South Africa

South Africa

GroundUp: Xenophobia, and the broken life of Joseph Tau

GroundUp: Xenophobia, and the broken life of Joseph Tau

Joseph Tau is 76. He shares a small space with a three-legged cat named Pretty. Without a salary, he relies on his long friendship with the owners of Sello’s supermarket for a roof over his head, and his ID and pensioner’s card to put food on the table. Looting cost him all three. By Mosa Damane for GROUNDUP.

“I heard a loud noise from the looters outside the supermarket,” recalls 76-year-old Joseph Tau. “I could hear footsteps on the roof and knew they were coming for us.”

“I froze and stood still while they hammered the doors of the backyard rooms. Within seconds they made away with plasma TVs, DVDs, clothes, furnishings and personal belongings. From my room they took my ID and pension card,” says Tau.

Sello’s supermarket is in November Street, Mzimhlophe, in Meadowlands, Soweto. This is a neigbourhood that has improved over the years. It now has tarmac streets and sidewalks. It has also produced much South African football talent, including Linda Mntambo, Sipho Mngomezulu and Sibusiso Ngwenya.

When a 14-year-old boy was shot dead allegedly by a Somali trader in Snake Park, Dobsonville, last month, the people who run Sello’s became the victims of the ensuing xenophobic violence. After three nights it came to November Street. Three foreigner-run stores were hit: Tafelberg, whose slogan reads “Super Maize Meal”, Bismilah General Dealer and Sello’s Supermarket.

Tau was born in Sophiatown but has been part of Sello’s for half a century, occupying one of a row of four rooms in the supermarket yard. He holds proud status of “master tenant” and doesn’t pay rent in recognition of his long friendship with the late Jack Sello, the supermarket’s founder. He is the yard’s guardian.


Growing up with two sisters in Sophiatown, Tau’s heroes were a notorious gang called Black Americans, with a reputation for hijacking delivery trucks and mugging people. He’s still bitter about the 1955 evictions which at 16 forced him and his sisters to leave Sophiatown and live with an aunt in Meadowlands.

Tau ignores questions about his parents, leaving it at “they were not around anymore” and recalls a grim life in then dusty Meadowlands “relying on coal, candles and paraffin to survive”. Eventually he found work at a factory in Booysens producing rubber and leather mining boots for Crown Mine workers.

In the 60s he met Jack Sello, who worked at the Barry Colne chemical company in town while his wife Pinky ran their recently established Sello’s Supermarket in Mzimhlophe. “We became close friends and Jack suggested I move in with him at the supermarket,” says Tau. Later Sello got him a job at the chemical factory. “I got paid R180 per month after deductions. Boy, you should have seen the smile on my face when I received my first pay at Barry Colne! It was a lot of money!”

Sello’s Supermarket, known to many as Pinky’s after Sello’s late wife, is now owned by Mama Mpho Leeuw, a 52-year-old teacher at Anchor high school who is Pinky’s younger sister. Her tenant who operates Sello’s today is 30-year-old Ali Mihay from Bangladesh. That is what likely made Sello’s a target for last month’s violence.

“From the supermarket they took everything. Electric cables were ripped from the ceiling, not even a single wire was left. Margarines were pasted all over the floor, mixed with grains and mielies,” recalls Tau, who says that the looters “were armed to the teeth with pangas, axes, hammers and shovels.”

Joseph home

“Bana ba bakotsi (these youngsters are dangerous), “says Tau. “I’ve never seen anything like that in my life. My friend Jack Sello worked hard to make this supermarket what it is today.

“During my working days in the factories in the 60s we had a single challenge as a nation: fighting Apartheid for better conditions of living. Today we rise against one another and do damage to ourselves.”

He blames parents for allowing their children to run loose. “Teachers cannot be blamed for everything. An honest parent wouldn’t allow stolen goods in the house. The very same people who demolished the shop are customers of this business!”

Tau shares his small room in the supermarket yard with a three-legged one-eyed white cat named Pretty, which he feeds but denies ownership of. “The cat belongs to Ali,” he says firmly.

Tau walks about in fancy two-tone golf shoes (spikes removed) with no laces. He talks frequently of the old currency before the rand, and carries a sixpenny piece and a penny wrapped in plastic.

He and Mihay are firm friends. Until the place was gutted last month they met daily in the supermarket kitchen to have breakfast together.


“Ali, who is a Muslim, is caring and spirit [alcohol] free,” says Tau. “I usually go out with friends for a few drinks and I know that Ali will leave something for me to eat when I return. He doesn’t deserve what’s happened to him. He is a man of God, soft spoken in his broken English, and pretty shy too.”

Sello’s had previously been robbed twice at gunpoint since Mihay took over its tenancy two years ago. Goods worth R150,000 were taken in last month’s looting, let alone the structural damage. “I reported it to Meadowlands police but nothing has been done,” says Mihay.

Mihay has retreated to Mayfair near Johannesburg city centre while owner Mama Leeuw attends to the supermarket’s repairs. She says, “We are like a family with Ntate Joseph. I bought some food for him today, but he does not want to eat. The ID and pension card thing is not sitting well with him.” DM

This feature was first published at Photos by Mosa Damane.


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