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A community of proximities and spies

What has struck me is that this community of Ethiopians and Eritreans, regardless of their past conflicts in their home countries, remain in proximity in South Africa, and in some ways, continue the to struggle through the memory of past conflicts. I think that this proximity is the result of the similarity of their cultures, and also the distance from a home. The Ethiopian as well as Eritrean nationalities are comprised from many different ethnicities, each with particular customs and particular languages. These cultural differences continue into Jeppe, so that mediator languages, such as Aramaic, are used to communicate between ethnicities. These differences in culture, as well as the differences in life stories make for a community of people which is not at all homogeneous, settled or easily representable.

With this proximity of people, however, there is also a suspicion between people. The idea of the spy came up several times during our conversations and other interactions. Our research process and researchers were accused of being an agents for an unknown large scale organisational, and sinister body (such as Wallmart, the Illuminati or the South African, Ethiopian or Eritrean Governments), but so have people from the area been suspected for being spy’s (for the government back home, for criminal activities directed against the Eritrean and Ethiopian communities here, or for spending too much time with South Africans in general). Spies, it seems, have a long history based in the wars back home: People, even family members betrayed each other in a war of ideology connected to ethnicity. These conflicts, and memories of betrayal have seemed to travel with people. I have often heard, however, that the recent wars are commonly understood to not really be between the people and their ethnicities, but a war between the leaders of nations. This war destroyed the countries, and its people because of conflicting ideology: two elephants that trampled and continue to trample the bush.

Each Ethiopian and Eritrean person in South Africa, however, has their own story: some people are veterans, some are refugees, some maintain permanent residence, some just come here for business, some are here on their way somewhere else, some are spy’s for back home, and, as someone said, some people are just common criminals.

A common national origin, difficult financial, cultural and social conditions in Johannesburg, and the need to make business to survive in Johannesburg, however, has seemed to induce a proximity of Ethiopians and Eritreans in Johannesburg, with ties to other towns and cities in South Africa and other countries. Here examples may be ties to places such as Rustenburg, Boksburg and Cape Town in South Africa, and ties to other countries such as back home in Ethiopia and Eritrea, new homes in countries where other family members live, for instance Italy or Canada, as well as trading and resupplying areas such as China.

The success of the businesses in Jeppe Street, and the resultant, safety in this part of the CBD is related to this proximity, even though the people are too divergent to produce a homogeneous sense of community. These close ties of a business community with cultural ties, however, lead to the biggest challenges we faced as a research group: being allowed the place and time to speak to people and to work on building relationships was very difficult from the beginning. Although language barriers also played a part in the difficulty to communicate, language barriers (or feigned language barriers) were often used to block, or cut short our attempts at interactions.

Other tactics, however, were also used to prevent interactions: for instance the point when I proposed to do a mural in the Lotto Building, a building operated by an Ethiopian man. It took me a month to be able to speak to the building manager. He also owned the lease for the building. This conversation turned out to only lead me to a closed door. The building manager has a ten year lease on the building which is owned by a South African. The building manager runs his own shops in this building, but also rents our many other shops and store rooms to other people. In the weeks before I met the building manager, I routinely went to his shop with my papers, proposals and plans. After some time, however, I realised that the shop managers were just stalling me by making it impossible to meet with the man. I am sure they did inform the building manager, but no one ever called back. By this stage I had made friends with the building’s security manager, a man from Namibia. He told me that he would ask the building manager, and he also told me he would keep me informed. The meeting with the building manager resulted from the relationship with the security manager. On that day, the security manager told me exactly where in the building to find the building manager. When I spoke to the building manager, presented my proposal in a short 2 minute overview, and handed him the proposal, he asked when I wanted to have the mural completed. When I asked him when I could come see him again, his answer was a month after the dead line: It was confirmed that the eternal delay and avoidance is a way of saying no. I left it at that, soon finding a yet un-rented shop in another building which I could use as a studio, a shop and a place of meeting.

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