South Africa: Light Reading | the Rise and Fall of Hope

A 2016 picture of a Somalian shopkeeper almost beaten to death by a mob in Tshwane reminds a photographer of the cyclic nature of South Africa's xenophobic violence. 

Ahmed Ibrahim Hashi was just 22 years old when he made the journey from his village in Somalia to South Africa in 2009. Filled with hope for a better future for himself and his family back home, he traversed through five countries on foot, in buses, trucks and with lifts from kind strangers until he reached his final destination: Pretoria.

Hashi settled with the Somali community in Pretoria West and worked for a few years before he managed to save up enough money to open his own spaza shop with the help of a cousin in Atteridgeville.

He conveyed to me how proud he and his family were of his modest success. Making an honest living had brought him a feeling of dignity that had long been missing from his life.

When I took this photograph of Hashi in June 2016, all those feelings of hope and pride had been brutally destroyed, replaced by sadness and despair.

He was in a tiny room, just big enough for two single beds, in a home converted to accommodate Somalis displaced by a recent spate of violence that had swept through Tshwane's townships.

The jaw bones in his face had been cracked, so he slurred when he spoke. Most of his teeth had been dislodged. He had to be fed through a straw.

Hashi was with his cousin at their shop in Atteridgeville when they spotted a mob approaching. Not many options were available to the two men: stay and face possible death or run. No police officers were in sight. There was hardly time to think and no time to lock their shop. Hashi and his cousin sprinted through the streets of Atteridgeville as fast as their legs could carry them.

Their spaza shop was pillaged. The mob gave chase, pursuing the fleeing Somalians through the streets of the township. Hashi's cousin asked a local family to hide him. They did so - and possibly saved his life in the process. But Hashi was not so lucky. The crowd caught up with him and beat him mercilessly. His head was kicked into the sidewalk while bricks rained down on his face from all angles. Unconscious and bleeding profusely, he was left for dead. He was rescued in the nick of time by a fellow Somalian shopkeeper and rushed to hospital.

This was three years ago. This week, we once again saw similar incidents occurring throughout the country. Feelings of fear, anger and shame dominate our collective consciousness, and people everywhere are searching for answers.

During times like these when holding on to hope is a challenge, I am reminded of a passage from a letter penned by the author John Steinbeck to his friend Pascal Covici in January 1941, just as World War ll was beginning to submerge humanity in darkness.

Steinbeck writes, "It's as though the whole race were indulging in a kind of species introversion - as though we looked inward on our neuroses. And the thing we see isn't very pretty ... So we go into this happy new year, knowing that our species has learned nothing, can, as a race, learn nothing - that the experience of 10 000 years has made no impression on the instincts of the million years that preceded."

Steinbeck, however, keeps faith. "Not that I have lost any hope. All the goodness and the heroisms will rise up again, then be cut down again and rise up. It isn't that the evil thing wins - it never will - but that it doesn't die."

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