Joburg authorities crack down on spaza shops after deaths and community outrage
Authorities are cracking down on informal spaza shops after the deaths of four children, allegedly from food poisoning, in Soweto and South Deep this month sparked community outrage aimed at foreign-owned stores.
The deaths of four children this month in Soweto and West Rand have triggered a crackdown by authorities on informal stores and spaza shops, which was aimed at ensuring the stores complied with health regulations.
“The JMPD [Johannesburg Metro Police Department], together with the city’s environmental health practitioners and Emergency Management Services (EMS) have been conducting ongoing operations to check compliance with the city’s bylaws,” said JMPD spokesperson Xolani Fihla.
Two boys, Neo Khang (5) and Leon Jele (6), died in Naledi, Soweto, earlier this month, allegedly after eating toxic biscuits from a spaza shop. Days later, two other boys, Azince Mayeye (2) and Othanive Nkatshuka (3), died in South Deep, West Rand, allegedly after eating toxic snacks bought from an informal trader at a taxi rank.
While police are still investigating the causes of death for all four boys, the incidents sparked community outrage and led to calls to monitor informal stores. There were also calls for the government to close stores owned by international migrants.
Read more in Daily Maverick: Appeals for calm in Soweto after child deaths allegedly linked to toxic spaza biscuits
“The operations are targeting all the informal shops, not only foreign-owned shops,” said the JMPD’s Fihla.
Gauteng Health spokesperson Motalatale Modiba said, “Inspection frequencies are risk-based.”
In terms of the National Norms and Standards for Environmental Health, the recommended inspection frequency is once every three months.
“Inspections on food premises are done routinely by municipalities and from time to time there are targeted food safety operations in municipalities,” Modiba said.
Describing the roles of the three entities involved in the inspections, Fihla said, “The environmental health inspectors check for environmental health bylaws and the EMS check for the EMS bylaws. The JMPD provide safety and security whilst assisting with the enforcement of the bylaws.”
Modiba said the implementation of the following measures would enhance food safety:
- Food premises must be certified to handle food according to Regulation 638 of the Foodstuffs, Cosmetics and Disinfectants Act 54 of 1972.
- Application processes in each municipality are to be followed by those who do not have such certificates.
- The preparation, storage, date marking and labelling of food items must be monitored.
- Municipalities must collect routine food samples for chemical and bacteriological analysis.
Modiba said food safety messages were being communicated to communities to assist them in making informed decisions when buying food.
They were also advised to report any incidents to their local municipality where retailers were not complying with regulations.
“The department intends to integrate food safety in the primary health services messages. Other stakeholders in the food value chain will also provide health education,” Modiba said.
Fihla said, “Non-compliant shop owners are either given notice or the shop is shut down by environmental health and EMS for failing to comply with the bylaw requirements.”
Cause of death unknown
Weeks later, the cause of the four children’s deaths is still unknown. Samples of the biscuits which the two boys ate in Naledi were sent to a laboratory for testing.
Two other children in Naledi who ate the same biscuits were admitted to hospital and later released.
“The police are investigating two inquest dockets after two kids aged five and six died at the clinic in Naledi on 1 October 2023. The cause of death is unknown,” Gauteng SAPS spokesperson Colonel Dimakatso Nevhuhulwi said.
“Police in Bekkersdal in the West Rand District are investigating two inquest dockets following the deaths of two kids aged two and three years. It is suspected that four kids between the age of two and seven suffered food poisoning after eating biscuits and snacks bought at a local taxi rank,” Nevhuhulwi said.
“At this stage the cause is unknown pending postmortem results. Police investigation is continuing.”
On Monday, 16 October, SAPS spokesperson Captain Mavela Masondo told Daily Maverick, “Police are still waiting for the toxicology report that will confirm the real cause of death.”
Following the children’s deaths, the anti-foreigner movement Operation Dudula, which recently registered as a political party, called for the authorities to close “illegal” stores owned by international migrants.
Dr Vusumuzi Sibanda, chairperson of the Africa Diaspora Forum (ADF), said, “The closure of all foreign-owned spaza shops is not the right call because it gives the impression that all spaza shops belonging to foreign nationals are illegal, which cannot be true.”
“The manufacturers of the biscuits must be looked at, and also possible negligence by the shop owner.”
“We know Operation Dudula has always been against foreigners, and they are going to use that to exacerbate their calls for the closure of foreign-owned shops.”
Sibanda said random blitz operations would greatly assist in eliminating the sale of expired stock at spaza shops.
Daily Maverick spoke to several shop owners in Soweto whose stores had recently been inspected by authorities.
Abera Shamu, who is from Ethiopia and has a store in Protea South, said the authorities told him they were checking for old and expired stock.
“I opened the spaza shop because I wanted an honest means of livelihood,” he said.
He blamed suppliers for any expired goods that reached his store.
“The problem is with the suppliers. The inspections should begin there,” he said.
A spaza shop owner in Naledi, who didn’t want to give his name, said, “The inspections should be done more often and all shops must be inspected.”
Anulo Ayela, from Ethiopia, who works in a store owned by his brother, said the authorities visited him last Thursday and said they were looking for expired goods.
“They checked everything then wrote [a list of the items police felt should not be on the shelves] on a piece of paper and gave it to my boss who was present,” he said.
“They also warned us not to sleep in the store because that was unhygienic and then they left,” he said.
His store, which used to be a walk-in, is one of the many township spaza shops which have implemented extra security measures. The store is no longer a walk-in and customers have to buy through a small shop-front opening. DM