On the Soweto looting

Toby Chance writes on what lies behind the recent attacks on foreign traders in the townshiop

Promoting opportunity, not envy

Walking through my constituency in Soweto observing the damage done to property, local business and community relations by the recent looting of foreign-run spaza shops, it became clear that the causes were not immediately obvious, and the solutions hardly more so.

I got a different story depending on who I spoke to. First up was the commander of Moroka police station, where the media had camped out on Thursday to get, like me, a first-hand account of the scale of the problem at hand. The station brigadier seemed to have things under control. His officers were escorting scores of Somali, Bangladeshi and Pakistani spaza shopkeepers, their cars and bakkies loaded with goods, out of the township to safety. His priority was to lessen the temptation for looting by the marauding gangs of mainly young Sowetans out for an illicit bargain. Crime prevention and arresting the often drugged-up perpetrators came first. Digging deeper into cause and effect was for a later time.

Thankfully police efforts soon took effect, and by the Sunday things had quietened down - but simmering anger and resentment remained. Many of the callers into radio stations blamed police complicity in allowing foreigners to set up their shops as the underlying problem. Why is it, they asked, that police are so often found loitering around these shops while leaving others alone?

In Naledi I spoke to a young South African who runs a small spaza shop from his mother's garage. He told me the residents had prevented "foreigners" from getting a foothold there. They were not welcome, though nothing prevented locals from plying their trade. Here, bonded houses are the norm and home-owners have succesfully kept their neighbourhood foreigner-free. His explanation for the looting was pithy: unity. The foreigners form close-knit networks, enabling them to buy and sell goods cheaper than the locals can. In his neighbourhood, though, price - 50 cents on a loaf of bread - is not the deciding factor for choosing where to shop.

In Emdeni things are different. RDP houses predominate and the poorer residents find it harder to stop - or else welcome - foreigners setting up shop. For them, with little to spend and without cars to get to the malls, cheap means attractive. This was one of the hot-spots for the criminals.

The paradox of why shops selling cheaper goods are the focus of the violence and resentment is the nub of the problem. Local traders are driven out of business by foreign competitors, whose sudden disappearance due to the looting makes buying more expensive for hard-up residents

Government's insistence that criminal behaviour does not have a xenophobic element is disingenuous. Why, in Soweto, were upwards of 140 foreign-run shops attacked while locally-run or owned shops were spared?

Government has had plenty of warning, but its efforts to deal with the problem have come to nothing. Former Gauteng Housing MEC Humphrey Mmemezi convened a gathering of disgruntled spaza and tuck shop owners in Kliptown, Soweto in 2012 where grievances were aired and promises made. Lax immigration controls, resulting in both bona and non-bona fide asylum-seekers from Somalia and elsewhere being allowed into the country, are blamed for much of the trouble. But when they arrive these immigrants expect - rightly so - fair treatment under our Bill of Rights, not to be singled out for discriminatory treatment by the authorities.

There is, though, another sinister angle to the story which needs thorough investigation. Allegations are surfacing that some foreigners are involved in criminal hi-jacking rackets, raiding trucks and stealing their goods which they then sell at rock-bottom prices in their shops. If this is true then the grievances of law-abiding shop keepers could have some grounding in fact. Criminality, wherever it occurs, must be fairly investigated and punished.

Following the latest bout of attacks, Minister of Small Business Development Lindiwe Zulu has been tasked to find solutions. Her choice, at first blush, makes sense, since the target of the looting and violence is small business owners and operators. But her recent remarks suggest her time as a South African diplomat, and later Jacob Zuma's foreign affairs advisor, did nothing to temper a bias towards "our people". Zulu is on record saying that foreign business owners in South African townships cannot expect to co-exist peacefully with local business owners unless they share their trade secrets. In effect, the Minister is doing nothing but feulling the wedge that already exists between locals and foreigners, which led to such violence.

A recent study by the Gauteng City Region Observatory indicates immigrants are net employers of South Africans and contribute significantly to township economies. Far from forcing locals out of jobs, they are bolstering local economic development through their entrepreneurialism. Yet the Minister sees it fit to use her influence to envoke more conflict and resentment. The study found that cross-border migrant entrepreneurs in Joburg's informal sector were proportionally twice as likely as South Africans to employ people in their businesses. The irony is that foreigners are twice as likely to do what her ministry is mandated to do - create jobs for the unemployed.

My confidant in Naledi pointed unwittingly to the problem of South Africans displaying fewer entrepreneurial instincts than their north-African compatriots. His mother, owner of the home they and his elder brother live in, would never consider taking out a loan on their bonded house to finance his business to grow. She is happy to live on the pension of her late husband and hates debt.

All he needs to make him more competitive is R3 000 to buy some fridges, put up some branding and build his stock. To a Somali with family, friends and credit networks to fall back on this is chump change.

Lindiwe Zulu, rather than calling on foreigners to share their "trade secrets" with local shop keepers, should get to the bottom of why South Africans are more risk-averse, shun long hours and display disunity rather than the unity that gives our northern neighbours an advantage. She should also call upon her colleague, the Minister of Police, to double up efforts to investigate allegations of criminality both by police and truck hi-jackers.

What she is right about is the need for dialogue. But what is not needed is more diatribe. Avoiding violent flare-ups must remain a priority. Drug abuse must also be tackled with greater determination. Most important though, is getting people - particularly the youth - off the streets and into gainful employment. They will then have more money to spend, and meaningfully contribute to the economy, with less time to idle away. 

Rather than taking cheap shots at law-abiding foreigners who are stimulating the informal market, and most importantly - creating jobs, Minister Zulu should be at the forefront of this effort, building lasting bridges that will secure both growth and jobs.

Toby Chance is the DA's spokesperson on Small Business Development. Read his blog at www.tatamachancesa.blogspot.com

This article first appeared in The Star.

Click here to sign up to receive our free daily headline email newsletter