'I know that I may have to pack up and flee again'
Foreign national shop owners are building a mafia operation, say locals who want them out
For Ethiopian Aberham Ayela, defying an order from local shopkeepers to shut his spaza shop and leave could have deadly consequences – consequences he knows all too well.
“I have seen this. Last year they came to my place here and they destroyed it … they took everything,” he said, referring to a letter sent to foreign shopkeepers in KwaMashu, Inanda and Ntuzuma in KwaZulu-Natal, warning them to shut down their businesses within 14 days.
The 24-year-old cut a stoic figure as he leant on his newspaper-lined countertop, separated from his customers by a steel grill.
Steady in his gaze is the notorious KwaMashu Men’s Hostel and the shacks that surround it.It was from the same hostel and shacks that a mob – some of whom were his customers – moved through the darkness and broke through the door of his shop in May last year.
For Ayela, who has run the Family Tuck-shop since 2013, the tersely worded letter was a precursor to inevitable xenophobic violence, with foreign-owned shops looted and razed the ground.
“The last time this happened I just left my shop and I ran. I closed the door and locked four locks to try and keep people out. When I came back there was nothing left. They broke through the locks like it didn’t worry them. They took everything from the shelves and even took the freezer.”While the anti-foreigner sentiment then was informed by rumours that foreign shopkeepers had been abducting children – confirmed by police to be a baseless hoax – the narrative for Ayela was the same; flee or be killed.
“The problem is these people from inside the hostel … ever since what happened last year the shops inside there have closed down. It is easy for them to come to me now because I am the closest.
“I don’t know what is going to happen … but I can say that I am worried. I just sit here and I watch [the hostel] and I know that I may need to pack up and flee again.”
The sweeping ultimatum was contained in a letter penned by the North Region Business Forum and sent to all foreign shopkeepers, among them Ayela.“You are hereby instructed to close down your shop and cease all operations within 14 days.”
The association’s Mlungisi Mncube said the move to run foreign shopkeepers out of the townships was “fighting fire with fire”.
He said that foreign nationals had monopolised the informal trading industry in the township and were run like a mafia.
“You cannot have a situation where a certain group takes over trading in the location and that is what is happening. If you refuse to rent your shop to them they put a container on your doorstep and take your business. This has been going on and on since 2014.”
He said that Ethiopian and Somali businessmen had grown so powerful they had begun fighting among themselves.“We have gangs and they are scared of each other, with the Somalis fighting the Ethiopians. We don’t want to succumb to a mafia-style operation,” Mncube added.
On the propensity of anti-foreigner sentiment to degenerate into civil disobedience, looting and violence, Mncube said: “We are dealing with the mafia here … sometimes you need to use fire.”
KwaZulu-Natal premier Willies Mchunu was on Tuesday expected to meet with local and foreign businessmen in an effort to prevent xenophobic violence.
Spokesperson Thami Ngidi said the real point of contention for Mchunu was the threat to remove people without any proper agreement in place.
“No violence should be propagated while dealing with matter so the premier will be meeting with the stakeholders. This is about safety and security, but also about business in that area. It is not something that will be resolved in a day but we are hoping that there will be a firm commitment to find a resolution … we need to find out what the specific granular issues are.”