South Africa: Ethiopian New Year in Joburg Is a Show of Resilience

13 September 2019

A shared culture and history bind Ethiopians living and working in central Johannesburg. It is what keeps them going when the police raid their businesses and xenophobic attacks threaten their safety.

Tadesse Yemane, who has been living in South Africa as an asylum seeker from Ethiopia for the past 16 years, has been vocal about police raids on shopkeepers in Johannesburg. As a representative for Ethiopian shopkeepers, he has assisted migrants affected by raids and recent incidents of xenophobic violence to press criminal charges and seek further help.

Despite the violence of the past few weeks, Yemane said Ethiopians are resilient people and won't be deterred from celebrating and observing their cultural and religious traditions.

Yemane explains how Ethiopians living in Johannesburg are reacting to the xenophic violence, after celebrating Enkuta'tash (Ethiopian New Year) at the Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo Church in Berea:

Even if there is a war, people will still observe and carry on with their lives. You see, one thing about Ethiopians is we don't give in for misfortunes and bad circumstances. Even from our history, we never had a chance for luxury. No matter what the circumstances, we stood our ground and we observe our traditions. We keep them up and have done so for centuries, like you've seen today.

It is important to do that, because once you forget your history and where you come from, then what is the value of life? Our culture and our history is what keeps us together, it's what keeps Ethiopian people together. No matter where we are, whether in Europe or Asia, you will find the same culture, people observing their traditions. Day-to-day life carries on. You can see an Ethiopian by the way he talks, by the way he walks, by the way he conducts his business and himself.

In fact, before [the xenophobic violence] erupted and got a lot of media coverage, we've been victimised for the past seven, eight years by illegal raids in the CBD [central business district of Johannesburg]. We have made it very clear to the police, we don't have any problem when the police conduct their operations. In fact, we are more than happy when we see the operations take place in our place because we benefit from visible police, we benefit when the police are active and combating crime. But what we couldn't understand, is whenever there is an operation, when there is police, we always find this disturbing thing, dehumanising, and very unacceptable thing of vandalism.

It's outright provocation. Can you imagine you confiscate an item, which is clothes, whether you call it counterfeit or not, because they couldn't prove it for the past decade whether we're selling counterfeit goods or not. They will just come and confiscate things without giving us proper documentation, search and seizure warrant, inventory. They make sure they chase us out of our building, they just fire rubber bullets. So we exit because we don't want the violence to erupt. We don't want bloodshed in there.

Hidden hand

Our hands are tied. No authority wants to help. There is a lot of corruption. We don't want to risk our lives. Money, let it go. Life, you'll never get it back. So let them loot, we'll work harder and get it back. You can see it clearly, they are always setting us up to become more violent. If people are looting week after week, they steal your money, they disrespect your women, obviously, we're human beings. Even the weakest guy on the street will retaliate. But we said, no, let's not retaliate. Nobody knows what we're going through. Even before we become violent, we complain, and they become violent and shoot at us.

Despite all this harassment and danger, people always wake up early in the morning and go to their business place and operate. Then get the little they get and come home late. And it seems like even that is not allowed, even that is a luxury. If you come to town, thousands of people are surviving with a cardboard-sized shop, most of us are on the streets. I don't know why, but there is a hidden hand orchestrating these things. Are we a threat for them because we are trying to survive?

Basic human right

You have to provide for yourself. And I think that is the basic human right of this planet, for any citizen to provide for himself. And then to take away that right, it will go against any human, moral, whatever, value. You cannot force people from providing for themselves. Right now, unfortunately, what we are witnessing is people trying to provide for themselves are falling victim.

These few politicians knew the electorate, and that's why they say, "Ah, this country is infested with illegal immigrants. Our country is overtaken by them." Imagine then, the high-ranking officials say this, what does the unemployed young person on the street think? That's what's causing all of this havoc.

Migration has been happening since the beginning of civilisation. People don't want to stay in one place, period. Now people are being told, no, no, you can't migrate. Even animals migrate. With our way of life, we're building walls and borders and fence. Our greed is getting out of control.

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