Ethiopians Find A Home Away From Home In South Africa

The tree to the right of Sami Shiferaw is where he used to tie his tent and sell accessories as a young retailer, new to South Africa. (Hannah Gebresilassie/MEDILL)

By Hannah Gebresilassie | MEDILL

"Sami, Sami!” two Ethiopian beggars shouted with their hands held out on a misty afternoon in Little Addis, an Ethiopian district on Jeppe Street in downtown Johannesburg.

Sami Shiferaw stopped, pulled about 50 rand ($3) from his pocket and handed it to the men: “They’re our friends,” Shiferaw said. “I have to.”

Shiferaw is one of the early Ethiopians who migrated to South Africa post-apartheid in 1998, after passport restrictions were lifted. Though he left Ethiopia for political reasons, he is committed to his countrymen, who also emigrated to find opportunity and raise healthy families far away from home.

The busy streets in Little Addis, an Ethiopian district on Jeppe Street in downtown Johannesburg.

Early on, he sold CDs, shoes and belts out of a small tent downtown, while also developing a relationship with the Chinese that has allowed him to become a well-respected businessman. Today, he co-owns three properties in Little Addis: two wholesale centers named Medical Center and Randine. He also co-owns a hotel called Rand Inn and is in the process of selling his share. Medical Center, which houses more than 100 mini shopping booths, was his first investment with nine other shareholders, purchased from the Taiwanese.

The busy streets in Little Addis, an Ethiopian district on Jeppe Street in downtown Johannesburg. (Hannah Gebresilassie/MEDILL)

“My partner is also a Chinese guy,” Shiferaw said. “We working like a son and father because he’s my elder. I respect him like my father, also his wife she’s like my mom.”

In his experience, Shiferaw said Chinese businessmen are reluctant to form tight business relationships with South Africans and those from neighboring countries. So, he enjoys the trust he and other Ethiopians have developed with the Chinese community.

While the Chinese predominantly import products, mostly Ethiopians and other African businessmen act as wholesalers and retailers. Almost 90 percent of retailers in downtown wholesale centers are Ethiopian, according to Shiferaw.

In fact, China is currently investing in building stronger affairs with Africa. In 2015, Chinese President Xi Jinping announced China’s intentions to invest $60 billion into the continent, hinting at a long-term relationship between Africa, particularly South Africa.

“Without Chinese we can’t survive,” Shiferaw said. “Without Ethiopians they can’t survive, also.” Although Shiferaw found success as a businessman, there is more to his story than economic gain: He is a father, a husband and a friend to many, experiencing pain in each role.

An Ethiopian flag hangs at a Rastafarian booth during a University of Witwatersrand student orientation. (Hannah Gebresilassie/MEDILL)

Shiferaw migrated to South Africa on an extensive 3,500-mile journey. He took a pit stop in Kenya and witnessed unforgettable incidents, like famine, poverty and war, along the way. In Johannesburg, he watched his best friend get killed while trying to stop a robber at their friend’s shop a couple blocks away from his wholesale center.

“You see in South Africa, it’s not much different from my country,” said Shiferaw, intent to stay and raise his family with his wife. “Africa is for us. So I’m African. I’m South African, I’m Ethiopian also. For the rest of my life, I will live here. For my family because my kids are South African.”

Unlike Shiferaw, Wondimu Abdissa, who left home for political reasons, does not consider South Africa home. Ethiopia had experienced years of famine, war and instability in the years leading to his move to South Africa. He hopes to go back home or resettle in the United States once he becomes more financially stable.

“I’m trying to communicate with my sister in America,” Abdissa says. “She came to visit during the xenophobia times. She doesn’t want me to stay here.”

Abdissa owns a traditional Ethiopian restaurant atop Randine and works with his wife to maintain the business. While South Africa celebrates the 20th anniversary of its notably progressive constitution, Abdissa hits two decades of residency in the country that still doesn’t feel safe.

In 2015, a series of xenophobic attacks targeted Ethiopians, among other immigrants. The incidents included petrol bombings, shooting incidents and mob attacks on shops.

Both Abdissa and his wife have doubts for their children. Abdissa said he doesn’t feel comfortable allowing his daughter to play outside due to the crime. Meanwhile, his wife is concerned their daughter will lose some of her Ethiopian identity.

“We need a better life,” Abdissa said about Johannesburg’s reputation for crime. “I can’t even let them outside to play soccer with friends. It makes me a little sad when I talk about my kids.”

Yet, he remains hopeful for a better future, and so does Shiferaw.

“I will carry on,” Shiferaw said. “I work hard to pick the economy up because it’s my own country you see. I love Africa, I love South Africa.”