South Africa

‘Better to work than beg’: After the attacks, Bangladeshis are back to re-open the Soweto spazas

By BC Simelane & Greg Nicolson 9 February 2015

In Protea South, Soweto, foreigners who owned stores that were looted in the recent attacks, condemned as both xenophobia and criminality, are returning. As they worry about further attacks but feel no choice to start working again, the underlying causes, it seems, remain. By GREG NICOLSON & BHEKI C. SIMELANE.

Tujin Abunayem leans towards the mesh of steel separating the customers from the workers at the Al-Madina Supermarket. The barrier has just been installed to replace the one ripped from the wall. The zinc roofing was also stolen and had to be replaced.

“See how I come – one blanket and one trouser is everything,” he waves across the store, gaps on the shelves.

“Of course angry.”

“We are scared but what must we do? We don’t have any option now.” Abunayem, 26, runs three spaza shops in Protea South with business partners Reaz Pathwary, 28, and Tarek Salauddin, 25, all from Bangladesh. Their stores were looted when the Soweto attacks on foreigners’ stores hit Protea South on 22 January.

After closing temporarily following being looted or to avoid violence, some foreign store owners are returning to their shops. Both the community and shopkeepers say they are wanted in the area, but after looting spread across Soweto in January, and reached other areas, leaving half a dozen dead and many shops empty, the underlying issues appear to remain.

Abunayem and his partners re-opened two of their stores on Saturday. When a mob came to loot on the January afternoon, the three men escaped out the back of the shop and jumped the fence into the landlord’s house. They fled to Lenasia and spent the next two weeks staying with friends, relatives or in lodges. Everything was taken from the Al-Madina, says Abunayem, including his personal possessions, and all of the stock and fridges.

While away, the partners got calls from the community. They say locals wanted them to return because their goods are cheaper than the South African-owned stores, which weren’t looted – R10 for a 1.25 litre cold drink instead of R12; R11.50 for a loaf of bread instead of R14-15 – and people can’t afford to travel to the mall, which doesn’t offer credit for groceries.

The three partners called their families in Bangladesh and explained how the violence started in Snake Park. “This simple issue has broken our shops,” Abunayem told his parents. “Everyone is crying,” he says on Sunday.

The families said, if possible, the men should go back to work, and lent them some money to buy new stock. “Better to work rather than beg,” says Abunayem.

At the Discount Store on a parallel street, Muhammed Hel stops a child to see if he has paid for the milk he is taking out of the store. Satisfied, Hel, 26 and from Somalia, sits back on the empty crates of Coke. Discount Store wasn’t looted; the Somali owners managed to remove their stock and lock up the store before there were any problems.

“It’s over,” says Hel. Discount was closed for a week. He says the community also wanted them back and there haven’t been any threats of looting or violence. Other foreign-owned stores in Protea South remain closed.

Meneer Mashaba, a construction worker who turns 50 this year, leaves his friends drinking Joburg Beer and Black Label on crates, and stands by Discount Store’s wall. Last week the community met to discuss the looting. The key issue was jobs. “We come and support you, but you never help our children to get a job,” he says. The meeting resolved to tell the foreign stores owners they should each try to hire a few young locals. “It’s just their families [who work there],” he says. Before lamenting about today’s youth, he adds that he has nothing against the store keepers.

Protea South resident Daniel Lubombo says the stores help pensioners like himself. He owed R60 on credit when one spaza closed but no one has shouted at him, they didn’t even take his shack number when he asked for the advance. The unemployed 59-year-old witnessed the looting but didn’t take part – “How would an old man like me run?”

“I can tell you now, their safety is in danger,” continues Lubombo. “Lots of people say they will loot the shops again. The commotion doesn’t seem to have meant anything much to the country’s authorities because they haven’t don’t anything to protect these people.”

Nearby, 17-year-old student Dieketseng Makafane has welcomed the foreign-owned spaza stores back, calling them good people who help the community with their low prices. “I think we have to treat them with dignity and respect,” says Makafane. “There’s no point looting their stuff. I think they have to be given a notice to clear their stock [before people attack]. After all these people are harmless.”

But over at the Z.K.S Tavern, nicer than most in Protea South and catering to those deemed middle class in the area, things get more complicated. As soon as we begin conversation, the joking turns into debate.

“They like our sisters too much,” says one man, taking a swig of Castle Light, before condemning the community for looting. South Africans are too jealous to work in cooperatives like the foreigners, he adds. Others doubt whether the Somalis and Bangladeshi pay taxes and are registered.

Another drink, and the circle of men sitting on the grass, most around 30 years old, with jobs but still living in the township, some with their parents, switch to South African issues. The education system sucks. People don’t have the right attitude to advance, get educated, work. It’s not the government’s fault, but local businesses need help. Inequality is too high and without a degree you’ll never be anything. Whites are more likely to get the good jobs. People are lazy, greedy. No one pays their power bill. Eskom.

“It will take another generation before it changes,” says the youngest of the group, collecting all of the problems in a single, resigned statement. DM

Photo: Store owners in Protea South, Soweto, Tarek Salauddin, Tujin Abunayem and Reaz Pathwary, have reopened two of their three stores in the area after recently being looted. (Greg Nicolson)

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