Immigrants defy threats

2011-06-30 09:40

Abdullah, like many foreign shopkeepers in Soweto, has fortified his shop following renewed threats to drive immigrant business owners out, particularly Somalis, Pakistanis and Ethiopians.

In May, he closed his shop for 10 days after a local small business group accused him of weaning away its customers.

Dozens of shops belonging to foreigners across the sprawling township also closed down, some looted and vandalised over the last two months, in anti-foreigner threats concentrated in areas across Joburg, Cape Town and Eastern Cape.

“We are not entirely safe here, some people want us out but not everyone wants us to go,” said Abdullah.

Abdullah’s roadside shop – housed in a derelict building and stocked with basic necessities like soap, rice, bread and soft drinks – resembles a fortress, save for two arcade games often occupied by children.

Customers slip money through a small gap between the bars and he walks to the shelves to collect the goods to be purchased.

“It is better this way because it is hard to tell who is here to cause harm or not,” he said.

Despite the difficult conditions, the 42-year-old arrived in South Africa three years ago said he had no intention of abandoning his business. Instead, he is planning to expand.

“This is the city of gold. People have more money here that is why I don’t want to give up,” said Abdullah, who had previously owned a shop in rural Queenstown in Eastern Cape.

Anti-immigrant tensions in townships have been simmering since the wave of the 2008 xenophobic violence that left some 62 people dead.

The leader of the Greater Gauteng Business Forum, Makhosana Mhlanga, a group that is calling for the expulsion of immigrants, said that Soweto was out of bounds to people from outside the country.

“We don’t want them in our townships, they are invading our space and taking away opportunities that should be used by local people,” said Mhlanga.

The newly formed forum is also accusing the shopkeepers of selling goods at low prices in an attempt to frustrate their competitors. They have sent homemade “eviction notices” telling foreigners to close shop, raising tensions in the township.

Not everyone in the community agrees with him. Some welcome the foreign-owned shops, which tend to open early and close late – unlike many South African stores.

“I am against the idea of chasing the foreigners out. Their shops are close to us and you can easily walk to them when you ran out of something,” said Soweto resident Portia Selote.

One group of South Africans even staged a pro-immigrant march last march, chanting: “We want the Somalis to stay” – because they said Somalis offered lower prices.

Amir Sheikh, the secretary-general of the Somali Community Board, admitted that his community members were trading under difficult conditions in townships.

In May, a Somali shopkeeper was killed in his shop in Khayelitsha outside Cape Town, and there had been similar killings in townships around the country, according to Sheik.

But it’s hard to ascribe motives to isolated incidents in a country where violent crime is alarmingly common, with an average 46 killings a day.

“The killings are brutal and worrying,” said Sheikh, adding that he did not believe that the recent threats were fuelled by xenophobia but jealousy.

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