Did black farmers' group trigger spaza raids?
Farmers United SA's tweet seems to be first reference to 'fake food'
Farmers United SA (Fusa), a group whose mission is to become a “major black economic force”, appears to have been among the first to spread rumours on social media about fake food.
The resulting violence against foreign shop owners in Soweto, who were falsely accused of selling fake food, caused the deaths of four people last week.
A video of Fusa members raiding a foreign-owned shop went viral on August 21 – a week before the violence broke out – and appears to be the first social media post around fake food. Several Twitter users tweeted the video, which garnered about 20,000 views and was accompanied by the hashtag “savelife”, hinting that it was life-threatening to consume fake food.
Fusa itself tweeted a screenshot from the video and encouraged others to perform similar raids to stop shops from selling old food.
The video shows a group of people, including a woman believed to be Fusa deputy president Leeka Mokoena, raiding a Pakistani-owned shop. She can be heard saying in a confrontational tone: “This must stop.”
“All of these things [food] – 2017! Papa, this is not how we are going to do it,” she says.
“We are opening it ... and will throw water [sic] ... these things are not going to go on the shelves. Don’t say you didn’t know – F***. They better be real – next time we are going to check on their authenticity.”
“You can’t be feeding our people these things!,” shouts another man in a Fusa T-shirt, while taking goods off the shelves.
Fusa head Robbie Mckenzie was quoted last week as saying on radio station PowerFM that his organisation had found “expired” goods in Pakistani-owned shops. “It’s painful what is happening. Indeed, most shops are foreign national-owned shops, by Pakistani people. You will find expired food on the shelves. Our members took the decision to remove the items off the shelf.”
Consumer lawyer Janusz Luterek said their actions on video seemed to be a clear case of vigilantism.
“This is vigilante insanity gone wrong,” Luterek told Times Select. “It is completely illegal to be a vigilante like this. More so when the activities of those being victimised are legal, and the vigilantes are the criminals for removing and destroying property and possibly other crimes, including intimidation and assault.”
It is not illegal or dangerous to sell or eat foods after their best-before date, said Luterek.
He added: “The shop owner should most definitely open a case and those that can be identified should be charged and prosecuted, on top which the shop owner should sue them and their organisation for any damage to property, loss of property, or physical harm to anyone.”
On the day of the looting of foreign-owned shops in Soweto, Fusa released a statement condemning “fake food” being sold.
On its Twitter account, it had said: “We say to South Africans out there, this is your country, fight for your country. Don’t allow the outside world to do as they please in your country. Let’s stand united & save our country! Cleanup SA, join FUSA & make SA a better place.”
Social media lawyer at Shepstone and Wylie, Verlie Oosthuizen, said: “This [ video] could definitely contribute to rumours, and in South Africa it does not take much to cause a social media firestorm that can have serious, dangerous and violent consequences.
“Often there is no scrutiny of the facts and the more controversial version gains social traction. There is no doubt that these types of stories receive wide coverage on social media networks and are spread before the actual facts are considered.”
She said the tweets could be viewed as an incitement to violence, but it was very subtle – they were framed in a way to encourage others to stop “expired” food from being sold.
“They have managed to dress it up very subtly. If you know what you are looking for, you know the intention behind it. But outside observers may miss the reference.”
Health Minister Aaron Motsoaledi is on record saying the deadly violence started with social media images of so-called fake food. But he said health inspectors could not find one trace of fake food after searching more than 450 shops.
Times Select made a number of attempts to contact Fusa for comment, including phone calls, SMSes, tweets and e-mails. Fusa eventually responded with a tweet: “The relevant authorities will surely respond to your requests. Keep calm, as you are doing your job, so are our authorities.”
When pressed for a further response, Fusa replied: “Please do not subject us to YOUR deadlines madam. We are farmers on farmers deadlines.”
Deputy president Leeka Mokeona undertook to respond to the e-mail but ignored several reminders.
The Institute of Environmental Health said food after its best-before date was legal and may not be seized. Besides, only health inspectors, not private citizens, were allowed to confiscate rotten or contaminated food.
According to its website, Fusa’s vision and mission is “to be the unrivalled organisation for black farmers to work together to achieve sustainable agricultural policies which will ensure inclusive growth throughout the value chain”.
They want to become a major “black economic force” in the industry and support black farmers across the country to ensure they become economically sustainable.
Agricultural organisation AgriSA spokesperson Thea Liebenberg said she had not heard of Fusa.
“I’m not familiar with the group. The major other farming organisations are AFASA and NAFU,” she told Times Select.
Head of AgriSA’s land division, Annelize Crosby, said she had never heard of the group.