More than a spaza warning

2011-04-30 13:26

In Katlehong on Gauteng’s East Rand this week, 71 people were arrested. Their alleged crime: intimidation of foreign shop owners.

The group were allegedly behind an ominous letter circulated to shops owned by Somalis and other foreign nationals in townships across the province.

Presented as a legal document, it ordered the small-scale retailers to close shop within seven days or face the consequences.

Said Somali national Suzhin Abdullah: “The people said to us we have to move out in seven days or otherwise if we come again, we shall kill you or loot your property.”

The warning, from the Greater Gauteng Business Forum, should have all of us up in arms because as the events of 2008 show us, xenophobic attacks can spread like wildfire.

The group’s spokesperson, Timothy Bambisa, says his action is not xenophobic as it is not targeted at foreign students and refugees.
But of course it is.

During that awful period, the entire country burned as the attacks spread sporadically and in a copycat fashion.

In poor communities, foreigners are an easy target – and there is a common view that people from Mozambique, Zimbabwe, Zambia, Malawi, Somalia, Pakistan and Bangladesh are stealing precious resources like water from shared taps and the bits of vacant land on which shacks are erected.

That the foreigners have also taken over township economies has been a festering sore for years now.

It is a common occurrence that whenever there are protests the foreign owners of spazas and small shops are lined up as targets along with symbols of the state like local councillors and council property.

 They are easy scapegoats seen to make money while locals suffer.

Is this true? The answer has to be “yes” and “no”. Immigrants are vulnerable and their fragile communities have none of the familial and social networks that locals do.

But they are incredibly hard-working people who undercut minimum wages and labour laws; who do not qualify for grants and so have to make a go of things through their sheer sweat and blood.

In addition, apartheid very deliberately snuffed out the flame of entrepreneurialism in black communities, a flame that government has failed to reignite with one failed attempt after another at small-business development.

Arresting the alleged intimidators is only a short-term solution.

At some point, government must realise that it has to have a smarter immigration policy to permit entry to those with the skills the country needs, providing a set of services for refugees while ensuring that local and small black businesses have the space to grow without competition from foreigners.

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