In 2015, yet another wave of xenophobic attacks spread across South Africa. This time the spark was the death of 14-year-old Siphiwe Mahori, who was shot dead by a Somali shopkeeper in Johannesburg. This is the autopsy of a young boy’s death. An attempt to understand what is fueling the violence that continues to be meted out on foreigners, even in the midst of the pandemic.

By Tanya Pampalone, Rasmus Bitsch, and Eliot Moleba

It was in front of the Waka Waka, a small, informal convenience store – locally known as a “spaza shop” – that things began to unravel

Six years ago, on the afternoon of January 19, 2015, an argument that began at the Waka Waka spiraled out of control. Before the end of the day, spazas – often owned and operated by foreign shopkeepers – were being attacked and looted across Soweto. And, in the midst of all this, a 14-year-old boy named Siphiwe Mahori was shot and killed.

By the end of the initial wave of what would become a year of xenophobic unrest, police told reporters that at least eight more people had been killed, including five South Africans, two foreign shopkeepers, and the 13-month-old baby who was trampled to death during a looting incident in the nearby township of Kagiso.

You can still ask most South Africans about this story and they will probably remember the shooting of a 14-year-old boy by a foreign shopkeeper somewhere in Soweto. Not many will remember his name or his face – even though the faded photograph his mother offered to journalists, the one of a young initiate – bare-chested and smiling, a bright red cloth draped over his lower half, fighting sticks gripped in his right hand – was splashed across newspapers and television news reports.

In the days after Siphiwe was killed, posts about “that boy” or “that 14-year-old” who was killed in Soweto pinged on to cellphone screens. Along with the surrounding townships, social media was blowing up. Siphiwe was a looter, a criminal, some opined. 

“Shoot the thug before he is a threat to society,” someone posted on Facebook, suggesting a prophylactic measure for kids like him. Others defended Siphiwe. After all, they wrote, he was just a boy. Among those who spoke up was broadcaster Sakina Kamwendo.

“That boy,” she tweeted three days after he was shot, “the 14-year-old who was killed, had a name. Mthetheleli Siphiwe Mahori. #Respect.”

In 2016, we were working on a collection of oral histories – half from South Africans and half from migrants – anchored around migrancy and xenophobia, and book-ended with the two major waves of attacks, one in 2008 and the other in 2015, which scarred the country. We had gone to Soweto to take down the family’s story.

We found Siphiwe’s mother, Nombuyiselo Mntlane, a short, sturdy woman who favors long skirts and sleeveless tops, outside her home on the farthest reaches of the township, in Snake Park, washing a carpet.

“We sent him to buy a cool drink, not to die,” she told us then. “And then my child lost his life just like that. We lost our gift.”

It was the same thing she told the journalists who came around in swarms after her son was killed. Her boy was an innocent bystander, out to buy a soda. He wasn’t part of some criminal mob.

One of those journalists, Mntlane told us, said they would write to the president so that the day Siphiwe was killed could be turned into a national holiday. So, despite her hesitancy to talk to more reporters – it hadn’t helped before, why would it now? – Mntlane agreed to tell us her story once again. She told us about the soda and the horrific news that followed. But what she was less certain about was what happened to the man who had been arrested for shooting Siphiwe, the Somali shopkeeper we would come to know as Sheik Abdi Hashi Yussuf. She believed the shooter posted R2,000 bail and got out less than a month after his initial arrest. At least that’s what they heard on TV. Mntlane and Dan Mahori, Siphiwe’s father, said no one from the police or the courts told them what actually happened in the case.

We thought if we understood what went wrong that night in Snake Park, perhaps we would understand why these attacks keep happening – even in the midst of a pandemic that has brought the world to its knees. We didn’t know it then, but what we were seeking was the smoking gun, the eight minutes and 15 seconds video, the knee of a white police officer on the neck of a black man, which would show the injustice of it all.

But, of course, this is South Africa. And things aren’t always so black and white.

Along the freshly paved road just outside the Mahoris’ house, just around the corner from the Waka Waka, oversized, strategically placed rocks slow speeding cars for children playing in the neighborhood – the township solution to speed bumps. The house is a government-built edifice – shoddy construction if you could have asked Siphiwe, who was learning about erecting brick structures at the technical school that he attended. 

The dwelling is a studio-sized space on a dirt floor separated into three rooms by curtains that once occupied grander places. There is enough space for one person, maybe two, but the Mahoris managed to pack in four children along with them. Their home is surrounded by an outhouse and four shacks with corrugated iron roofs, like theirs, which are all tightly packed on the crowded plot. Like others in townships across South Africa, the Mahoris make a living by renting out the shacks on their property, often to migrants from other countries on the continent.

Dan Mahori is a lean, strong man and, even at his age, one gets the sense that he could easily hold his own in a fistfight. He doesn’t look anywhere near 70. Mahori was born in 1950 in Limpopo. His parents sent him to live with his uncle and two older brothers in Alexandra when he was eight years old. Mahori never went to school. His brothers, he told us, were part of the notoriously violent Msomi Gang of the 1950s; they were hanged for their crimes in Pretoria when he was still a kid.

 “My dream job was to be a soldier,” he told us. “I wanted to fight against the way [my brothers] got the rope.”

Mahori’s way of attacking the apartheid state was to join Umkhonto weSizwe in 1964. He was trained in Angola and then spent time in China and Russia. It wasn’t until 1991 that he made his way to the plot that is now the Mahori home, in what was known then as Cheesing, named after a dairy farm where many of the locals worked. At the time, it was Mahori and his shack and a few others, increasingly migrants from elsewhere in the country who had moved to Johannesburg and staked their claim in Soweto. When he met Nombuyiselo Mntlane, she was 13; he was 27 years her senior.

Mntlane and Mahori had their first child in 1994. They named their daughter Nhlanhla, which means luck in Zulu.

“I was expecting that she would bring luck because she was born with democracy,” says Mntlane. “We were free and no longer living under apartheid. We were no longer going to be called k*****s. Before this, if a baas called you something, you were afraid to say anything. Now we had the right to speak our mind.”

Siphiwe, or Gift, was born six years later. He was a bit of a loner and didn’t perform well at school. His parents found out later that Siphiwe had a learning disability and placed him in a local technical school, where he thrived. After school, he would ride around the neighborhood on his bicycle. 

One of his closest friends is Siyabonga Mthembu. Siya, as he is called, spends his days training and riding with the Ekurhuleni Cycling Club. Siya and Siphiwe would fix bikes together, constantly upgrading them with parts they won at races. And sometimes parts that they obtained in less legal ways.

“I don’t know if I should say some of the things we did together,” Siya told us, half-smiling when we met him in the shack in Snake Park which he shares with his mother. “But we’d sometimes, like, steal some parts and then use [them on our bikes]. We always traveled with [wrenches].”

But, by most accounts, Siphiwe was known for being a pretty good kid. Siya’s description of him, and that of his family and others in the neighborhood, didn’t seem to line up with some of the media reports that had said that he was one of the “nyaope boys” who, unprovoked, led a criminal mob in a violent attack on a foreign shopkeeper and ended up dead.

After we took down Nombuyiselo Mntlane’s story, we had a hard time walking away. How was it that the family could know so little about the outcome of the investigation into their son’s death, and the subsequent court case of the man who was initially charged with his murder? 

We dug through story archives. There were dozens of pieces about Siphiwe’s death, and the mass looting and violence that came later. But the final outcome of the case didn’t appear. 

Other than the R17,000 given by the Somali community to help with Siphiwe’s funeral, the Mahoris told us they didn’t have much to show for what happened to their son. Along with the hordes of journalists, Winnie Mandela visited their home. She shook her head at the conditions in which the family lived in this free South Africa. At the time, the Mahoris say, government officials promised to fix a leak in the roof. But that, like other promises, evaporated. Other than a shiny refrigerator which still has stickers on it – given to the family by Prophet Mboro, the televangelist and leader of Incredible Happenings Ministries, who was there when the cameras were rolling – the only official evidence of the death of their son is a small slip of paper. 

Inside a slim folder that holds important family documents, Mntlane keeps a perfectly preserved sheet torn from a lined notebook. On it, scrawled in red, are the bare essentials of the investigation into Siphiwe’s murder, given to his mother after she was interviewed by police. “Raven Ramouthan,” it reads, alongside the investigating officer’s cellphone number and the case number, #376012015.

It was easy to understand the family’s suspicions about what might have gone wrong. After all, cooldrinks for corrupt cops is part of the South African lexicon.

But, as we would learn over months of reporting, this story was about far more than the death of a 14-year-old boy. It was about the media, the police, the justice system, the Somali community, the township economy, and politicians, from the local councilor all the way up to the office of the president.

Everybody just arrives in our townships and rural areas and sets up businesses without licenses and permits,” President Cyril Ramaphosa told a crowd in the run-up to the 2019 elections. “We are going to bring that to an end. And those who are operating illegally, wherever they come from, must now know.”

In November 2020 the former Johannesburg mayor Herman Mashaba claimed that 15 million undocumented foreigners – a wildly inaccurate number which was quickly debunked – were living in South Africa, “some occupying jobs that can be done by our own people”. Mashaba alleged that those undocumented foreigners were bringing in “billions of dollars of counterfeit goods” and destroying small businesses in black communities. (In a country of 58 million, the total number of foreign-born citizens has been estimated to be somewhere between 1.7 and 3.5 million.)

Loren Landau, a political scientist who has been working on migration and xenophobia in South Africa for the past two decades and co-edited (along with journalist Tanya Pampalone) the oral history collection I Want To Go Home Forever: Stories of Becoming and Belonging in South Africa’s Great Metropolis, says national politicians are echoing sentiments that initially emerged from townships. 

“What was a language of the streets, of the gangster, of the insider and the outsider fighting it out in the neighborhood, has now become part of national discourse and indeed global discourse… where the immigrant has become the person who has robbed you of your future.”

In 2008, 62 people were killed in South Africa during what would be the first major wave of xenophobic attacks. More than 700 people were wounded, dozens were raped, and more than 100,000 people were chased from their homes. At the time, the then-president, Thabo Mbeki, said the attacks were driven by criminals, before calling in the military to help police stop the violence and looting. It wasn’t xenophobia, he said, a position government officials continue to repeat. 

The violence was so acute that the United Nations stepped in; their white tents with blue insignia popped up on dirt lots on the outskirts of towns, reminiscent of some far-off African country – not here, not in South Africa. But it was the burning body of 35-year-old Mozambican national Ernesto Alfabeto Nhamuave on the streets of Ramaphosa, the informal settlement east of Johannesburg, that came to symbolize the tenor of the anger and violence. Images of Nhamuave’s flaming, charred body were sent around the world, bringing an unspeakable act firmly into the public discourse. No longer could government officials continue the pretensions of harmony between locals and foreign-born citizens, mostly Africans from other countries on the continent.

Yet, somehow, they did. No one was ever charged with the murder of the “Burning Man,” as Nhamuave became known. A Human Rights Commission report in 2010 found that only a handful of the hundreds arrested in the violence had been prosecuted.

Currently based at Oxford University, Landau says this is not a recent phenomenon. Far from it.

“There was a time when the whole labor system was designed to keep black people out of cities, and foreign labor was used as a way of undermining the power of black South Africans. Their economic power. Political power. Fragment the population; put them in mixed groups in mines or in factories so they can’t organize. After apartheid there was a sense that “these people” from outside were brought in to ‘keep us down, to keep us weak’. It wasn’t true that the new people coming were part of the project to stop black South Africans from moving forward. But it was often seen that way.”

From the mid-1990s there have been incidents of violence against Mozambicans, Zimbabweans, Somalis, Ethiopians, Nigerians, and others from the continent, as well as immigrants from Bangladesh, India, Pakistan, and China. Landau estimates that a third of those persecuted in attacks are South Africans, either because they were married to foreigners or those the local community determined as “outsiders” because they were from the “wrong” ethnic group or were suspected of being disloyal to local leadership – a number that remains consistent with attacks ever since. The explosion which unraveled in 2008 was poised to happen. It was not a matter of if, but when. 

Snake Park is not the wealthy part of Soweto. It’s not the part tourists visit to see the former homes of Nelson Mandela and Desmond Tutu. It is kilometers from the Soweto Theatre and the glimmering Maponya Mall. There are no tourists here. No formal restaurants. The only shops are spaza shops.

Traditionally operated out of family homes, the spaza market is dominated by Somalis, Ethiopians, Pakistanis and Bangladeshis – often referred to as Pakistanis or makulas, a derogatory reference to people of Indian descent, regardless of their background.

It was in front of one of these shops, a 10-minute walk from the Waka Waka and the Mahori home, that Siphiwe was killed. Back then, it was called Raso, and was a dirty, pinkish color. It’s now the Royal Supermarket and is painted a bright, cheery sunflower yellow. It used to be the man that official documents call Sheik Abdi Hashi Yussuf standing in the doorway. Now it’s Abdul Hassan.

Hassan has milky brown skin and sharp, dark eyes. You often see him standing in the doorway of his shop, smiling, greeting his clients, his wavy hair slicked back. This has earned him the nickname “Soft Hair” in the Somali community. He was always willing to talk when we visited Snake Park, even with the constant stream of customers who stopped by to pick up some Mr Tasty ice cream, Lucky Star pilchards, Ace maize meal, Nivea hand cream, a Dragon energy drink or a “loose”, a single cigarette.

“The people who are living here in Snake Park, 90% of the community [members] are good people,” Hassan told us on one visit in the spring of 2019. “We try to show them that we are friends. When we treat them well, then they treat us well also.”

On the surface, things are almost idyllic at the Royal Supermarket. At least they were that August afternoon in 2019, and all the times we dropped in afterward. But tensions almost always are on the boil. 

While we stood talking to Hassan, less than a kilometer away two Ethiopian shopkeepers were trying to salvage what they could after their shop had been looted in another series of xenophobic attacks just the day before. Even their fridges were taken; the shelves ripped out of the walls. But those tensions are not just a kilometer away. They are right here, in Hassan’s shop.  

“When it comes to you guys, Ethiopian, Somalians, Middle East guys, you’re selling fake stuff most of the time,” one of the locals chimed in that afternoon, referring to the “branded” items on Hassan’s shelves, the same complaint the former Johannesburg mayor posted about on social media. “That’s the problem with you. You come up with the ideas, and you spread these [goods] and you distribute them. If we blacks go to Qatar, go to China, go to any country in the Middle East, we confine [sic] with their norms and standards. We don’t do whatever we want. When foreigners come into this country, they must also confine [sic] with our norms.”

The man repeats many of the points that South Africans will tell you about foreigners coming to South Africa: they sell drugs, take the jobs of the locals, sell expired goods and fake products, and live and work in the country illegally.

That day, Hassan attempted to convince his customer that not all foreigners are criminals. But those who are, he said, should be dealt with by the police. Not through petrol bombing their shops, not through beating people in the street and joyfully making off with their livelihoods. But his customer – like so many other South Africans – has given up on the police.

The man blamed “police brutality” for his lack of faith in the law. But he could have fingered a slew of other endemic societal ills. Corruption. Inefficiency. Unaccountability. 

Foreign shopkeepers and township residents might be among the worst-hit groups by law enforcement. Out of fear of repercussions, most shop owners do not report this, but if you ask just about any of them, they’ll say that the police regularly ask for bribes. And they hardly ever show up when the shopkeepers need help.

Just the week before our visit, in 2019, Hassan called the police during the attacks on nearby foreign-owned shops. He was still waiting for them to show up.

Hassan was unfailingly friendly every time we visited his shop. But when we asked him about Yussuf, the man who ran the shop before him, Hassan told us he had no idea how to find him – or anyone else who might have been there that night in Snake Park. He assured us that was well before his time.

It took months of wrangling with the court, but eventually, we got hold of the transcripts.

In just under 70 double-spaced pages, the size of a standard business contract, the court swiftly despatched the matter. Three hearings were held in February to determine bail. Yussuf was charged with the murder of Siphiwe, attempted murder of “another person that was shot on his left arm,” possession of an unlicensed firearm and ammunition. He was released on R2,000 bail, just as the Mahoris had told us. But by the time the case resumed in September, the charges had changed; the attempted murder charge had evaporated. Yussuf pleaded guilty to culpable homicide and firearm charges.

The defense maintained that a criminal mob attacked the Raso shop while, inside, two shopkeepers, fearful of yet another xenophobic attack, did what they could to defend themselves. Yussuf pulled out an unlicensed firearm and fired either two or three warning shots through the roof, and then another one through the metal roller shutter door as the angry crowd surrounding the building threw rocks. He never intended to kill anyone.

In South Africa’s adversarial system, the magistrate is more of an arbiter or referee, dependent on the state and the defense to present their case, without sight of a police docket to cloud the magistrate’s view. On September 2, Herman Badenhorst, a congenial Afrikaner who had worked in the Protea Magistrates’ Court for 23 years, exercised his authority of mitigating circumstances – the fact that the shop was under attack – to determine Yussuf’s sentencing. He suspended all the sentences. Yussuf was a free man.

As we asked around the justice system, attempting to pry the transcripts from the protected files of various officials, a source urged us to follow up on the case; they weren’t specific but they were certain that something had gone very wrong. The answers, we were told, would be in the police docket. Without it, we’d never really understand what the investigation found, what the prosecutor and police knew and who police investigators spoke with.

But the docket proved to be even more elusive than the transcript. 

Early on we visited Soweto’s Dobsonville police station, a government-issue beige-bricked red-roofed edifice which stands along the busy Elias Motsoaledi Drive, just across from a Chicken Licken store. Initially, officials told us the docket was missing; in South Africa, this was far from unthinkable.

Gareth Newham, who heads up the Justice and Violence Prevention unit at the Institute for Security Studies, says an average of 130 dockets – largely kept in hard-copy format due to limited technology capabilities – go missing each year at South African police stations.

“Missing dockets have always been a massive problem in the police,” says Newham, one of the country’s top experts on policing. “Police officers have been prosecuted criminally for selling dockets and destroying dockets. If you are facing a criminal investigation, and you did commit the crime… the one thing that you want interfered with would be the docket.”

It was clear that it was possible to make an inconvenient docket disappear. But why would it be moved or hidden after the court case was over? It didn’t really make sense unless there was something in the docket that somebody desperately wanted to hide from the public. Something that didn’t come out during the court case.

Because, aside from the State’s disturbingly weak case against Yussuf, in the bail hearing, the prosecutor told the court that no witnesses – other than the other man inside the shop with Yussuf, who corroborated his story – had been spoken to. 

Breaking news told the story in bits and bursts. The articles and radio clips and TV news briefs spoke of Siphiwe’s murder, the violent looting, and the deaths that followed. They referred to discussions with the Somali community, the involvement of the Gauteng safety and security minister, the funeral with its cavalcade of politicians. But only two accounts – one in Johannesburg’s The Star and another in Daily Maverick – really scratched more than the surface.

The report in Daily Maverick detailed the events which had unfolded that day. That Monday afternoon in January, they wrote, a young man the media and the community called a “nyaope boy” – both a description of him and the explanation for what he did – tried to enter the Waka Waka shop. The shopkeeper got angry and told the boy to leave. The boy threw rocks. One of the shopkeepers appeared with a gun and tried to force the boy to get out. But once the weapon came out, others in the community got angry. Someone called the police.

Depending on your source, there are different versions of what happened next. Some reports said the police didn’t find any weapons, but only because they were bribed to look the other way. Others we spoke with said more than one gun was found. What’s certain is that after the skirmish at the Waka Waka, young men formed search parties and headed out to the foreign-owned shops in the area to search for illegal weapons. That, we learned, was when the looting began.

Sometime in between, Dan Mahori sent Siphiwe out to buy a soda. When he didn’t return soon after, Nombuyiselo Mntlane went out to the street to find her son.

“I saw a crowd of children, but I didn’t see him,” she told us. “So, in that time, when there was a crowd running… maybe he was there? But I’m not sure. I don’t know what was happening.”

The next thing she knew, some boys came calling outside the gate.

“They said, ‘Mama Siphiwe, Mama Siphiwe!’ Then I started to jump.”

Siphiwe, they called to his mother, had been shot.

Mntlane’s neighbor, Norman Mdingi, who lives a few doors down in a shack behind his mother’s house, heard the boys as well. It was late. Maybe 9, maybe 9.30. Mdingi was already in his pyjamas.

They ran in the direction from which the boys had come, the crowd streaming from the site of the shooting pointing them toward the Raso. When Mdingi, Mahori, and Mntlane arrived, an angry crowd was surrounding the shop, trying to force their way in. There were no police in sight. The crowd wanted justice. Some, perhaps, wanted what was on the shelves. For others, looting felt like justice.

Siphiwe was lying face-up on the pavement where he had fallen. He was alone. Still breathing. No one had touched him.

“He was shot this side,” Mdingi told us, pointing to the left side of his neck, as he told us his story. 

We were in his shack, and Mdingi offered us chairs. He sat at the end of his bed, which takes up most of the floor space. It was hot. The air didn’t move and the blue smoke of his cigarette hung in the air like a lace curtain. 

“But he had the hole in another side, you see? But I didn’t realize about the second hole until later. I tried to stop one side, then saw, nay man, the blood is coming [out] other side. I had to take my shirt and divide it into two parts. You see? Just to stop the bleeding.”

Mntlane left Siphiwe in Mdingi’s arms and tore down the street, frantically and unsuccessfully trying to call an ambulance on her cellphone. Eventually, she found a police van. She stopped it on the road. 

“I was telling them, ‘Please help us. We need an ambulance. My child is laying down there.’ I know if they called the ambulance, the ambulance would come now.”

 As Mdingi tells it, by that time, Siphiwe’s father was already losing hope.

“He was losing his mind,” Mdingi says. “He couldn’t touch the boy. When he [went] there, he just looked at the boy and said, ‘My boy is dead.’ But in Tsonga. In their language. Siphiwe was not yet taking his last breath. But his father could see that his boy was losing.”

Mdingi desperately spoke to Siphiwe. If he kept talking, he thought, Siphiwe wouldn’t die. But when paramedics arrived it was too late.

There are different accounts about how much time passed between the time Siphiwe was shot and the time the ambulance arrived. But when he was pronounced dead, at 10.30 pm, he had probably been on the pavement, still breathing, for at least 30 minutes. Some estimate it was more than an hour; others claim it was close to two.

But in the chaos, no one could make sense of what happened. Even when Mntlane first recounted the story to us, it was Mahori who she remembered was pressing a shirt against the wound to slow down the bleeding; Mahori who held Siphiwe and told him everything would be alright. 

One of the many journalists who had covered the story was Khadija Patel. Her piece for Al Jazeera unraveled the stakeholders: the mob, the activists, the officials, the shopkeepers – one of whom was a Somali man who bore severe facial burns from an attack the previous year when his shop had been petrol-bombed.

At the time we met, Patel was editor-in-chief of the Mail & Guardian and, as she reminded us as well as herself, in her not-so-free-time she was “allegedly” working on a book about the Johannesburg suburb where she grew up. 

Patel, who has a round face and Cleopatra-like brown eyes, is always seen in hijab, often robed in black from head to toe.  She grew up – and still lives – in a mostly working-class and lower-middle-class neighborhood that has become a hub of immigration, with clusters of flats where you’ll find mostly Ethiopians, or mainly people from Uganda, or first-generation immigrants from Pakistan and Bangladesh and, of course, the Somalis. The busy neighborhood streets are a marketplace, with side-by-side shops hawking everything from clothing to cellphones. As Patel once wrote in a piece for City Press headlined “How dodgy is my hood”, you can find all sorts of other things in Mayfair. Say, if you need to “renew a driver’s license without the queues, prescription drugs without the prescription or a firearm license without the test, there’s always someone in Mayfair who knows someone who can help”.

It was that piece that got her into trouble with the Somali community. She wrote, of the area around 8th Avenue and Bird Street, known as Little Mogadishu, about the Somali tendency to double and triple park in the area – poking fun at her neighborhood’s endearing and frustrating chaos. But the Somalis didn’t see the fun in it; in fact, the slight was so acute it was escalated to community leaders.

“They are very, very sensitive about how they are viewed,” Patel says. “In many ways, they want to belong, but in other ways [they feel] they don’t. So theirs is a peculiar position in society and there are significant tensions between old Mayfair residents and the Somalis. There is this perception, with often very little evidence to prove it, that the Somalis are somehow bankrolling the councilor in some way or extracting favors from them.”

But despite her physical closeness to the Somali community, and even meeting the distraught Mahori family in the week after Siphiwe’s death, it was news to her when we told her that the man who shot Siphiwe had been let off with a wholly suspended sentence.

“That just tells us so much about the weaknesses of us, as the media,” she said, shaking her head. “That we are driven by spectacle, and we have so few resources to actually track a story from start to finish. That’s how this miscarriage of justice happens.”

In just a few years, the Mail & Guardian, once one of the most respected publications on the continent, had shrunk from an 80-strong newsroom to just 30 people, a victim of the disruption of fast-moving technology amidst an unsustainable business model that has hobbled and shuttered media houses around the world.

But, as Patel says, it’s not always just a resource issue. 

“We fall into that trap… of only covering Somalis as victims of violence, not actually covering their lives in completion… they are people as well and they have good people and bad people. Our failure of being able to tell their stories as more than just stars in a poverty-porn flick is ultimately our undoing.” 

Of course, poverty-porn isn’t our only undoing. 

One senior legal expert with whom we spoke, who reviewed the court documents, demanded to know what type of journalists we were: Trump-loving immigrant haters or “libtards” – which he described as “somebody who is too dumb to understand how the world works and has their sympathies completely misplaced”.

The police and court officials we spoke to intimated that we were activists demanding justice. The Mahoris, at least initially, thought we were in it for the money. That we were journalists just looking for the truth seemed to be too much to ingest. 

Amir Sheikh is a big man, in every way. He welcomed us into his office on the first floor of a shiny, linoleum-floored building in Little Mogadishu, just above a spice shop. Past the narrow reception area, we met in the boardroom where half-full cardboard boxes of chips and a discarded Kellogg’s Noodles stand were shoved to the side of the table, big enough for two dozen people to sit at. This is the head office of the nonprofit Somali Community Board, as well as the group’s business arm, which is deeply entrenched in the spaza business.

Sheikh is almost always dressed in a loose-fitting, button-up, long-sleeved shirt. He is friendly, always ready to talk. Always ready for business. Sheikh always has his cellphone – which never seems to stop buzzing – within reach. But he always made time for us; for journalists. 

When we first met, he offered us cardamom ice cream; on another visit – a Friday after the traditional Muslim prayers – he took us to lunch at the Ethiopian restaurant on Bird Street.

In addition to serving as the chairperson of the Somali Community Board, Sheikh is the de-facto spokesperson for the Somali community in Johannesburg, if not the entire country. But he also often speaks to reporters on behalf of the community of African migrants in South Africa, as the spokesperson for the African Diaspora Forum. 

Somalis have been fleeing a brutal civil war for years. The businessmen operating in South Africa who are able to afford it – men like Sheikh – often have wives and children in safer places: London, Ontario, Minneapolis, Melbourne. It’s almost as if Somali society exists without a territory. Independent in all but name, with an independent economy, information networks, and clan structures.

Sheikh was one of our first stops when we began asking about what had happened that night in Snake Park. He told us he was there that night after the shooting. That he had made his way through the township chaos as the violence broke out. A week later, on behalf of the Somali community, he went to see the Mahoris, accompanied by a regional official. A photo of him in front of the boarded-up Raso shop wearing an olive-colored kameez was posted to the group’s Facebook page not long after.

“I received the message that the family could not afford to give their son a dignified burial,” Sheikh told us in the boardroom when we first met. “And despite the city of Johannesburg also supporting [the funeral], there was some shortage and… we went there to assist. We did not want to do it on our own because the situation at the time was still so volatile.”

When visiting the family, Amir brought along R17,000, not as compensation or an admission of guilt but, he says, as an “act of Ubuntu.” Sheikh remembers meeting Siphiwe’s parents, being struck by their poverty and their pain.

“The father was at least well-composed,” he says. “But the mother was… hurt, and you could read that in her face and in her body, her interactions.” 

When pressed for details about the night Siphiwe was shot, Sheikh could only point to others. He searched through his cellphone for a half dozen phone numbers of shopkeepers in Snake Park. People who would know what happened, or people who knew Yussuf and how we could find him or at least someone in his family. But when we called those numbers, not one person would talk with us. Sheikh assured that he knew at least one person was on the scene. A man who would know where Yussuf was, how we could reach his family. A man he called Abdi Wacdi. He’d put us in touch, he promised. 

“We’ll work together,” he said.

In the meanwhile, we visited the home address Yussuf gave to the court. In a wilting double-story building in Mayfair, the flat was situated above a flower shop, a used tire store, and a tiny spaza, not that different from the small shops in Snake Park. The women working in the flower shop wouldn’t give us their names but didn’t mind talking.

They remembered when the family moved; it wasn’t long after the 2015 attacks. One of them mentioned they had seen, presumably Yussuf, on TV being led into court. But it was Yussuf’s wife who they said was friendly, who always greeted them, asked for help in calling the landlord whenever they needed repairs to their apartment. Still, the women were puzzled by their lifestyle.

“They don’t like light,” one told us. “They pull the dark curtains [shut]. Even on the veranda, they close it with cardboard boxes. Maybe it’s their culture; they’re like that. Maybe they are scared. Because they always stay in the dark place where they come from because there’s always war there, you see?”

Considering the decades of unrest, civil war, and conflict that have ravaged Somalia for years, it is not surprising that the Somali community continues to feel the effects of that violence wherever they are in the world. Whether in Somalia or South Africa, their daily reality leaves them vulnerable and susceptible to attacks. In December 2019, soon after our visit to the flower shop in Mayfair, the Islamic militant group al-Shabaab killed more than 85 people in a bomb attack in the real Mogadishu in Somalia.

At one point, while wandering around Little Mogadishu, we found ourselves in a crowded internet café with uncomfortable chairs and a massive selection of SIM cards promising unbeatable rates for intercontinental calls. One by one, people began drifting out. Eventually, we were standing in the shop alone. Everyone had left. Even the shopkeeper. When we walked outside where the shopkeeper was standing, we asked what the problem was. 

“I know you are filming me,” he said, explaining that he wouldn’t speak to the CIA. All he would say: “Talk to Amir Sheikh.”

Other than Sheikh, it seemed as if it was only Abdul Hassan, the shopkeeper from Snake Park, who would spend any time with us. He agreed to meet in Mayfair for coffee, looking younger and lighter than the young man with darting eyes and well-worn jeans that we met at the Royal Supermarket. His journey to South Africa, he told us, started out like most Somalis’ journey to the country begins.

He fled Mogadishu with the blessing of his family – all 11 of them – via Kenya during an Ethiopian intervention in the conflict between the Somali government and Islamic militants. Getting out, he says, he first had to dodge Ethiopian grenades, followed by militia groups in the desert. The 960km trip from Mogadishu to Nairobi took five days.

“It was very difficult to cross the border. We were five, that time. Five guys. They hid us in a truck.”

In Nairobi, Hassan plugged into Somali networks. His case was discussed by the clan – one of the four major groupings in Somali which trace back to an original ancestor, a system that allows for order and accountability in a disaggregated, globally dispersed nation. Hassan would head to South Africa. He knew the danger. As a refugee without documents, Hassan couldn’t just hop on a plane to Johannesburg.

“It’s like a small boat that the immigrants [use when they] are going to European countries when they are leaving Libya to Italy, something like that. But it’s a little bit bigger. It was 50/50 whether I will reach South Africa or whether I will die.”

Hassan landed on the coast of Mozambique, continuing overland to South Africa, where he applied for asylum. When he arrived in Mayfair, a clan member helped him get a low position at a small, mangy rural shop in Mpumalanga. Gradually, Hassan rose in the ranks. Now he owns the Royal in Snake Park. He is living what many here would call the Somali dream.

Hassan has converted the shop from the Raso to the Royal, which looks like a modern supermarket, with neatly packed, well-stocked shelves, albeit under a tin roof with a hard dirt floor. He is certainly winning against competition from the big supermarket chains on what should be their own turf. His methods are simple, he told us.

“Every six months we try to paint. We maintain it, keep it clean. Our clients must get what they need. In terms of the price, you have to understand that you are in a competition. Even people who are coming late, 10 o’clock, they [need to] get airtime [for their mobile phones], drinks and bread. People who are coming early in the morning, rushing to work, they need to get airtime, and whatever they want.”

But unlike a well-lit, immaculately groomed chain store with a friendly cashier in uniform, all the money is passed through a thin slit in the back wall, feeding into a bricked-up room where a young man like Hassan sits. The young man often lives and sleeps in the backroom to minimize the risk of robbery, as well as to keep his living costs low, attempting to save every cent for the family or for that spaza shop at the end of the Somali rainbow. Young men are the additional ingredient in the success of the Somali informal retail sector. Young men who start at the bottom of the food chain, as the lowest-level clerk in a faraway area, vulnerable to whatever real or imagined threats might be outside that windowless room. 

But Somalis move money – amounts large and small – in other, more complex ways. 

The hawala system is an ancient informal financial transfer system that originated in South Asia and is now used around the world. It’s a bit like Western Union, only without corporate branding, hefty fees, complicated documentation, and an even faster turn-around. Like much of Somali existence, it is unregulated by any formal structures. This is also what makes it well-suited for money laundering without the complications of shell companies, big banks, accountants, and high-paid lawyers. Controversially, terrorist groups like al-Shabaab are also well-known users of this system. But mostly, it serves your average hard-working Somalis. And it works like a charm. 

If you are a Somali in Johannesburg and need to send money to a cousin in New York City, or in Stockholm or Mogadishu, there is almost certainly a guy in your street that can handle the transaction. There is no paperwork, no contracts, no actual money being sent across the world, and also no way you can take your dispute to the police if your cousin doesn’t get his money.

 But most of the time he does. The forces of honor and the threat of expulsion from the community are at least as strong as the law. And it also works very well in places where there isn’t really a lot of law at all. Somalis are world champions at parallel structures based on clan loyalty outside formal jurisdictions.

In February 2015, the atmosphere outside the Protea Magistrates’ Court in Soweto was at fever pitch. Not just Yussuf, but a number of local residents accused of looting – a few of the more than 150 who had been arrested in the violence – were appearing in court. People were angry. Outside, relatives voiced their frustrations. Some demanded their sons be released so they could go back to school. 

 “Why are they defending the Pakistanis?” one woman demanded to know from a reporter for eNCA.

At the time, Yussuf stood accused of the murder of Siphiwe, attempted murder of an unnamed person, possession of an illegal firearm, and possession of ammunition. His lawyer, Simon Senosi, read out a statement that detailed Yussuf’s life in South Africa in the most bare-bones fashion.

Yussuf was a refugee and had been in South Africa since 2006. He lived in Mayfair. He was divorced, had a child, and was the breadwinner of his family. He told the court he closed his shop at around 10 pm and soon after heard people trying to break in. The criminals managed to pull up the metal roller shutter door – just for a moment – and that was when a gun landed inside. This, Yussuf said, was how he got hold of the Chinese-made Norinco semi-automatic, the one he used to fire warning shots through the roof before shooting through the door. Yussuf told the court he only knew that a boy had been shot when police arrived. He intended to plead not guilty to all charges.

Magistrate Badenhorst warned him about his initial statement: “Do you confirm the contents of the affidavit?” he asked. “Particularly, the portion as to how it happened that you fired the shots? That is extremely important. I can guarantee you they will prove that against you in the subsequent trial.”

The bail hearing was postponed. The State had yet to confirm Yussuf’s immigration documents. 

When court resumed on February 12, more than three weeks after the shooting, investigating officer Raven Ramouthan said he had not been able to verify if there were any other bullet holes – aside from the one that pierced the metal door – at the crime scene, because the shop had been ransacked. Three cartridges were found inside the shop, as was the 9-millimetre firearm. 

The magistrate asked the prosecutor about any other witnesses, particularly the other person who had been shot that night, the attempted murder for which Yussuf was also being charged.

“What did he say happened?” Badenhorst asked about the other victim.

“Your Worship, we have not obtained his statement,” prosecutor Mthethwa told the court.

“You have not?”

“Ja, have not. We are going to obtain his statement, Your Worship.”

“Shoo,” the magistrate blew out.

“The matter, Your Worship, was [that he] was still in hospital, Your Worship.”

“Oh, is he in hospital?”

“Yes, Your Worship.”

“Was he also hit?”

“Yes, he was hit on the arm, Your Worship.”

“Were there no other eyewitnesses?”

“Your Worship, there are witnesses who basically came after the incident.” 

The State protested against granting Yussuf bail, afraid that he might flee the country. But the magistrate didn’t believe this was a concern.

“Now, with all the greatest of respect, Somalia is not the best country to live in,” he said. “If I were you, I would not go back there, so I cannot see why you would go back.”

The court was presented with no evidence that might have contradicted Yussuf’s version of events. He was granted bail and released. 

For the unconnected, it’s tricky to navigate the Somali networks, both off- and online, not least because many Somalis use different names and aliases. For example, we have come across at least three additional names used by Abdul Hassan, the friendly shopkeeper, who says he has nothing at all to hide. The man who was accused of shooting Siphiwe is named as Abdizashi Sheik Yusuf and Abdixashi Sheik Yusuf in official court and police documents and media reports. Neither is likely to be his real name. Sheikh is a title given to royalty or senior Muslim leaders and clerics, something that isn’t probable for a shopkeeper of his position; the letter “z” doesn’t exist in the Somali alphabet. Maybe it was a clerical error or a mistake somewhere else in the system. According to an affidavit filed by Home Affairs during the court case, his name is Sheik Abdi Hashi Yussuf. Maybe it is not his name at all. Somalis are hiding in plain sight. 

“Businesses in the townships are not regulated and by-laws are not enforced, the way they enforce them in posher areas. You can’t do what you want in Sandton today, or in Rosebank,” Amir Sheikh, the Somali community leader, told us. 

“But in townships, you can do whatever you want. Because of this unregulated business… many of the locals, who actually could not cope with this business, ganged up against [the foreign shopkeepers and] formed associations, in order to make sure that these businesses don’t survive.”

Business and community associations have been known to send out flyers threatening foreigners before unleashing a violent attack and will appear in groups in the aftermath of violence. Just like they did in 2015, demanding that shops not reopen or face another onslaught of looting, according to researchers from the African Centre for Migration & Society who conducted numerous interviews with shopkeepers in Soweto just after the looting. 

The threat of violence without police protection; glad-handing politicians in an effort to keep the peace; a vulnerable community who see the CIA in unknown people poking around their neighborhood; these are the conflicts the Somalis are in and Sheikh has to navigate on their behalf. Sheikh is trying to protect his countrymen in a country where, he says, almost every other day a Somali is killed. 

But despite Sheikh’s hospitality and his generous time talking about the community’s struggles, he didn’t get us very far with anyone who would talk with us about that night. Least of all Yussuf or his family or his clan. He stopped talking about “Abdi Wacdi” – the man he assured us was in Snake Park that night – even as we continued to press him for help in getting the shopkeepers at the Waka Waka, where the chaos of the night in Snake Park had started, to talk to us after they ducked our requests. 

By then we knew just how connected the community was. And we also knew the gatekeeper, however hospitable, was not willing to open the gates. 

It was at the tail-end of one of our early meetings with Sheikh that we met GG Alcock, his sometimes business partner. An expert in the informal economy, Alcock is the author of KasiNomic Revolution: The Rise of African Informal Economies. In fact, it was Sheikh who passed us Alcock’s freshly printed book explaining the booming marketplace of the informal sector. And it would be Alcock who would lead us right back to the Royal Supermarket in Snake Park.

We set up a meeting with him in the parking lot of the Dobsonville mall. Alcock was going to take us around Soweto on a sort of tour of his work marketing products in townships. 

Burly and bald, Alcock is not easy to miss. His extraordinary family history is documented in Rian Malan’s My Traitor’s Heart. He grew up in a village in rural Kwazulu-Natal, stick-fighting with his Zulu playmates, immersed in shared poverty and tribal politics as the son of two activists, Neil and Creina Alcock. GG Alcock’s autobiography, Third World Child: Born White, Zulu Bred, takes him from the mud hut he grew up in and into his life in Johannesburg, where he has made a name for himself as a kasi marketing expert. 

Just before we meet, Alcock emails us that Abdullahi Ibrahim, the national treasurer of the nonprofit Somali Community Board, who also helps run the business arm of the group with Amir Sheikh, will be coming along. Unlike Sheikh, Ibrahim is slim and upright; but like Sheikh, he is as smart in business as he is in politics.

He explains his work with the township traders like this: “We help them with documentation because it is challenging to run a business without legal proper documents. We also advise them on business issues. Thirdly, if there is xenophobia or there is any problem, we [help bring] them to safer places.”

The project the men are currently working on together is the launch of Sky, a washing powder brand. And for this we get into Alcock’s four-wheel drive double cab and follow two of their sales reps into Snake Park. On the way, Alcock explained how the township economy, rooted in apartheid history, works.

Isolated from the commercial centers of towns and cities, the spaza was a business born out of necessity by local entrepreneurs with no government support or regulation. Alcock says it wasn’t the foreigners that took over the local industry; it was the big retailers finally realizing there was money to be made in townships. 

“Overnight they killed the South African spaza owner,” he says. “In 2010, we all heralded the end of the independent little township trader and the entry of these corporate giants.” 

Ibrahim and Alcock say that by the time immigrants began to start businesses in the townships, they found stores closed. Or close to it.

“The South African, of course, was ecstatic because he could rent his store, which was not functional anymore, to this idiot immigrant who didn’t know any better,” says Alcock. “And so they started renting out their stores, and these immigrants, over a very short time, started transforming these stores from a little hole in the wall to a supermarket aisle type format offering incredibly well-priced, branded goods…. And, almost as if it appeared overnight, this immigrant sector of traders, within three to four years, suddenly represented 85% of all stores.” 

Ibrahim and Alcock tell a convincing story. They argue that the anti-immigrant sentiment is based on a misconception. That the actual jobs supposedly taken by the foreigners aren’t really in the townships anyway. And while they don’t exactly hide the problems, their version of the story of foreigners in places like Snake Park is one of opportunity. Of entrepreneurship.

I write, kind of tongue in cheek, in KasiNomic Revolution that the largest form of foreign direct investment in this country was the immigrant trader and that the government should recognize that. And if you look at the figures, actually, the largest sector of foreign direct investment is from Somalis, Pakistanis, Bangladeshis, and Ethiopians.”

As we drive around Snake Park trailing the Sky washing powder sales reps, we visit tiny spaza shops as well as what Alcock calls spazarettes – larger, supermarket-style shops like Hassan’s – that sell everything from bread to electric heaters. Around here, the smallest shops are hardly ever run or owned by Somalis, while the biggest ones almost always are. 

But it isn’t until we stop at the Soweto Cash and Carry that the scale of the business really comes into perspective. The huge warehouse spills out onto a parking lot of trucks streaming in and out of the loading dock. This is what Alcock calls a “midi-wholesaler.” A business which, according to Alcock and Ibrahim, takes in anywhere from R3-million to R9-million a month.

Products are stocked from floor to ceiling – energy drinks, body lotions, canned foods, sugar, coffee, you name it – just like big box, corporate stores. The Somali-owned Soweto Cash and Carry supplies bulk products to the spaza and spazarette sector, and it’s much closer to them than those suburban wholesalers. It is never without risk, of course, which the room-sized, bricked-up, bombproof safe at the back of the warehouse confirms.

Alcock throws around big, back-of-the-serviette-type numbers, a mash-up of estimates that come from various market research and banking reports, official statistics, universities and independent institutes, press reports, and his own on-the-ground research. 

If you take Alcock’s estimates of turnover of just the smaller shops, a conservative number would come to R5-billion. And that doesn’t even include those “midi-wholesalers” like Soweto Cash and Carry.

Nobody has a real handle on the size of South Africa’s informal sector. But these are big numbers, no matter how you slice them. Statistics South Africa says the informal sector employs more than three million people, a full 20% of total employment in the country. The International Monetary Fund puts the share of informal businesses in sub-Saharan Africa at a whopping 34% of GDP, while a 2016 KPMG study on the Fast Moving Retail Goods Sector – that sector of the economy in which spazas operate in South Africa – says it is worth $23-billion. 

“Just because it doesn’t say CEO, have a board or doesn’t have a sign saying this or that, it doesn’t mean it’s not highly organized, highly structured. We make these mistakes; we kind of say, people with a lower education are unsophisticated. Low-education people just means they’ve just got a lower level of education. It says nothing about them being unsophisticated.”

We drove by a spazarette in Snake Park that had recently been sold; Ibrahim and Alcock estimated that it went for somewhere between R300,000 and R350,000. Cash. Stock and all. Well, everything except for the land and the building itself. There is still rent to pay to the South African landlord – another windfall for locals who are able to take in a steady income. But when you buy a shop with its stock, who pays whom?

We’ve got a kind of elder commission system with the Somalis and in certain communities,” explains Ibrahim. “So, if I buy the shop from you, all you need to do is to have two witnesses. I’ll take you to the landowner and just say, okay, I’m moving out and the brother will be looking after the business. If I happen to default, then you’ll take me to the council of elders. So, it is fixed, and everyone respects [the system]. Because if you don’t respect the community, then you are not part of the community and you’ll be alone and on your own. Everyone fears being alone; they have to listen to the elders. What separates formal and informal is just the pen. But this handshake is more important and worth more than 10 pages. So long as you have two witnesses, you have the best lawyers.”

Our tour ends at the exact shop where Siphiwe was killed. Alcock and Ibrahim say they want to show it to us as an example of one of the most successful stores of its kind in the area. But it is, essentially, a display of hubris. As in, here’s the scene of the crime that you so desperately want to know about. Ask away. The Somalis have nothing to hide.

Hassan wasn’t there the day we visited with Alcock and Ibrahim and the Sky washing powder sales reps. But, given Ibrahim’s description of how the buying and selling of shops happens in the Somali community, what are the chances that Sheikh, Ibrahim, and Hassan didn’t know exactly where Yussuf was?

On September 2, more than six months after Siphiwe’s death, Yussuf’s trial resumed in the Protea Magistrates’ Court. The months following the bail hearings had seen more incidents of xenophobic attacks – a major one fuelled by comments from Zulu King Goodwill Zwelithini in March. At a “moral regeneration” meeting, the king referred to foreigners as “lice” that needed to “take their baggage and be sent back”. And South Africa exploded again – at least six more deaths were recorded, with hundreds displaced across the country. Foreign shops were looted from Durban to Johannesburg. People were chased from their homes, and camps were erected. 

But during the winter, both weather and tempers had cooled. There were no crowds outside the Protea court, and if any journalists covered the case, we couldn’t find any evidence of it. By then, there had been plenty of time for police to find witnesses and take statements, particularly from the other man who had been shot that night. There had also been plenty of time for Yussuf to run away. But there he was, in the dock, awaiting his judgment.

Magistrate Badenhorst was still presiding. There was a new prosecutor and Yussuf was now represented by a Mr. Ntshangase. The State had changed the charge, too. It was now culpable homicide instead of murder. What this meant was that the State, by then, recognized that Yussuf had not intentionally shot Siphiwe. 

Yussuf pleaded guilty to all charges, and his lawyer read out a new statement. Again, he explained that Yussuf was inside his shop at 10.30 pm when it was attacked. This time, however, he already had the gun. It did not fall through the door from the outside. 

The defense argued that Yussuf should not serve jail time considering his justified fear of the angry crowd outside. He was a first-time offender, and told the court R25,000 had been paid by the “Muslim Organisation Fund” to assist Siphiwe’s family with burial expenses. The State told the court that it recognized the circumstances of the crime, but argued that the family – and the community – were looking for justice. A teenage boy was shot and killed with an illegal firearm; a suspended sentence or a fine would be inappropriate. 

The magistrate acknowledged all of that. That Siphiwe was just a boy. But he couldn’t get away from the fact that there was no way Yussuf, shooting through a metal door, may have “foreseen the possibility that someone might be shot, but definitely not that it would be a child”.

The part about the door is interesting. Not only because Yussuf had changed his explanation about it, but also because shooting through doors was a major topic of conversation in South Africa at the time. The case against Oscar Pistorius, who shot his girlfriend Reeva Steenkamp through a bathroom door in February 2013, was still being finalized. Pistorius’s main defense had been that he thought an armed intruder was inside the bathroom. Both cases were relying on the idea that the shooter thought he was shooting someone else. Not a woman, like Reeva Steenkamp. Not a child, like Siphiwe Mahori. 

Both cases rested on the idea that a “reasonable person” in South Africa would expect an armed, dangerous, black man behind a closed door.

In the end, Badenhorst cautioned and discharged Yussuf for the possession of ammunition and for discharging a firearm in a municipal area. The possession of the illegal firearm was more problematic; a minimum sentence of 15 years should be imposed. 

He shouldn’t have had the gun, the magistrate said, but considering the tenor of attacks targeting foreigners, “one can to a certain degree, therefore, understand if you armed yourself with a firearm in those violent circumstances”. For the charge of culpable homicide, the sentence was seven years; for possession of a firearm, it was three. But Badenhorst wholly suspended the entire sentence. Yussuf was released. Other than the three weeks spent in jail during the bail hearing, he would do no time. 

If there was a plea deal, we couldn’t see it in the transcripts. The charge of attempted murder was gone. Siphiwe’s parents were never heard before the court. And in the adversarial legal system, the magistrate does not normally interview witnesses or have access to the police docket. 

And, as it turned out, after a year of trying, neither did we. 

All told, we visited the police station seven times, twice with the family, before we were given a copy of the docket. 

Then, on a whim, one day we walked down the labyrinth of corridors of the Dobsonville police station and right into the commander’s office. Brigadier Sipho Ngubane immediately called someone from the administrative staff, told her to fetch the docket, and she handed it to us.

It looked promising. Seventy pages of evidence. But soon it became clear that it revealed very little. There were a couple of statements from those who arrived after Siphiwe was shot. Nobody saw what happened. There were statements from the officers who came to the scene. But the differing details seemed relatively minor. Siphiwe’s age was mistakenly put at 17 rather than 14. There were two ballistics reports, which seemed strange, but when we showed the docket to several independent legal experts, they didn’t find anything particularly suspect. The forensic report confirmed that Siphiwe was shot on the left side of his neck, with a “spent bullet” present on the right side. A piece of pink chewing gum was clenched between his teeth.

Two more parts of the docket stood out. The first was the statement from Lebogang Ncamla, the other victim in the case. The man who was shot in the arm. The statement the police couldn’t take because the prosecutor had told the court on February 12, he was still in the hospital. But in the docket, there it was. A statement supposedly taken three weeks earlier, on 21 January 2015 at 2.30 in the afternoon. In the statement, Ncamla was on his way home from work when he heard a gunshot. With the second shot, the statement reads, he saw a black man “falling to the ground” and the third shot hit his “left upper arm”. An “unknown person” took him to Baragwanath Hospital, where he was treated and immediately discharged. 

Commander Ngubane, the 34-year police veteran who handed us the docket, told us he wasn’t there at the station in 2015 so couldn’t give us any insight into what happened that night. But he agreed to put us in touch with the investigating officer on the case. He gave us Raven Ramouthan’s cellphone number. It was almost the same phone number scrawled on the well-kept piece of paper that Nombuyiselo gingerly handed to us in one of our first meetings. Only, two of the numbers there were transposed, which explained why we could never get through. 

Ramouthan was driving when we called. But he didn’t need a lot of prompting to remember the case. 

I think that… was a suspended sentence,” he told us. “The only problem is, I did explain to the mother, you cannot complain from the police side. We did our job. She has to go to the justice system, you know, to the courts, because they gave the sentencing, not [the] police. Look, as family members, you know, they don’t understand how we work.” 

Ramouthan insisted that he told the family about the court date, that he met with them several times. But despite promising us he would sit down and explain everything the following week, when we called to confirm, he handed the phone to his direct superior. And we were directed back to the communications officer at the station. Right back where we started.

The police clearly didn’t want to talk about that night. But maybe it was for other reasons. After all, that night in Snake Park did not start, or end, with Siphiwe’s death.

According to an article in City Press, community members who had taken part in the looting claimed police encouraged them to do so. The video showed police officials standing by as shops were looted; other reports said the police instructed looters to queue outside, allowing a few people in at a time in order “to prevent a stampede”, like the one that killed a 13-month-old baby in a neighboring township. There were stories about police demanding bribes from the shopkeepers to protect them; essentially to do their jobs. 

And then there was the other story. The one about how the local councilor, Jabulani Thomo, had “instigated looting.” Thomo denied any involvement to City Press. But we had heard those exact same rumors about him. 

Early on, we had tracked down Bongani, the “nyaope boy” who provoked the shopkeeper at the Waka Waka to pull out his gun.

He admitted he was at the spaza when the trouble began. But, he said, it wasn’t his fault. He just went into the shop to get out of the rain, and then the shopkeeper accused him of stealing. That’s when he defended himself, he told us. But he also said something nobody else was willing to say on the record, about how once the conflict escalated, Thomo was called to the scene. And instead of calming the situation, he fanned the flames, even directed people with a whistle and said it was time for the foreigners to leave.

Thomo wouldn’t speak to us for this story. We called, we stopped by his office in Snake Park and waited for him to return on three occasions without success. When we spoke on the phone again, he told us he was not mandated by the higher-ups in the ANC to speak about xenophobic violence. The other councilor in the area at the time, Mandla Zulu, also declined our request for an interview. As did the representatives of the local Community Policing Forum.

Landau, the migration expert, wasn’t surprised the local representatives weren’t willing to talk with us. 

“What is often overlooked in these grand narratives are the actors that are leading this violence. They tap into that anger and frustration in a way that national politicians often can’t do. They pay to mobilize. For example, what we’ve seen in Mamelodi when the protests against foreigners happened,” he said, referring to an incident in the country’s capital, “it had very little to do with foreigners, it had to do with the local association who wanted the city of Pretoria to recognize them and they needed people to go out on the streets and protest. But those people wouldn’t go unless they got something. So, they were promised on the way back, you can loot, you can take from a Somali shop, you can take from a Bangladeshi shop. That’s your payment for standing behind me. They already don’t like these people. They are already angry, and they are hungry, so they are willing to do it. And that happens over and over again. Until we understand that logic, I think it is hard to understand why this violence continues.” 

A community that works on clans and cash which bind them over continents isn’t going to let one of theirs go missing. But that doesn’t mean they were going to tell us where Yussuf was. 

In desperation, we turned to a journalist colleague who had reported extensively in Mogadishu. It was September 2019. At the time, we believed Yussuf had fled South Africa. Within 45 minutes, our source was on the phone with Hassan, working on nothing but the name of the shop in Snake Park. He would tell us later that he tracked Yussuf back to South Africa, where he was running another spaza shop in a rural area. Yussuf told our source that he was full of regret for the killing of Siphiwe Mahori. Others told him how much Yussuf had changed; that his wife had left him and taken all his money. But to our source, Yussuf said, before abruptly hanging up: If he were to go down, he’d take others down with him. After that, he appeared to have changed his phone number.

Despite his clear connections, like Sheikh, our source couldn’t get Yussuf – or any other foreign shopkeeper who was in Soweto that night – to go on the record. 

When we tried to confirm rumors about another young man from Soweto who was killed by a Somali shopkeeper at around the same time – a case so similar to that of Siphiwe’s that we thought they were one and the same – we couldn’t get anywhere. In that case, we were told, the Somali man who appeared in court was not the actual shooter. But once we started asking around, our sources evaporated again. 

When it was time to commit all the different accounts to tape, we weren’t confident enough about what we knew in this paperless, semi-autonomous existence where rumors and paperwork and people disappear under a veil of aliases and nicknames.

We should have known better. We had read BBC correspondent Andrew Harding’s book, The Mayor of Mogadishu. The book tracked a man named Mohamoud “Tarzan” Nur who ran the city between 2010 and 2014. Despite all his research, Harding wrote that it had been years since Somalia’s bureaucracy was destroyed, along with all records of births and of identity, so he couldn’t even tell you where Nur was actually born. He admitted in the book that while it was about Nur’s life story, or something close to it – “the truth can be a hard thing to pin down in Somalia”. (For the record, Nur is no longer mayor – and the man who became the mayor after him was assassinated in 2019 in a suicide bombing inside the mayoral office in Mogadishu.)

Maybe the Somalis did nothing to influence the police or the court. And maybe the community is best served by appointing a spokesperson to talk on their behalf; a form of community protection in a state unable and unwilling to protect them. And maybe Siphiwe was with the looting crowd the whole night. Maybe the Mahoris knew where their son was; it was late, after all, and they lived in a street where the mob violence had begun. Maybe this was the only outcome possible. One where everyone agrees on a shared version of reality, just with Yussuf and Siphiwe out of the way. Maybe the Somalis, coming from a war-torn country where on any given day you could be taken out by a roadside bomb, are just better equipped to handle life in an ungovernable place. 

As Landau, the migration researcher says, the Somalis are politically astute survivors who know exactly what is best for them. And Somalia is not safe for anyone trying to make an honest living. The community works hard to highlight the extreme vulnerability of Somalis in South African society, “which is aimed really at the UN and at trying to get resettled as refugees elsewhere in the world”, says Landau. “Part of the story has been to continually highlight the victimization of Somalis as a way of showing that they can only be safe if they are taken to the US, Canada, or Australia. And they have been very active authors of the narrative of vulnerability, which is based to some extent in fact, but part of [that] is a two-pronged project of protecting them here, but also ensuring that the world knows that they are being constantly attacked.”

Even in his gleaming generalities about the community and Somali life in South Africa, Sheikh was right. He was honest and forthright about how the community works, about their struggles to survive, about his dealings with the police and with politicians. Sheikh was right about many things.

“God only knows what happened,” he said of that night in Snake Park in one of our first interviews. “Everything else is hearsay.” 

After a string of emails and phone calls over a period of three months, in February 2020, the Protea court’s chief prosecutor, Lynne Wessels, finally agreed to an interview. She was generous with her time. But after an interview that lasted one hour and 20 minutes, the chief prosecutor told us – more than 20 times – that she “didn’t want to speculate” about the specifics of the case. 

She did say that the defense had requested a plea deal but that the director of public prosecutions turned that down. She said she was sympathetic with the family, that in cases like these, there are no happy outcomes.

She couldn’t tell us why the prosecutor decided not to charge Yussuf with the attempted murder of Lebogang Ncamla – the unnamed victim – if the prosecutor knew about the discrepancy with his statement, or if the State attempted to contact the family at any point.

The one person that was willing to talk to us after the case was perhaps the most unlikely.

We reached Herman Badenhorst in his home in George. He had just retired. Well, technically, he said, he resigned just before retirement as he couldn’t stand to watch his pension go the way of Eskom. He said he’d be in Johannesburg to wrap up a few cases, though, and he’d meet with us then. 

We found him in his old corner office, right next to the courtroom where Yussuf had been tried.

We knew Badenhorst had a reputation for saying exactly what was on his mind. It was that which landed him in controversy before, most notably in 2013, where the South African Press Association reported that he said to a man he was convicting of raping a 13-year old boy: “In prison, you can rape prisoners if you feel like it. At least you won’t be around little children.”

In the case of Siphiwe Mahori, he told us he felt not sending Yussuf to prison was the right thing to do.

“You know, if he pled guilty, we [would] take that as a sign of remorse, which is mitigating,” he said. “If you don’t come and waste time, come with some nonsense story… if they continued on the basis that someone opened the shutter door and the gun fell out, as if from nowhere… I would have sent him to prison perhaps.”  

The only other person we knew for certain was at the scene at the time of the shooting was Lebogang Ncamla. If we could find him, maybe we would know why the case of attempted murder on his life had been dropped. But we weren’t having much luck in tracking him down. 

It was his mother, a neighbor said, who wouldn’t let him speak to anyone about what had happened. Another neighbor told us it was his brother, who was a gangster, that was blocking the conversation. Several people said Ncamla was a “nyaope boy” as if his drug habit explained everything. 

Eventually, with the help of Norman Mdingi, Siphiwe’s neighbor and the man who held him when he died, we went out looking for Ncamla in Snake Park. We found him just outside his shack. It was late afternoon by then, but it seemed that he had just woken up. Contrary to the stories we had heard about him, Ncamla was not only friendly and accommodating, he was also willing to talk. 

He pointed to a distinct, narrow burn scar on his upper arm. 

Ncamla told us Siphiwe was just following the crowd. And when the crowd arrived at the Raso shop and found it closed, the metal roller door down, it was Ncamla who took the lead. He began trying to force open the door.

“We’re opening this [door] and we’re using our hands… we didn’t come with weapons or anything, you see,” he told us. “Then Siphiwe wanted to help.” 

Ncamla told us he was holding the door when Siphiwe tried to go under it.  

“There was no warning shot, nothing. I tell you that it was dark, then it flashed, like paw, paw, paw,” Ncamla said, which would indicate three shots, the number of cartridges police say they found. “And we dispersed. I didn’t even see or feel this at that moment because you see, it’s hot blood when you are running away. When I looked back, the boy was down. Eish. At the same time, when I tried to get back, my friend pointed at my arm.” 

It took years for Ncamla to say aloud what he told us that day. He said he smoked a lot during that time – “drugs, whoonga, nyaope, all of it” – and afterward. “I was trying to forget. Eish, eish, what happened to this boy? Why, why, why, why was he dead? Why didn’t he go home when it was dark? You see, those questions. That boy took a bullet that was meant for me that day. Because, at the last second, he came in and that was when this foreigner shot the bullet. Only God knows why he saved me that day.”

What Ncamla told us contradicted the statement in the docket. That he was coming home from work and was far away when he was hit by a third bullet. 

But he has a very simple explanation of why what he was telling us didn’t match the statement in the docket. He never spoke with the police. 

No! For what? What will I say? I was even scared to go to the hospital. I poured Colgate [in the wound]. [I thought] that day I was going to get arrested there.”

So, no statement. No hospital. No warning shots through the roof. 

A year after Siphiwe died, the SABC went back to Snake Park to “see how the community was faring”.

Thomo held the government line on xenophobic violence. 

“The resentment was not because of xenophobic reasons,” he said to the reporter. “It was started by a criminal act.” But these days, he said, foreigners and migrants are once again living side-by-side.

The reporter then stopped by the Royal Supermarket, showing viewers the exact spot where Siphiwe Mahori was killed. The Somali national who was now running the stop was identified as Mohammed Hassan. The man we also know as Abdul. The same man we found on social media as Abdi Wacdi, the name of the man Sheikh swore was there that night in Snake Park, who would know how to track Yussuf and his family.  

“One year on,” the reporter tells viewers, “the community now has found ways to embrace the many nationalities that now call this place home.” 

The outcome of Yussuf’s trial was never mentioned. 

On 31 January 2015 Siphiwe’s friend, Siya, and the other kids from Snake Park led the funeral march on their bikes. The crowd, with community members and the politicians and the priests, headed to the Joe Slovo Cemetery where bodies of loved ones are buried under clumps of dirt, some with grand tombstones and others with handmade signs; sometimes with nothing at all. 

On the pamphlet of the funeral program, where Siphiwe looks out in black and white in his initiation photo, there is a Bible verse from the book of Ezekiel. 

“Have I pleasure at all that the wicked should die, sayeth the Lord, and not that he should return from his ways and live,” it reads. It seemed like a strange choice for the remembrance of an innocent boy who was caught in the crossfire. 

Dan Mohari blames the foreigner who shot his son, and all the immigrant shopkeepers along with him. Nombuyiselo Mntlane blames the nyaope boys. They are both hurt, angry with the court, with the prosecutor, the police, the politicians, the state. What they still don’t say outright, but what hangs painfully in the air in their little house, is that they blame themselves, too.

Norman Mdingi, the neighbor who held Siphiwe when he died, had his own thoughts.

“You know kids, they always like to play,” Mdingi told us. “They could play with matches. They could play with a knife. They can play with dangerous things. But they are playing.”


By the time we wrapped up our reporting it was mid-winter 2020. The pandemic had hit full throttle.  

In August, the front-page headline in the Sunday Independent declared: “SA under foreign control,” blaming the bleak pandemic job market on migrants taking work from South Africans. The hashtag campaign #PutSouthAfricansFirst was lighting up Twitter. Not long after, a political party called South African First emerged. Mario Khumalo, who calls himself president of the newly-formed organization, has found his voice on Twitter. 

“Mass deportation of all illegal foreigners now!” he demanded, blaming foreigners for stealing jobs, selling drugs, using up tax money for healthcare and housing and education that should go to the country’s citizens.

Meanwhile, New Frame reported how migrants in Thokoza, in the south of Johannesburg, had been attacked. Their shops were looted, they were forced out of their homes; a woman described how her papers and her child’s birth certificate were burned in front of her.

“We are sanitizing,” residents told the reporter, referencing the current ongoing pandemic. Besides New Frame, the story went unreported in the media.

This story is based on the story from the six-part narrative podcast “One Night in Snake Park.” Listen to the podcast here. It was partially funded by the Taco Kuiper investigative journalism grant.