Dashiki Dialogues: Of spaza shops and Walmart

2012-09-29 10:07

The late thinker and scribe Es’kia Mphahlele once wrote that, as Africans, we must learn to find ourselves happening to events, instead of always responding to events happening to us.

I remembered these words last week while sifting through some of the responses to my column on local and foreign small businesses.

You see, I argued that the state needs to pay more attention to what’s happening in the small-business sector.

Specifically, I pointed out the obviously troubled relationship developing between foreign migrants doing business in the townships and the local shop owners.

Our failure to prevent a potentially explosive situation getting out of hand had me thinking we need to heed Mphahlele’s words.

We must consider the ramifications of the conflict being created by unemployed locals renting out their RDP houses to foreign shop owners.

They often lose these houses to their enterprising tenants because of debts they incur from taking spaza shop products on credit.

I’m of the view that, given our propensity to be volatile and violent, as seen in the 2008 attacks on foreign nationals, we need to be more proactive and pre-emptive.

First, it is clear shops run by foreigners have positioned themselves as cheaper.

This is achieved in part by their clubbing together that allows them to buy in bulk from wholesalers.

It doesn’t take much to see that these entrepreneurs are defining themselves as apart from the communities they work within. This makes them vulnerable.

Government’s approach in the wake of the violence in 2008 was to integrate refugees into township communities, moving them from being refugees to being fellow citizens.

This is the right approach but, owing to cultural differences, it’ll take time to realise.

In the meantime, there are unhappy murmurs in the night by local businesses – criminal elements are also watching this and are likely to take advantage of the existing discord.

I was accused by some readers of being anti-foreigner and quasi-xenophobic for raising this issue. They couldn’t have been further from the truth.

My observations are from a community that marched against xenophobia when other townships were burning, but I’m sensing their waning tolerance levels.

Big corporations that define themselves as foreign are regulated to protect local interests – think here of the Competition Commission’s insistence on preconditions for multinational giant Walmart’s entry into the country.

By that logic, local small businesses must be protected against apparently hostile foreign business formations.

This is a simple dialogue in the interests of bloodless dashikis for communities that need to happen to events, not vice versa.

» Follow me on Twitter @Percy_Mabandu

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