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Thursday, 30 July 2015 20:13

Mayfair: A Somali Island in Johannesburg


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Photos: Salym Fayad


The lack of a functioning nation-state alongside the frequent droughts and consequent famines, and the rise of Al-Shabaab in the area have made thousands of Somalis to leave their country. Nowadays the Somali diaspora constitutes one of the biggest and most widely-spread around the world. Somali communities can be found in different cities in western countries such as London, New York, Minnesota, Victoria, Stockholm or Toronto, as well as in the African urban hubs of Nairobi and Johannesburg.

The transnational networks this diaspora has created are shaped by multi-layered connections in which goods, people, money and cultural practices move. In this sense the Somali diaspora appears to incarnate “the five dimensions of global cultural flows” proposed by Appadurai (1996): ethnoscapes, mediascapes, tecnoscapes, financescapes and ideoscapes. Among its people you can find women like Heda, a mother of five small children and a successful business woman who runs a lodge in Mayfair and who previously resided in London, Egypt and Nairobi. Cultural products, like music video clips featuring Somali “traditional” music in a Horn of Africa setting are produced in London and consumed in Toronto and Nairobi. Facebook and other social networks are constantly used to communicate with family and friends all around the world. Money transfer systems such as hawala allow money to quickly and reliably travel from the USA to the streets of Mayfair, so a relative can start a business; political ideas about the fate of the country and the role of Al-Shabab are discussed as vigorously by Somalis in Mogadishu as in Minnesota.

For Somalis reaching Johannesburg, the journey usually begins in Nairobi, in what has become the busiest port of Somalia: goods and money are in constant transit in the vibrant neighbourhood of Eastleigh, Nairobi´s “little Mogadishu”. At the same time, diaspora returnees use the Kenyan capital as a base to access Somalia and refugees leaving the country arrive to the East African city in transit towards other places around the world.

Once in Nairobi, Somali migrants arrange the journey to South Africa through a smuggler who provides transport and accommodation along the way in parts of East and Southern Africa. This is a journey full of perils that Somalis endure following their dreams, desires and expectations of ‘building a better life’ away from their home country. Stories circulate, travelling miles, reaching those in East Africa - stories about the wonderful life to be found in the south of the continent, about access to education, about the possibilities of finding a stable, remunerated job, about building a successful business, about prosperity and wealth.

However, as they start to settle in South Africa, they realize that education is expensive and in most cases inaccessible to them; that the jobs they may get working for other Somalis, Ethiopians or Indians give them barely enough money to eat and pay rent in a shared bedroom, and that starting a business in a township can be life-threatening.  

Johannesburg, a city often portrayed as the most modern, multicultural and cosmopolitan hub south of the Sahara, is also a city that constantly excludes. The metropolis developed demarcating very strong ethnic enclaves, making very clear who belonged where. The spatial rules imposed by the Apartheid regime are still very much felt in the urban landscape and in the everyday life of the city, with racial boundaries surviving in the collective imagination, fed by narratives of fear that become as difficult to surpass as the multiple electric fences anchored to its grounds.

Somalis in Johannesburg chose Mayfair for settling down during the 1990s due to the religious links they found with the Muslim Indian population who used to inhabit this area during Apartheid (Jinnah 2010).

At the heart of the neighbourhood is Amal, a Somali shopping mall located between Albertina Sisulu Road and Mayfair’s 8th avenue. Inside, the two-storey mall concentrates around an open-air food court, always busy with Somali men eating or drinking tea as they talk.  Around it, on the ground floor, always smelling of incense, one can find travel agencies, money transfer outlets and small shops run by women selling clothes, perfumes and a mix of products from the Indian Ocean: spices, colourful clothes, dresses, and scarves, incense, whitening creams, sesame oil, perfumes, tea and coffee and bottled Holy water from Mecca.  On the upper floor, bigger shops sell wholesale products. Somalis staying in townships come periodically to get their goods from here and other parts of Mayfair. As in many cases business trips to Johannesburg can take several days, those who have no family to stay with stop overnight in one of the lodges that proliferate in the area.

Somalis did not only bring commercial activity to the area, but by doing so they also transformed the urban landscape through the reproduction of cultural and religious practices, routines and street life activity from a lost homeland, implemented in the everyday life of the neighbourhood.

The places we inhabit are major sources of individual and collective identifications. But it is not only identities that are influenced by place; places can also be influenced by collective identities. Mayfair is popularly known as “little Mogadishu” because along its streets Somaliness becomes a materialization of a way of being that is able to transform a space into a very distinctive place.  A process that also generates a lack of self-awareness, as it mitigates the feeling of being “the other” in a foreign environment, creating a situation in which “the other” becomes any non-Somali who trespasses the barriers of the “Little Mogadishu”.

However this translocal situation is not only able to transform spaces but it also showcases “processes of identity formation that transcend boundaries” (Greiner & Sakdapolrak 2013, 373). Somalis share strong feelings of being translocally connected, implemented by the repetition of certain sets of practices that are reproduced all around the world creating feelings of belonging to an “imagined community” (Anderson 1983).  The virtual spaces of social networks such as Facebook and Instagram also contribute to this sense of unity as they become a place where the collective imagination recreates a lost homeland at the same time that aspirations and hopes of having a prosperous life are shared. Translocality does not only connect distant places but also past, present and future in the migrant imagination.

Even if Mayfair has been transformed in the last few years into a “little Mogadishu”, becoming a home away from home for Somalis, the hostile and xenophobic situation Somalis face in South Africa, the spatial boundaries that still exist in the post-apartheid city, together with the lack of direct family support create strong feelings of insecurity, alienation and isolation among the Somali community living there. This generates a strong collective feeling of buufis, the Somali concept that expresses the anxiety generated by the desire and the impossibility to move somewhere else. In this sense, Mayfair becomes a small island from which it is difficult to leave.

Somalis living in the neighbourhood feel quite isolated, with few links to the rest of the city. However this isolation also offers a kind of protection. Some Somali businessmen in Mayfair are aware that they could be making much more money opening spaza shops in townships, but they choose to stay as they feel much safer inside this island.

Moreover, during the recent waves of xenophobic attacks taking place this year, the numbers of Somalis in Mayfair doubled, with shopkeepers from the townships coming to the area in big numbers looking for protection. In January 2015 the number of Somalis in the area multiplied, with lodges full to their capacity, hosting people for free, who even had to sleep in the corridors. Weeks later, Mayfair became empty, with many Somalis leaving South Africa during February and March, either back to Somalia or Kenya, or to Brazil - in order to reach the US, a new migration route among Somalis.  In a period of a few months, the island of Mayfair became first a protective nest and soon after a temporary port, a busy transitional place from which to leave South Africa, a gap in time and space on the way to somewhere else, showing the ephemeral nature of this place, opened to constant transformation depending on the ever changing circumstances of the people inhabiting its streets.


Anderson, Benedict R. O’G. 1983. Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism. Rev. ed. London ; New York: Verso.

Appadurai, Arjun. 1995. Modernity at Large: Cultural Dimensions of Globalization. Public Worlds 1. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

Greiner, Clemens & Sakdapolrak. 2003. Patrick. “Translocality: Concepts, Applications and Emerging Research Perspectives” Geography Compass 7 (5): 373–384.

Jinnah, Z. 2010. “Making Home in a Hostile Land: Understanding Somali Identity,          Integration, Livelihood and Risks in Johannesburg.” Journal of Sociology and Anthropology 1 (1-2): 91-99.

This article is part of the project Metropolitan Nomads: A Journey Through  Joburg’s “Little Mogadishu”, a multimedia installation supported by the African Centre for Migration and Society (ACMS) and Method: Visual: Explore (MOVE) that will take place at the Wits Anthropology Museum from September to October 2015.

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