Latest Steinberg masterpiece: Inside dangerous, disturbing life of Somalis in SA

The outgoing Dean of GIBS, my neighbor and friend Nick Binedell, has long urged me to read Jonny Steinberg. But there was always another priority. Until last week when Steinberg’s latest book, A Man of Good Hope, arrived ahead of our interview scheduled for today. It is shameful that it took me so long to discover Steinberg. His words flow, possess rare clarity and the rhythm is constant right until the last page. This book disturbed me. It is the story of a battered but resilient Somali who, like thousands of others, was smuggled illegally into South Africa. The way he was treated by my fellow SA citizens says much, to me, about our national defects. But as you’ll see from the interview, Steinberg is circumspect. A fascinating interview about an even more fascinating book with one of South Africa’s great writers. If you haven’t read a Steinberg yet, you’re missing out. – AH

ALEC HOGG: ‘A Man of Good Hope’ is a book about Somali immigrant Asad Abdullahi – his life – from his childhood in East Africa, to fleeing xenophobic masses in Khayelitsha and eventually, ending up in the United States. Johnny Steinberg is one of South Africa’s great authors and I say that with all due respect to other authors from this country. He has written some extremely insightful narratives about the way the country is developing. He’s with us now in our Cape Town studio. Johnny, firstly, I loved your book. I was absolutely blown away by it.

JONNY STEINBERG: Thank you very much.

ALEC HOGG: It opened my eyes to some very scary home truths about our country. What brought you to write a book about a Somalian?

JONNY STEINBERG: I wasn’t intending to write about Asad Abdullahi when I met him. I had a very different book in mind. He and I were walking through the Library Gardens in Cape Town one morning. This was maybe the second time we’d met. He just absent mindedly picked up a twig off the ground, snapped it open, smelled it, and was transported back years into his early childhood, to a moment where he was six years old, and studying in a Madrassa – studying to learn the Koran. I thought that if a man can do that…if he can be transported back to this childhood, which to my readers and I is so strange, and really take us with him in a powerful way, he’s a person about whom I can write a book. I can get into his life and see who he is, and where he came from. I abandoned the project I was doing, decided to write his story, went all across East Africa, and traced his footsteps and his incredible journey to South Africa.

ALEC HOGG: That’s only half of the story, though. The really potent stuff for South Africans is what happened when he came here: his business partners being murdered, his business being decimated, and the final one being razed to the ground. Why did he keep trying, Jonny? For some reason, he just kept at it.

JONNY STEINBERG: Somebody like Asad… If you sit him down and ask him about his family, he’ll name the last 28 generations of his family. I can go back maybe two or three generations. He’s thinking way back into the past and way into the future, and he’s wondering what the 60/70/80 years that he spends on the earth is going to do for the next 5/10/15 generations of his family. His real quest in life is to effect a revolution in his lineage, to give his children, their children, and their children lives that his parents couldn’t have imagined. To do that, he travels, accumulates, and takes enormous risk – the types of risks I’d never dream of taking. One of the interesting things of working with him and getting close to him was really, getting under the skin of this almost unbelievable, entrepreneurial quest, to see what it’s about, and what sorts of decisions people make.

ALEC HOGG: The conclusions that he came to are not at all flattering to South Africans and particularly to those South Africans that he deal with through his spaza shops. Just one part – and there are many like this – he says ‘we think of black people as teenagers. Their democracy is so new and precious to them, but it confuses them and when it does not bring them what they want, they start to get violent’. He did leave here (as you write in your book) for the United States at the end…I guess, with not a whole lot of regrets.

JONNY STEINBERG: Well, it was very difficult writing South Africa through his eyes because frankly, his views are quite prejudiced and racist. He did experience terrible violence here. I had to decide. Do I stay with this point of view or do I switch and try to explain South Africans more gently? In the end, I just went with his point of view. His view of South Africa is that there is great money to be made but great violence to be endured, a place that one wants to arrive in, stay for as long as it serves one’s purposes, and then leave. I think that is a very general Somalian and broadly East African view of South Africa.

ALEC HOGG: Having seen both sides of the story, do you have any sympathy for his view?

JONNY STEINBERG: I don’t think that my job was to come down on one side or the other. I wanted to show the reader inside his head. I wanted to show the reader what he saw when he saw South Africa and why. The question of whether I agree with him or not, really wasn’t the point. I wanted to be where he’s at, understand where he was at, and simply present it to those who read the book.

ALEC HOGG: Johnny, he went through some awful times. He saw himself clearly, as someone who was bringing a service to this country. He had customers, but the minute the boot was on the other foot, the customers did not show him any sympathy in return. Reading your writing here, I have sympathy with him and I feel a little concerned about some of our citizens.

JONNY STEINBERG: What scared him most about South Africa is that he would go into a poor community and set up a trading store. He’d be successful. He’d make some money and he’d start feeling comfortable with the people around him. He’d get to know his customers very well. He’d get to know the ties between people – family histories – that made him feel safe. Things could then turn on a dime. One afternoon, something could happen and everyone would turn against him very quickly. For instance, once, he was running a spaza shop in Mabopane outside Pretoria and one afternoon, he was robbed at gunpoint. The robbers invited his clientele into the shop and the came, took his merchandise, and left. The next morning, they came back to buy as though nothing had happened. Maybe one of the things going on is this: I think that over the years, codes have been developed to allow white and black South Africans to make money in front of poor people in tolerable ways.

For instance, when a black South African from a poor community opens a spaza shop and starts doing well, what does it mean to the people around him? Many things, but one is ‘hope’, one is ‘aspiration’. One is saying ‘we live in the sort of society where this can happen; where you can start poor and move up’, and everyone goes on an imaginative journey up the social ladder with this person. When a Somalian comes into a poor community, there are no connotations of aspiration or hope. A person really comes in naked, starts a cash business in front of poor people, and accumulates money. Somebody can come into the shop, and kill him, take the money, and everyone knows the police won’t protect them. Somalis are unfortunate to be making money in ways that those around them find intolerable, whereas South Africans make money…

I think the poor have developed ways of finding it tolerable. What I found extraordinary – what you alluded to earlier – is how people like Asad know this. They know the dangers and yet, they keep going back again and again, at great risk.

ALEC HOGG: A wonderful book. Johnny Steinberg, thank you for your contribution to this program and for your contribution to our understanding in the very complex South African society.

JONNY STEINBERG: Thank you.

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