Foreign shop owners in SA – The wrong end of anger

2012-08-04 14:52

Foreigners in the Free State fear for their lives and businesses in townships

It is freezing cold in Bloemfontein and the first spaza shop in Mangaung’s Section 9 is difficult to reach.

A stream of raw sewage flows down the street, and a trail of stinking mud stagnates around the container.

The man behind the counter, who comes from Bangladesh, struggles to understand us as we speak to him through the grille that separates him from his customers.

He hands them their purchases in a metal box pushed through a hatch.

This area, along with Mangaung’s phases 9 and 10 as well as the neighbouring informal settlement, Khayelitsha – named after the sprawling Cape Town township – were the setting of widespread looting in May.

Bloemfontein police say the violence, which spread to the rest of Mangaung, was sparked by a group of angry residents who took to the streets after two foreigners and a local were arrested for the murder of a Lesotho national.

The group looted the shops, blaming foreigners for the crime rate.

Nearby, another Bangladeshi, Gamal Uddin (29), who trades in Khayelitsha, spoke of what happened that day.
“A big crowd of people – men, women and kids – approached the shop and started breaking down the front of the container. I ran out,” he said.

His colleague, Ahsan Ullah (24), said there was nothing left afterwards.

“They even took my underwear, the fridge and our beds.”

The two men live where they work.

They sleep on blankets on the corrugated iron floor.

They cook on a gas stove perilously placed next to their beds.

Two blocks away, another Bangladeshi shopkeeper, Noby Noby (37), said the looters broke his counter top and ripped the shelves off his shop.

Research conducted after the violence by the University of the Free State’s Centre for Development Support found that the foreign traders in the area were mainly from Bangladesh, “a democratic country with no recent incidents of economic or political turmoil”.

The research also found that most of them had been in South Africa on asylum-seeker permits for longer than five years, for which many had bribed home affairs officials.

The research paper, written by Lejone Ntema and Lochner Marais, estimated the value of township trading in Mangaung at R431 million a year.

Local traders blamed government for not “protecting” them from their foreign counterparts.

And although foreigners claimed they were soft targets for criminals, they seldom opened cases or went to court because of their tenuous immigration status.

The paper revealed that many of the traders were in the country either because they were aided by corrupt officials or because their applications got bogged down in a system beset with huge backlogs.

The paper further revealed that home affairs needed to confirm the status of foreign traders to the Mangaung Metro so that they could apply for business licences.

However, the verification process took so long that the traders ended up doing business without licences and the municipality’s figures of the numbers of people doing business in local townships were “grossly understated”.

Uddin, Ullah and Noby all work for another Bangladeshi national, Masud Alam (32), who owns a profitable wholesaler in the city centre.

He admits to owning a “couple of spaza shops” and employs 35 people, most of whom are Bangladeshis.

Alam, who claims to be an asylum seeker, says he fled his country following political uprisings eight years ago.

He chose South Africa because his brother was already here.

His brother also has his own business in Bloemfontein.

“I came with $10 000 in my pocket,” he said. Alam then went about setting up his chain of spaza shops because they were easy to establish and they didn’t need much initial capital.

He now lives in a nice house in a middle-class section of Heidedal.

Alam said he lost more than R1 million when his shops were looted in May.

“My bakkie, loaded with stock, was hijacked in the township. I went to the police to open a case, but instead I got arrested,” he said.

Charges against him were later dropped.

“We (foreigners) are the real victims. You would be shocked to see the number of crimes against us.”

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