Foreign traders in many Johannesburg townships have closed their businesses and put their livelihoods on hold in response to a campaign of threats and intimidation launched in recent weeks by a group of local business people calling themselves the Greater Gauteng Business Forum (GGBF).
In late April, the GGBF started distributing letters to immigrant shopkeepers in at least nine townships, giving them seven days to pack up and leave. The letter threatened drastic action against those who did not comply.
Siyat Sheik Ahmed, a Somali who co-owns five shops in Ramaphosa township, east of Johannesburg, did not take the threat lightly. He was new to the area in May 2008 when a wave of violence directed at foreigners living in townships swept the country.
“They looted [our] shops and burned them,” he recalled. “We ran for our lives.”
However, after six months Ahmed and his partners returned to Ramaphosa to start over, and their shops remained open even after the GGBF delivered their threatening letters. “We don’t get government support so we have to survive, and this is the business we know how to do,” he told IRIN.
They finally closed the shops only after the seven days had elapsed and several carloads of GGBF members returned with loudspeakers and threats of bloodshed. By the time police arrived that evening the situation was calm, said Ahmed, but they loaded the shops’ entire stock into the back of a police van and took it away “for safekeeping”. Two weeks later Ahmed’s shops remain closed because the police have not returned their stock, most of which was perishable.
“You work hard to save, sometimes you sleep hungry, but after struggling for one or two years, everything is back to square one. It’s so painful,” he said.
According to Lawyers for Human Rights (LHR), a local NGO, the police response has been patchy. While 71 GGBF members were arrested in Katlehong, another township east of Johannesburg, and charged with intimidation, they were later released after paying a small fine and only nine arrests have since been made in Soweto.
“We are aware that in Ramaphosa the police turned a blind eye to the unlawful actions of the GGBF and may even have assisted them with their intimidation campaign,” said Kaajal Ramjathan-Keogh, head of LHR’s Refugee and Migrant Rights Programme.
Ahmed complained that the police believed allegations made by the GGBF that foreigners were running businesses without licenses. According to LHR’s own investigations, all of the affected businesses in Ramaphosa were operating legally.
A statement issued by Gauteng police spokesperson Col Lungelo Dlamini noted that police in Ramaphosa had “helped foreign nationals in removing their property when the residents threatened them” and that the situation was now calm “due to police operations in the area”.
Magnet for migrants
South Africa attracts migrants from all over the continent and beyond with the promise of economic opportunity, but it is a particular magnet for refugees and asylum-seekers. Unlike other countries in the region, South African legislation guarantees these groups freedom of movement as well as the right to work and access social services. “It’s definitely more attractive than staying in a refugee camp where you’re completely dependent on international aid,” said Tina Ghelli, spokesperson with the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) in the region.
“As Somalis we seek asylum everywhere we can,” said Diriye Dahir Mohamed, another Somali shopkeeper from Ramaphosa. “But those of us who come to this country have far better opportunities because we can conduct business. We were making a living until this GGBF came along.”
Foreign business owners like Mohamed may have been the victims of their own success. Their shops are often larger than the locally-owned `spaza’ (informal) shops and are able to offer a wider variety of goods at more competitive prices because they tend to club together and buy in bulk.
GGBF spokesperson Lufuno Gogoro said the Forum was started in Freedom Park, a township south of Johannesburg, by local business owners who felt threatened by the increase of foreign-owned businesses.
“They come with a big supermarket in a residential area, they put it next to your shop and the goods are cheap,” he told IRIN. “To us it’s like they want to control the small business sector.”
But Gogoro’s rational fear that competition from foreigners is putting locally-owned shops out of business unravelled as he accused the immigrant shopkeepers of various crimes and of pushing an agenda aimed at destabilizing the country. “Most of them are here… to take the freedom we fought for away from us,” he said. “We want them to be in a place where they can be monitored.”
People “frustrated… angry”
The decision to distribute “eviction” letters to foreign shopkeepers was reached, said Gogoro, after local government leaders failed to respond to their requests for help. “We’re not xenophobic, we don’t want to engage in violence but if no one is there to help us then I’m not ruling it out, because people are frustrated, they’re angry,” he said.
He added that the Forum had temporarily suspended its activities after the police agreed to help them regularly visit foreign-owned shops to ensure they were complying with the law. Dlamini of the police department said he had no knowledge of such an agreement and Ghelli said UNHCR had requested police support to ensure that shops operating legally were not shut down.
In some townships shops have been burned but in others such as Soweto, shops that were forced to close have since reopened. Several of the affected shopkeepers have also hired private attorneys to fight the GGBF in court.
Ahmed was adamant he would find a way to reopen his shops in Ramaphosa, but Mohamed said he could not face starting over again. He, too, lost everything in the 2008 attacks when his shop in Springs, east of Johannesburg, was torched. "Hope is bleak," he said. “I don’t know what I will do.”