Shiferaw is one of the early Ethiopians who migrated to South Africa post-apartheid in 1998, after passport restrictions were lifted.

By Hannah Gebresilassie |

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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