by Vanya Gastrow
Recently North West Premier Supra Mahumapelo surprised many when he proposed to seize all foreign owned spaza shops in the province, and hand them over to South Africans, barring foreigners from opening any shops in future. This is despite the fact that many of those shopkeepers are asylum seekers and refugees who are legally entitled to work in the country, and have few other means of supporting themselves.
While seizing anyone’s hard-earned business, not because of any conduct on their part, but because of some intrinsic feature belonging to them such as their nationality, is self-evidently unjust, there are a number of other reasons to be appalled by the Premier’s plan. First it is arguably unlawful. The Refugees Act grants refugees the right to work in the country. The Supreme Court of Appeal has also ruled that asylum seekers are entitled to work in South Africa, and that both asylum seekers and refugees may engage in self-employment. Furthermore, refugees and asylum seekers are protected by the Bill of Rights and thus enjoy the right to dignity and equality.
Confiscating refugee and asylum seekers’ spaza shops and preventing them from opening new ones drastically limits their ability to work and survive, given that the formal job market is not easily accessible to them. It also makes a mockery of the constitution’s declaration that “South Africa belongs to all who live in it, united in our diversity.”
Other features of the proposal also make it nonsensical. For example, in a time of drought and rising food prices, the closing down of foreign spaza shops is a manifestly reckless decision. Foreign spaza shops are known to be popular in low-income South African neighbourhoods because they provide poor people below the bread line with affordable basic food and household items. This is not only because foreign spaza shops’ generally offer low prices, but also because of their customer focussed services.
When I conducted research for the African Centre for Migration & Society in 2010 and 2011 South African residents described that in addition to low prices they preferred shopping at foreign spaza shops because they were better stocked, and were willing to provide credit. They also sold “hampers” or bulk collections of food items at discounted prices, and items in small and flexible qualities, such as a single tea bag or egg, all in close proximity to where they lived. Without access to this crucial service the poor in many villages and towns in the North West will be worse off. Other stakeholders that are economically reliant on foreign national shops will also be affected. These include wholesalers, suppliers, manufacturers, producers, landlords, and employees. In summary, the Premier’s strategy will do little in terms of promoting economic growth in the province. Rather it will likely lead to the further suffering of the Province’s most desperate.
During his report back on the ANC NEC meeting, Gwede Mantashe tried to explain the proposal by mentioning that in the past, some African countries have done the same. He is correct that there are countries in Africa that prohibit foreign nationals operating small businesses. These countries (such as Ghana for example) cater for refugees and asylum seekers by housing them in squalid refugee camps where they languish for years living off relief aid. Whether such a plan would be feasible in South Africa, a country, which holds human dignity as a corner stone of its constitution, is questionable.
The Premier’s proposal is also flawed in its overly optimistic assumption that South Africans will quickly fill the gap left by foreign nationals once they have been forced out of their shops and barred from opening new ones. So far South African businesses have generally not been as competitive as foreign national spaza shops and have not seized opportunities in the market to the same extent. There is therefore a high likelihood that many of the businesses taken over from foreigners may lie vacant or go bankrupt.
Another absurdity is the Premier’s belief that setting up massive warehouses the province's four districts will invigorate South African spaza businesses. If anything it could see the Province’s grocery wholesale market sink along with its spaza market, not to mention the state’s coffers being abused through the proposed R200 million state surety and guarantees on offer.
Despite the ludicrousy of the plan, its true danger lies in the ruling party’s muted response to it. On the eve of Human Rights day and the anniversary of the Sharpeville massacre, Gwede Mantashe’s defended the proposal by casually stating that small businesses should be incubators for South Africans. His failure to express any disapproval or regret towards seizing thousands of vulnerable people’s livelihoods is alarming. It demonstrates xenophobia in its most dangerous form, that is, when it becomes an ordinary and everyday practice in society.
The proposal therefore poses many hazards to the North West Province and country more generally. It is legally questionable and does not make sense for poor South Africans whom it aims to serve. Furthermore, Mantashe’s banal and casual response towards it suggests that basic respect for human rights principles is on the drastic decline, which should be of concern to all of us. Instead of a genuine plan to invigorate the economy, the proposal seems more like an attempt to secure votes through capitalizing on local xenophobia and putting local economies at great risk. This will likely come at a severe cost to the poor who are already burdened by rising food prices and weakened economic growth.
By: Vanya Gastrow
Freelance Researcher in Migration, Law & Society and PhD Candidate at the African Centre for Migration & Society, Wits University
Tel: 082 685 1332 / email: firstname.lastname@example.org