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Soweto family seeking answers after toxicology report clears spaza shop of link to boys’ deaths

Soweto family seeking answers after toxicology report clears spaza shop of link to boys’ deaths
Rebopane Enterprise in Naledi, Soweto, on 3 October 2023. (Photo: Gallo Images / Fani Mahuntsi)

When two boys died after eating food from a store in Naledi, Soweto, there were widespread calls for the increased regulation of spaza shops. However, nearly four months later, the City of Johannesburg says the food in question was not poisonous. Police are still investigating. Meanwhile, the African Diaspora Forum described the ongoing allegations against foreign-owned stores as 'a very sad state of affairs'.

The family of Neo Khang, who was four years old when he died in October, has expressed shock at the outcome of a toxicology report on food they believed caused his death.

Khang’s grandmother, Mathota Khang, who was his official guardian, remembers the day he died as though it were yesterday.

“We were sleeping with my grandson for most of that day. He only left my sight at about 5pm,” the 71-year-old told Daily Maverick.

It was initially believed that Neo, together with his friend Leon Jele (6) died after eating biscuits bought at a store in Naledi, Soweto on 1 October. Two other children were admitted to hospital.

In the following days and weeks, several other children reportedly died or were hospitalised in Gauteng after allegedly eating expired foods bought from local stores, commonly known as “spaza shops”, many of which are owned by foreigners.

At the time, authorities called for calm and said they were investigating the cases. 

In response to questions from Daily Maverick, the City of Johannesburg said the biscuits that were initially believed to have caused the boys’ deaths tested negative for poison.

“The toxicology report for the children who allegedly died after eating biscuits is out. The biscuits were tested for organophosphate poisoning and the results were all negative,” said Ayanda Radebe on behalf of the city.

She added, “The full details of the report is confidential patient information and cannot be released to the public.”

Khang, who has not seen the toxicology report or any other official reports on her grandson’s cause of death, said her family was left with more questions than answers.

spaza

Mathota Khang (72) holds the picture of her grandson Neo Khang who died in October 2023 allegedly after eating poisoned biscuits bought at a Spaza shop in Naledi, Soweto. (Photo: Supplied)

“If my grandson was not killed by the biscuits, what did [kill him]? What could have been the objective of the tests if we will not be privy to the contents of the report?” she asked. 

Daily Maverick was not able to reach the family of Leon Jele for comment.

Gauteng SAPS spokesperson Colonel Dimakatso Nevhuhulwi said the police were still investigating two inquest dockets regarding the deaths. 

“The cause of death is unknown at this stage pending postmortem results,” Nevhuhulwi said. 

Investigations ongoing 

Questions remain over other cases of alleged poisonings linked to food bought from spaza shops.

In South Deep, in Gauteng’s Rand West Local Municipality, two-year-old Azingce Mayeye and three-year-old Othalive Nkatshuka died in October allegedly after eating crackers they bought from a spaza shop at a local taxi rank. 

Rand West Municipality’s Tshidiso Tlharipe told Daily Maverick the case was outside their jurisdiction but claimed the health district had completed a report on the deaths.

“The West Rand Health District is in possession of the report but cannot share the details with the municipality,” Tlharipe said.

The West Rand Health District falls under the Gauteng Health Department, whose spokesperson Nomagugu Hloma told Daily Maverick: “The case referred to in this enquiry was handed over to Westonaria SAPS, in conjunction with the forensic services.”

The SAPS’s Nevhuhulwi, however, said, “The case is still [an] inquest and the postmortem results are still outstanding.” 

In another case, Kwanda Mazazana, a 14-year-old from Protea South, Soweto, died on 3 October, also allegedly after eating snacks from a spaza shop. 

Kwanda’s mother told Daily Maverick that before her son’s burial, the family was given a report by authorities which stated that the cause of Kwanda’s death was a head injury.

“We were all shocked because he has never had a head injury. My boy was a very healthy boy,” said Zandile Mazazana. 

“It’s all heartbreaking. Raising a child is something special, especially one like him. He was a good child and I expected a lot from him.”

The SAPS told Daily Maverick they were unaware of the case.

Daily Maverick asked the Protea spaza shop owner, Daniel Faraw, about the snacks Mazazana’s mother believed killed the boy.

“I gave the snacks to two of them and the other boy is fine. I do not believe he was killed by the snacks,” Faraw said.

Crackdown on spaza shops

News of the children’s deaths sparked outrage in the affected communities. The government urged consumers to be vigilant when buying food, suggesting they check expiry dates.

Authorities in Johannesburg and Ekurhuleni conducted widespread inspections at spaza shops to check for compliance with health and safety regulations. 

In September 2018, the South African Human Rights Commission (SAHRC) heard that there were not enough inspectors to do checks on all the spaza shops in Gauteng.

This was during an inquiry into claims that foreign national shop owners were selling counterfeit or expired food in Soweto. The claims escalated tensions with foreigners and led to a wave of xenophobic violence and widespread looting of spaza shops. 

The SAHRC said its 2018 preliminary investigation found no evidence of “fake” food being sold by spaza shops in Soweto.

“There was no evidence provided to show specific incidences of fake food being sold. Submissions from municipalities and large food producers supported the above analysis, while submissions from the community-based organisations were based on conjecture, anecdotal evidence and were underlain with xenophobic stereotyping,” SAHRC chairperson Bongani Majola said.

Concerns over the October deaths allegedly linked to spaza shops took an anti-foreigner bent, with calls from the government to crack down on stores owned by migrants and conduct an audit on spaza shops, with a particular focus on foreigners.

Such measures are supported by xenophobic groups like Operation Dudula, which has regularly raided properties and stores it believes are owned by foreigners. 

‘A sad state of affairs’

African Diaspora Forum chairperson Dr Vusumuzi Sibanda said, “The issue of expired products has become synonymous with spaza shops owned by migrant communities, and while it’s undeniable that there are such incidents which have taken place, it’s unfortunate that there has been a great generalisation to the extent that we find that migrants are always on the receiving end.”

He described the allegations against foreign-owned stores as “a very sad state of affairs”.

Kwanda Mazazana, Soweto

Kwanda Mazazana (14) was a Grade 6 pupil at Protea South Primary. (Photo: Supplied)

He said the results of the toxicology report regarding the two boys who died in Naledi revealed “a false allegation against the spaza shop, an allegation which was not based on merit but perpetuated by anti-migrant people or people who have a score to settle. It’s very sad and the results speak for themselves. 

“If you look at the impact on the migrant-owned spaza shops, we have many which have closed in the past year in various parts of the country by people who were spreading a false rumour. It has gone to the extent that spaza shops owned by migrant communities cannot operate freely. The social cohesion which is being initiated between migrants and natives faces harm. 

“The false rumours at times are perpetrated by people who are in competition with the migrants or those wishing to take over their business operations. 

“We know that in a number of instances, the aim is to out-compete the migrant-owned businesses, but this is not possible because the migrants have shown to be resilient.”

Ongoing stigma

The spaza shop in Naledi remains open despite calls from Khang and Operation Dudula to close the store, with residents rallying to ensure it stays open.

Khang wept as she told Daily Maverick how some of her fellow community members had blamed her family for demanding the spaza shop close until the issue of the deaths was resolved.

“They [community members] would hold meetings against my decision out here on the street near my gate,” she said.

“Some community members stood up against Operation Dudula, who were supporting us in that the spaza shops be closed. The community would hear none of it. They said the spaza shop feeds them as they are allowed to take food on credit.”  

Khang has been left feeling isolated from her community while she still has no explanation for her grandson’s death. DM

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Comments - Please in order to comment.

  • Greeff Kotzé says:

    Four months later:
    “The cause of death is unknown at this stage pending postmortem results.”
    “The case is still [an] inquest and the postmortem results are still outstanding.”

    Two separate cases, same story. This is the real problem here, and with any forensic investigation in SA, it seems. Increase capacity at the labs! How else will we turn the tide?

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