The state security agency is probing links between various loose-knit “business forums” fomenting xenophobic violence across the country.
The move comes as momentum builds in the number of attacks against foreign-owned businesses across the country and follows violence directed at Somali business people in Port Elizabeth last week.
On Wednesday, police held back a crowd of more than 100 – including members of the Greater Gauteng Business Forum (GGBF) – in Ramaphosa informal settlement near Germiston, east of Joburg, as they attempted to forcibly close foreign-owned businesses there.
National Intelligence Agency spokesperson Brian Dube confirmed this week that they are monitoring the forums and investigating if there were links between what happened in Eastern Cape and Gauteng, and also whether there is a syndicate involved.
“There have been sporadic incidents in various parts of the country with common elements. The state security agency is monitoring the anti-foreigner sentiments which are fuelled by competition in a depressed economic environment,” said Dube.
City Press has spent weeks in Ramaphosa and Soweto investigating the rise and links between the forums.
We have witnessed active efforts by these groups to connect to each other and to coordinate their activities.
We have also attended meetings where representatives of groups from townships across Gauteng have spoken of working together to get foreign businesses out of their communities.
The GGBF, which serves as the mother body of about 120 business structures in Gauteng, said it had been receiving “calls and invitations” to open up branches in Limpopo, KwaZulu-Natal, Port Elizabeth and Western Cape.
The forum’s organiser, Mandla Yende, said he has received a number of calls from people who either want to join the forum or want branches opened in their townships.
Yende said he even got a call from a Port Elizabeth business person just 24 hours before the outbreak of violence in Motherwell, where four shops were burnt down and more than 50 were looted from.
But he denied that the attacks in Port Elizabeth had been coordinated by the forum.
Yende said: “We had absolutely nothing to do with what happened in Port Elizabeth. They took the decision to close down Somali shops themselves because they are angry.”
He said the attacks in Port Elizabeth and the march to Parliament by the Cape Peninsula Business Forum a few weeks ago was a clear indication that small-business people from across the country are frustrated.
But the chairperson of the Somali Community Board, Abdul Hakim Mohamed, said he believed that there was a “greater force” working behind the scenes.
Mohamed said he had received information from one of the GGBF members in Soweto who had decided to inform him about plans to intensify the forum and extend its activities nationally.
Mohamed said: “He has told me that the GGBF was trying to make contact with the KZN shack dwellers forum and other guys in PE and Cape Town.”
The GGBF has denied the allegation, saying that these links are simply business people from other provinces who want to join the forum.
Mohamed said the sequence of moves against foreign nationals also suggests that there could be a link between the forums.
He pointed to the rise of the GGBF in March, them handing letters to foreign shopkeepers ordering them to shut up shop and leave areas; the Cape Peninsula Business Forum, which marched to Parliament to protest foreign traders in Cape Town townships; last week’s violence in Motherwell in Port Elizabeth; and this week’s moves in Ramaphosa.
Jean Pierre Misago, a researcher for the African Centre for Migration in Society at Wits University, said he did not believe that there was a syndicate behind the attacks on foreign nationals.
“It is hard to say that because we don’t know whether the Greater Gauteng Business Forum has been to Eastern Cape or Cape Town, but what we do know is that they have been mobilising communities around Gauteng to join them,” he said.
Misago said other provinces could well be drawing inspiration from the coverage that the GGBF has received in the media lately and that is possibly why there have been similar cases.