Foreigners: friends or frenemies?

Johannesburg – During the hard lockdown earlier this year when booze and tobacco were banned, some of the go-to places were owned by foreigners.

I don’t discount the fact that the locals were also trading illicitly. The contraband was sold at high prices and it was a seller’s market.

While Police Minister Bheki Cele threatened fire on those who broke the lockdown regulations, the Pakistani and the Chinese merchants made a brisk trade on the black market. Smokers and drinkers were grateful to feed their vices despite the soaring prices.

It is a fact that the township spaza sector now belongs to foreigners. In most cases they are renting shops that used to be owned by South Africans who went out of business.

Known as abo My Friend, the foreigners are making a killing from the burgeoning Sassa grants in the township economy.

They give abo gogo groceries on credit until Sassa day. Mbali has also scored a single disposable nappy for the comfort as well as a two litre of Twizza during the scorching days. Cheap cigarettes has been a mainstay of their business long before the lockdown.

These merchant s from far off places have cornered the market.

Occasionally when South Africans are miffed over a road the government has failed to build or taps have gone dry, they take out their anger on the same foreigners.

They loot and pillage the wares of the same people who stood by them during the lean times.

Their stores are emptied and they are forced to seek refuge at police stations, only to miss them a few days later when their shops remain closed. Come back, my friend, all is forgiven, cries Mbali and her looter boyfriend, Tshepo.

I am yet to hear of a foreign-owned shop that reverted to a local owner after being pillaged.

Indeed, abo My Friend would recoup and stock up their shops and return to normal. However, this has not stopped the negative sentiment against foreigners in our economy.

This week, the torching of trucks driven by foreigners made headlines. As usual, President Cyril Ramaphosa “condemned” these acts and threatened the culprits with the wrath of the law. I am all for locals being prioritised when jobs are created. After all, waiting on tables, farm work and driving a truck are not scarce skills which, according to our laws, we can outsource to foreigners.

However, South Africa is a supplier of goods to most countries in Southern Africa and our drivers frequently cross our borders and enter our northern neighbours without hindrance. Last year, our drivers faced a backlash when neighbouring countries called for an eye for an eye.

There were suggestions that our drivers leave their trailers at the border for foreign drivers to continue with the journey. However, the trucking business shot down the suggestion as it meant increased labour costs.

The government does not seem to have the will to come up with solutions to avoid the mayhem. In the wake of the economic devastation wrought by the lockdown, some ministers have called for industries to prioritise locals when jobs are created. However, in the absence of clear regulations, the market will continue employing foreigners. Until mayhem flares again.

Vusi Nzapheza.

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