I took a taxi a few days ago and listened to a conversation between two women and the taxi driver. They were talking about the mushrooming of foreign business owners in the township.
The taxi was driving into Alexandra, which has seen an increase in Pakistani and Somali businesses recently.
Almost every corner house has a small shop. Mozambicans have been there for some time but most are hard to identify because they speak Shangaan and Zulu, languages spoken in the township.
“I like the fact that they work hard, they are everywhere. Here (in Johannesburg), Mpumalanga and even as far as Brits,” said one woman.
“And their stuff is very cheap,” added another.
“What about our people? Zulus work hard as well but are unable to open those businesses,” chipped in the driver. “The space is taken by these Pakistanis and Somalis.”
It’s getting interesting. I then ask if they have a problem with these foreign shop-owners.
“No not at all,” came the chorus. “Their things are cheap.”
I then ask about the locals who say “the foreigners have unfair business practices because they mark their prices very low compared to the local business people”.
“They should match them. For example bread should be cheap. But our people want huge profits. I sell things as well and some of these foreigners are my competition. So I play along,” said the first woman, who I realised later owns a small business near Alexandra. Alexandra was the launch-pad of the deadly xenophobic attacks that gripped the country in 2008. The attacks were instigated by residents who accused foreigners of stealing their jobs, women and being the reason for crime.
This conversation happened as I was contemplating writing about the crazy policy suggestion made at the ANC conference to curtail the foreign ownership of township shops.
The proposal, widely believed to have come out of the ANC in Western Cape, suggests the explosion of foreign-owned shops in the townships takes bread away from the locals. They also say it causes tensions between locals and foreigners.
While ANC members were grappling with the matter in Midrand, tensions were already at boiling point in the Free State’s Botshabelo, near Mangaung, where several foreign-owned shops were looted and burnt down. One person was even shot dead. Nothing suggests it was the ANC’s call that sparked these tensions.
But what the ANC suggests is criminal.
This is an organisation that spent many years of its existence outside the borders of this country. Africans across the continent and overseas found it in their hearts to accommodate party leaders forced into exile.
There they were allowed to live, work and sent their kids to school. They were allowed to build homes, they were put through military training in places like Tanzania and Zambia. They survived. They found a home when their home was not welcoming any more.
And just a few years ago this country witnessed one of the worst hate crimes against foreigners under the watch of the ANC government. Many foreigners were killed in xenophobic attacks, their shops and homes torched. They had nowhere to go. Even the police couldn’t help them.
What the ANC is proposing is dangerous and misguided.
ANC Western Cape provincial secretary Songezo Mjongile is quoted as saying the explosion of foreign-owned shops is out-muscling local owners.
Maybe the ANC has local business interests at heart. Maybe it’s true that foreigners don’t play by the book and use unfair business practices.
Is this the only way to go about it? I don’t think so.
South Africans are angry. They are angry with the ANC for failing on its promises for a better life for all. No jobs, no food, an unequal society. Many feel betrayed. So the ANC is using the foreigners as a proxy, an excuse why it can’t deliver.
What the ANC forgets is that these people are not here because they want to be here. And they definitely didn’t come here because they think it’s payback for hosting ANC exiles in their countries.
These people are here because of the situations in their respective homes. They are from Somalia, Zimbabwe, Pakistan, among others, where there’s instability, no food, and in some, no government.
They are here looking for political or economic asylum.
“Where must we go? Does South Africa want to drive us to the sea now?” says one asylum seeker.
The ANC needs to fulfil its human-rights obligation and ensure these people are taken care off if they want to avoid them coming up with ways of survival, like opening these shops.
Most of them go through hell when seeking asylum. They are harassed by the police, forced to bribe home-affairs officials, and are treated terribly at the Lindela Repatriation Centre. They are not given food, water, sanitation — nothing.
The South African Human Rights Commission (SAHRC) is investigating the Lindela facility after receiving complaints from several NGOs relating to the alleged mistreatment of refugees and asylum seekers.
“The rights of non-nationals are specifically protected in national law and in international human-rights agreements. This group is particularly vulnerable and the state is obliged to take appropriate steps to ensure that the basic rights of this group are adequately protected … these violations are of grave concern as it appears to be becoming endemic and systemic,” said the SAHRC.
Given. Asylum seekers running businesses is illegal under United Nations conventions but only if the host government comes up with solutions to take care of them.
“In SA, unlike other countries, once you are inside the country you are on your own. In other countries the state provides asylum seekers with food and everything. If SA wants to stop them from running businesses they must also comply fully with UN resolutions and agreements,” says Migrant Community Board director Serge Lwanba Lwa Yeba.
The truth is South Africans are not a hating society. We don’t hate our African brothers. But our own circumstances and the shortcomings of our government turn these people against one another.
The women in that taxi gave me a sense that they actually don’t have a problem with foreigners owning shops. As is the case with residents in other townships across South Africa. They do of course have issues, issues they believe can be resolved if the government acts as peaceful mediator, without violence, as this ANC document suggested.
But as colleague Fikile Ntsikelelo-Moya puts it on twitter: “The barbarism against foreign nationals will continue until there’s political will to prosecute, convict and sentence these hooligans.”
For not condemning or talking against this proposal as the leader of the country and ruling party, Jacob Zuma’s silence amid the recent attacks on foreign shops in Botshabelo could be interpreted as silent support for it.