‘Attacks on SA spaza shop owners a threat to township economy’

Efforts to revitalise the Gauteng township economy are facing a significant challenge due to targeted attacks on businesses and community leaders. 

This was raised in a letter written by African Transformation Movement (ATM) leader Vuyo Zungula. The letter was addressed to the ministries of police and the state security agency. 

Zungula raised the alarm over an apparent series of co-ordinated attacks on black South African business and community leaders advocating for greater participation in the township economy. The attacks are blamed on foreign nationals who were forced to shut down and leave.

Township economy is the new gold

Gauteng Premier Panyaza Lesufi had pledged to revive township economies and attract investments upon assuming office. He reiterated his commitment during the state of the province address in February. During the address, he emphasised that the township economy was the “new gold”.

Lesufi highlighted substantial investments totaling R15-billion over the past five years, with R2.2-billion spent in the last year alone. These investments aimed to boost economic activity, create jobs, and combat unemployment rates.

They support with efforts including training for township retailers, refurbishing spaza shops, and establishing a digital township business register.

However, recent incidents of violence and intimidation have thrown a shadow over these efforts. The incidents were particularly rife in Ratanda and Tembisa townships in Gauteng east.

Violence poses a threat

In Ratanda, near Heidelberg, four people have been fatally shot over the past month. They  include three spaza shop owners affiliated with the Ratanda Spaza Shop Forum. According to media reports, the victims were part of the group that distributed shops within the community. This after previous owners left due to tensions in 2023.

In Tembisa, two entrepreneurs were threatened that they must shut down their shops or face consequences from Ethiopian nationals. Allegations are that these Ethiopians are enlisting Basotho nationals to intimidate or harm those who resist to close shop. The said Basotho nationals are the feared groups that mostly operate as zama zamas. They operate  in illegal mining, cable theft and other crimes in the townships and suburbs.

In his letter, Zungula pointed to the escalating levels of violence targeting black South African spaza shop owners and community leaders. He said this is indicative of a
well-coordinated syndicate operating within the township economy.

Organised crime by foreign nationals

He raised concerns that foreign nationals are monopolising the ownership of spaza shops. This leaves local entrepreneurs vulnerable to threats and attacks.

Zungula accused the government of failing to effectively respond to organised crime. He cited instances of human trafficking and the sale of counterfeit goods. The presence of illegal firearms in township communities was another example, he said.

He also raised concerns about the alleged funding of terrorism through proceeds from spaza shops operated by foreign nationals.

“The escalating levels of intimidation and killings of black South African spaza shop owners and community leaders is an indictment of our state security and policing. It is an insult to our democracy and a demonstration of our government’s ineptitude to respond to violent organised crime,” he said.

The ATM leader decried the influx of foreign nationals, particularly from East African countries. He said they are allegedly involved in various illicit activities. These include  human trafficking and running spaza shops.

Links between spaza shops and terrorism

“We are witnessing a well-coordinated syndicate operating the township economy by foreign nationals. Young foreign men are trafficked from East African countries, with nothing but the clothes they have on. However, when they arrive in South Africa — they open and run spaza shops in the townships.

“Starting a business like that requires start-up capital to procure stock and rent operations premises. It is highly improbable for a single person with no resources to be so well organised. [They give credence to] reports of ISIS [terror groups] being funded by proceeds from spaza shops operated by foreign nationals in South Africa. …South Africans are faced hostility and intimidation when attempting to participate in the spaza shop sector.”

Source of heavy weapons, fake goods

He further underscored concerns about the lack of transparency regarding the source of heavy weapons. These are often displayed during conflicts and during distribution of fake and expired goods. Some of these goods have resulted in great harm to South African citizens, particularly children.

Zungula is calling for the deployment of necessary personnel and resources. These will clamp down on those linked to the targeted killings and intimidation tactics in townships.

He stressed the need for collaboration between government agencies, community organisations, and international partners. These will help to address the root causes of violence and insecurity in township economies.

Local business owners left vulnerable

“South Africa is the only country that allows such acts of lawlessness against its citizens with impunity. Black South Africans are left exposed and alone. This is because any act of self-defence or retaliation is met with xenophobia allegations.

“It is the responsibility of the government to act against these criminals and protect the lives of Black South Africans in the townships. This will help to avoid further escalation and hostile response by community members,” said Zungula.

Clamp down on foreign nationals 

“The ATM calls on you to carry out your responsibilities and prioritise this issue as a matter of urgency. Immediately deploy the necessary personnel and resources to clamp down on foreign nationals who are linked to all this. [Particularly those linked to] the targeted killings of community and business leaders in the townships.”

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