you are forced to get along with them. I found that if you are not of their kind, you are not seen as human.”
Other than her feeling uncomfortable in the presence of Muslims, she said she gets along well with all the other foreigners in the area.
Chalmers’s colleague, Gunjan Sur, has been in South Africa for five months under an “asylum seeker” status – although his life was not in danger in his home country. His travel agent in India allegedly told him the status was the same as a five-year work permit. She was wrong and he can no longer get hold of her.
Although Sur is stuck in South Africa, he sometimes forgets because “there are people here from my country and from Bangladesh and Pakistan who follow different religions. I feel at home here”.
Nonetheless, despite some struggles and disputes, many foreigners still come to this area for protection and to build better lives for themselves. Compared to other areas where foreigners are found in great numbers, such as Hillbrow and Yeoville, this area still statistically remains one of the safest.
Whether Muslims are connected to the higher levels of safety for foreigners or not, the Fordsburg and Mayfair areas serve as the definition of a “rainbow nation” for many foreigners.
FEATURED IMAGE: Gift of the Givers worker Fadia Jacobs on her way from the Mint Street, Fordsburg, office to go to a needy family in the area. Photo: Anlerie de Wet
- Wits Vuvuzela, SLICE: Am I South African enough?, April 2021
- Wits Vuvuzela, Foreigners in Johannesburg struggle under pandemic regulations, December 2020
- Wits Vuvuzela, Exhibition reflects on brutality of xenophobia in South Africa, May 2018
- Wits Vuvuzela, SLICE OF LIFE: Loving our African people, March 2017
- Wits Vuvuzela, New website to blow the whistle on xenophobia, August 2016