Two people lost their lives during a confrontation between locals and foreign business shop owners on Wednesday afternoon. Accused of selling cheap, fraudulent and expired goods, foreign businesses were looted clean as owners fled to safety.
Mayhem engulfed almost the whole of Soweto on Wednesday afternoon as Soweto residents went on the rampage and looted dozens of foreign-owned shops around the township.
Looting of foreign-owned shops occurred in Pimville, Mndeni, Chiawelo, Zola, Mofolo, Senoane, Naledi, and in White City, where there were also fatalities.
The reason for the shooting is not yet know, nor the identity of the shooter. Early rumours suggested that the shooter is a Pakistani business owner.
Mothers fell on one another as they stumbled to get their groceries, while many of the foreign business owners hid. Young people were leading the invasions. They broke locks and helped themselves to store items, including fridges and anything else they could carry.
By 17:00 in Chiawelo, a few shops that had survived the earlier looting just after lunch were targeted. The only obstacle were community members who put their bodies on the line and told the wayward crowd of mostly youths that the owners were good people.
The looting escalated after the fatal shooting of a youth in White City in Soweto, which was blamed on a foreign shop owner who was protecting his shop from attack.
Within hours the looting had spread to almost every part of Soweto.
News of the imminent chasing away of foreign business owners in Soweto first emerged through widespread content on social media suggesting that items sold by the foreign business owners were of poor quality, fraudulent, and that some of them had long expired. This angered many locals.
Another message was circulated on social media on Wednesday warning those who have foreign business owners as tenants to ask them to leave by the weekend. A number of such messages which drew criticism to the quality of goods sold by foreign shop owners, especially Somali and Pakistani nationals, have surfaced in recent months.
At one stage, as violence between foreign and local business owners escalated, messages claiming that some foreign shop owners had deliberately planted poison in some food stuffs to punish looters were in circulation. The message warned that items such as mealie meal were opened, poisoned and then sealed again.
Foreign-owned businesses have been at the centre of the conflict between local and foreign business owners with local business owners complaining that foreign business owners are infiltrating townships with shops that offer lower prices, which drives locals out of business. Even though they live side by side, the relationship between local and foreign township business owners has never been a healthy one.
This was not the first time that the shooting of a local man has thrown the sprawling township into chaos. At the height of the conflict between local and foreign business owners in February 2015, xenophobic violence and looting escalated after a Somali shop owner fatally shot a 14-year-old teenager.
In several of the areas where looting occurred on Wednesday, either there were no police officers in sight or they arrived late. In areas like Chiawelo, looting occurred freely with not a single police officer in sight despite the nearest police station (Moroka Police Station) being a five-minute drive away.
Police Spokesperson Mpande Khoza confirmed that two people were shot in xenophobic violence in White City and that others were arrested for public violence. Police further said they would keep an eye on the area throughout the night. By sunset there was still a strong police presence in White City while looting continued in other areas.
The status of foreign-owned businesses has not been comfortable in recent months, with Gauteng Premier David Makhura stating in his State of the Province Address in February that there was a need to regulate foreign-owned businesses.
“Another major problem facing township businesses is the mushrooming of unregulated businesses owned by foreign nationals. This is a matter we must address boldly and decisively to enforce by-laws and trading regulations,” Makhura said.
“Many township entrepreneurs are being squeezed out of businesses by these unlawfully operational businesses. This year, I will send inspectors to visit townships and inner-cities to conduct inspections and shut down these illegally operating businesses,” said Makhura.
Premier Makhura said the provincial government has partnered with more than 40 corporates to help township businesses. He said this is opening new opportunities for township-based businesses to participate in corporate supply chains, thus helping to transform township businesses into more sustainable enterprises, without having to rely solely on government contracts.
What was evident about the latest xenophobic attacks and looting was that very few people opposed them. The majority of people around Soweto seem united in calling for foreign business people to leave the area.
Other elders who were not part of the looting nonchalantly walked by and carried on with their businesses. The violence and looting had spread so fast that there was no chance for many foreign shop owners to empty their shops, which they normally do when they suspect they might be attacked.
Teresa Mabasa, 54, from Chiawelo in Soweto, said she was shocked to see people behaving like there were no laws in this country. Mabasa decried the absence of the police from many of the scenes where violence unfolded, and said it was typical of the police to react slowly.
“Where should the poor people go? The reason behind their chasing away is greed because these guys are successful in their businesses while the locals are not. Why should a single incident that happens in White City destabilise the whole of Soweto? People just seized an opportunity to loot.”
Children and adults alike ran off carry loads of groceries to their homes. By the time the attacks began some shops had been securely locked but the looting crowds would break in from the back. They showed little respect for the landlords as they brazenly invaded every premises where there are foreign business owners as tenants.
“Whoever is against the chasing away of Pakistanis must also leave with them,” a White City man shouted.
When asked why he wanted the foreign business owners to go, the man said they were killing their children but admitted that there was no proof of this. DM