Maverick Citizen


Citizen And Pariah: Somali Traders and the Regulation of Difference in South Africa

Citizen And Pariah: Somali Traders and the Regulation of Difference in South Africa

Hoping for a better life, many migrants have made the journey to South Africa and set up as informal spaza shop traders in small towns and townships, supplying local residents with essentials. These traders work hard, open their shops early, close late and support their relatives and kinspeople in starting new businesses.

Thriving in environments afflicted by unemployment and crime is almost impossible when armed robberies are a daily reality, protection from law enforcement is not a given, and access to justice is effectively out of reach.  

In Citizen and Pariah, researcher Vanya Gastrow engages first-hand with small traders and the Somali communities in Khayelitsha, Kraaifontein and Philippi, and investigates the predicament of these modern-day pariahs — social and political outcasts who belong neither to the elite nor the common people, and who are frequently the focus of xenophobic anger.  

Tracing national-level regulatory developments in post-apartheid democratic South Africa, Gastrow shines a light on how retailers have been politicised and how they have faced growing informal and formal regulatory efforts to curtail their business activities.  

She demonstrates how democratic and constitutional frameworks can erode in contexts of heightened nationalism, populism and economic inequality. 

By investigating Somali informal shopkeepers’ experiences of crime, justice and regulation in the country, the fragility of law, pluralism and democracy in South Africa is uncomfortably exposed. 

Extract from Chapter 12: ‘Infestation and backlash: the Soweto cleansing of 2018’

Cumming District is a disgusting, rat and rodent-infested mess. If he spent more time in Baltimore, maybe he could help clean up this very dangerous & filthy place — President Donald Trump, Twitter post.

On an unassuming day on 11 July 2018 in Hartswater, a small rural farming town in the Northern Cape, a police investigation uncovered a factory manufacturing counterfeit products. The police discovered a range of goods being produced and packaged onsite, including branded spices, baking powder, instant yeast, sanitary towels and shoe polish. 

Six Chinese nationals were arrested. 

To raise awareness of their work, the SAPS posted four photographs of the raid on its Twitter feed, with the caption:

A counterfeit factory worth approximately R77 MIL has been closed down by the SAPS #K9Unit in Hartswater during a sting op yesterday. 6 Arrested. Household counterfeit goods seized.

No mention was made of the nationality of those arrested or who their customers were. There was also no explanation as to how the police had come to estimate the factory’s value at R77-million. 

Photographs of the premises looked as though the factory was based in someone’s rundown house, with one room containing old curtains and a wooden wardrobe. Two accused were released on bail of R5,000 and R10,000 respectively.

The brief and seemingly innocuous post immediately ignited an intense reaction. Hundreds of comments containing furious claims and allegations against foreign shopkeepers were posted on the SAPS Twitter feed: 

I buy no shit from these people because they contribute nothing to the fiscals of our country, worse of all they sell rubbish.” 

They must go back to their countries, this animals.”

The post was shared on other media. On 12 July 2018, a woman by the name of Itumeleng Madumo Setsgedi posted details of the Hartswater arrests on Facebook. She claimed — incorrectly — that the police had uncovered a “R77 Million Somalian Factory which makes various FAKE GOODS”. 

She added that “The black community is being killed silently. This is just the tip of the iceberg.” 

She then described an experiment carried out by her and her colleagues in which a loaf of bread from a foreign-owned shop was compared with a loaf from Spar. The “makula one” (“makula” is a derogatory term for a person of Indian descent), she wrote, decomposed more slowly than the loaf from Spar, allegedly proving that the former had been tampered with. Her post was shared on Facebook more than 12,000 times.

Throughout August, several videos of so-called “fake food” being sold by foreign spaza shops spread quickly across social media. In one video, a woman left two-week-old bread allegedly sold to her by a foreign trader in a glass of water for more than two hours, and complained that the texture was similar to a “sponge”.

“How is this healthy, how is this safe for our families, for our communities, for our children?” she lamented. 

Later that month, footage of members of Farmers United of South Africa angrily entering a foreign shop and confiscating expired foods went viral. A woman in the video declares that she will dispose of expired products by “chucking them in a bin”, warning “don’t say you didn’t know”. 

Outrage had widened. Anger was soon not restricted only to fake food, but also the sale of goods past their expiration dates. 

By the end of August, the National Consumer Commission reacted and appealed to “communities to not take the law into their own hands”. Authorities would instead deal with the allegations “within the confines of the law”.

The state quickly stepped in. Health inspectors raided spaza shops in various parts of the country in search of expired, fake and counterfeit items. 

Such a raid took place in Tembisa on 28 August. Online footage shows community members working alongside health inspectors in a foreign-owned shop. A casually dressed woman assisting the inspectors inside the shop shouts aggressively at the shopkeeper: “Why you pack the expiry stock? From 2017? No, my friend.” 

Another community member searching shop shelves complains to the shopkeeper: “My friend, my friend, you think I’m stupid?” When the shopkeeper asks a woman to leave, she replies, “Hey, don’t tell us not to work!” 

Suspected expired items were thrust on to a collapsed pile of goods simmering in the hot sun in front of a growing crowd. The following day, the ANC released a statement. The party was “concerned with the surge of illicit sale of expired and fake consumable goods and potentially harmful food products”. 

At the same time, it repeated the National Consumer Commission’s request for residents not to take the law into their own hands. But it was too little, too late. 

According to media reports, that same day 23-year-old Banele Qhayiso, a mechanical engineering student, went to a nearby foreign-owned spaza shop to buy bread. While he was in the shop, angry and likely opportunistic residents stormed the premises. The shop owner opened fire on the crowd, inadvertently killing his young customer. Banele died in his brother’s arms outside the shop.

When news crews arrived hours later, a crowd had returned and were helping themselves to the shop’s contents. Media footage shows police at the scene assisting the traders escape by lifting one of the shop’s corrugated iron walls so that they can crawl out from underneath. A rescued shopkeeper lies shaking on the ground, weeping into his hands, while police attempt to lift him up. 

Unrest persisted for two days and resulted in the looting of hundreds of shops and the deaths of four people.

In response to the violence, foreign traders closed their shops, evacuated the area and sought temporary shelter. Shortly thereafter, on 3 September, the country’s then Minister of Health Aaron Motsoaledi held a press conference on the issue of shop safety.

The Department of Health had not been passive throughout the crisis; environmental health practitioners had carried out searches on 454 “food premises” across the country. Despite this, no evidence of “fake food” had surfaced.

At the same time, Motsoaledi clarified that many residents had misunderstood the laws governing the sale of food by confusing “best before” dates with “use by” dates.

‘“Best before’”, the minister said, “that’s not the expiry date.” These products could be sold and consumed past these dates. DM/MC

Vanya Gastrow is a lawyer and research consultant based in Cape Town. She holds a PhD in migration studies and wrote this book as part of a postdoctoral research fellowship at the Department of Public Law at the University of Cape Town.

Citizen and Pariah is published by Wits University Press.


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