If boerewors, Afrikaans, Ford Cortinas and bad taste come to mind when I say “Bellville”, you might be surprised to hear that that an estimated 5000 Somalis now live in its downtown area. The Bellville CBD at the bottom end of Durban Road is home to the largest Somali refugee community in South Africa.
Not much has been written about this cluster of traders that settled here over the last ten years. The few news stories that have appeared this year depict them in different ways. This Rapport article lists the reasons why local homeowners want to take the municipality to court. The city council, they say, need to apply laws to the Somalis to stop their illegal mosque, the encroachment on residential areas and the rise in crime. It’s a bleak picture, wherein the Somalis are the cause of Bellville’s degeneration.
This article portrays Bellville as a sanctuary for Somalis after the xenophobic attacks that caused many to flee the townships. Shop owners enjoy business freedom here and one young man is quoted saying “it’s better than anywhere else in Cape Town”.
The best reporting on the issue I’ve seen so far is this Die Burger article by Jackie Pienaar-Brink. It uses the personal history of one refugee, Yusuf Omar Achmed, to show how and why Somalis come here. Achmed explains that he was a school principal back in Mogadishu, studying for a degree in business administration when Ethiopian troops invaded his country in 2006.
The journalist also speaks to locals who say that some of the recent arrivals are ill-mannered but that most of the Somalis traders are peaceful entrepreneurs and good costumers. One local woman goes so far as to say that the Somalis are like “boeremense”.
Our distrust of outsiders blinds us to the valuable contribution that refugees can make to the local economy. People seem to forget that the French Huguenots, the ancestors of Afrikaans families like the Coetzees, De Villiers, Nels, Marais, Le Rouxs and Jouberts also came to the Cape as refugees. They fled religious persecution in Europe and settled here where they could practice their faith without fear. By 1730 they were known as the most hard-working community at the Cape.
New York was built by immigrants. Italians Jews came to America to make a better life for themselves, faced hardship and discrimination but came to play an important part in the country’s development in the 20th century. If you want to know more about the contribution immigrants make to America’s economy as a key source of entrepreneurs and graduates, read this article.
Of course, the reason why immigrants are so successful isn’t because people from other countries are inherently superior. The immigration process seems to act as a filter. Getting to another country by foot or scholarship is difficult. It’s like a sieve that only lets driven and resourceful people through.
A city like Bellville, perceived to be boringly monocultural, could benefit from such immigrants. I recently spoke to a young architect who grew up in downtown Bellville but now lives in Cape Town. His parents still stay in the area and though he has fond memories of walking along Voortrekker Road to the public swimming pool, he says he wouldn’t live there now because it’s just too dull.
In The Rise of the Creative Class, Richard Florida argues that cities that want to succeed in the information age need to appeal to the young, bright and creative rather than large companies. When Florida says “creative” he doesn’t mean “artistic”. His definition of the creative class includes scientists, writers, engineers, entertainers, opinion-makers and designers. To attract these people, says Florida, a city has to display an openness to different kinds of people and ideas.
Bellville’s problem is that its cultural capital is draining away. It’s aging. If it wants to curb this trend it could take a cue from cities like Austin, Texas and aim to become a multicultural, high tech city.
Until then, it can start by figuring out how to manage and include its Somali community. Minneapolis, whose Cedar-Riverside neighbourhood is known as “Little Somalia” provides an example. The ADC initiates social ventures in that city like this deli that serves Somali foods like sambusas, spicy Afrosteak and chicken fantastic. I’d like to see businesses like that in Voortrekker Road. A Somali festival in the tradition of kerkbasaars could be held in the Danie Uys Park. It might just get a few Capetonians to drive up the N1 and change those outdated stereotypes.