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SA's foreign shopkeepers fight for a better life, far from home

Rapula Moatshe

Three shopkeepers – from Brazil, Ethiopia and Somalia – eke out a living in rural Sandfontein where people struggle to make ends meet.

Promised land: Foreign shopkeepers have made a new life for themselves in the village of Sandfontein in North West Province. (Oupa Nkosi)

A twentysomething man saunters into the foreign-run shop and buys a cigarette.

On his way out, the man – dressed in khaki trousers, black T-shirt and worn-out takkies – yells in Setswana: “Le ye ko bo lona” (You must go back to your home country).

It was directed at the two shopkeepers, Abi Abdullah (45) from Ethiopia and Hassen Ali (24) from Brazil.

The two rent a shop called Phuthanang, previously owned by the late George Marengwa, a parliamentarian in the then Bophutha-tswana Bantustan government.

They appear unperturbed by the man’s anger.

The incident happened when I went home to Sandfontein village in North West two weeks ago.

Sitting and smoking on a slab of concrete nearby, villager Ntate Kenosi condemns the “drunken behaviour” of those who insult foreign shop owners.

“I have seen these boys when they are drunk getting into the shops and speaking nonsense to these people. The type of attitude is not nice because these are also people and they deserve to be treated with respect,” Kenosi says.

Attitudes
Shortly after the incident, a teenager enters the shop and speaks ­cordially to the shopkeepers. “A re ye go batla banyana” (Let’s go out to look for girlfriends), he jokes.

“Ga re batle sepe” (We want nothing to do with that), they reply.

The attitudes of the two customers towards the foreign pair are worlds apart.

“The treatment [we get] is not the same because people are different,” Abdullah says.

Almost everything about their shop shows signs of ageing. Besides the rusty, creaking gates, the white paint on the exterior walls is cracked. One can also see the rafters where part of the ceiling has come away.

The pair live within walking distance of their shop in two small adjoining rooms with corrugated iron roofs. One is locked with a padlock and chain. Inside one is a long rope that runs above our heads and is used as a clothesline.

The shop is well stocked, the shelves stacked with groceries, and there are three fridges. I buy an ice cream for R3 and settle down for a chat with the shopkeepers.

Business
At first, they are not eager to speak about their life in South Africa until I change the subject – to the “beautiful” women. The trick seems to relax them and they begin to talk freely. One says that he has dated five local women.

Thirty minutes can pass between customers but the pair do not seem to care about the slow pace of business. When customers finally do arrive, they might buy a spoonful of atchar for R3 or a loose cigarette for R2.50, but they seldom buy bulk groceries at the local shops; they prefer to go to the Mogwase shopping complex or to the new mall in Moruleng, where the tribal offices are.

The exception is the pensioners who prefer to shop in the village because it involves less travel.

Day in and day out, Abdullah and Ali open their doors for business, eking out a living in a community where the majority of people struggle to make ends meet.

They have never been attacked and the environment is relatively peaceful, quite different from the situation in some townships where residents regularly loot foreign-owned shops during service delivery protests.

Often one hears rural folk calling a shopkeeper “my friend” when exchanging greetings.

Ethnic groups
Next to Abdullah and Ali’s business are other tumbledown shops once owned by local businesspeople. Now they are being rented out to nationals from Somalia, Ethiopia, China, Bangladesh and Pakistan.

A report by Statistics South Africa in 2011 said that 7% of “others”, who are presumably foreign nationals, live in the village.

The two dominant ethnic groups in the village, the Batswana and the Batlokwa, have historically lived separately in Sekgatleng and Sepeding respectively.

They live in peace, their children go to the same schools and their elders use the same community hall for tribal meetings.

The Batlokwa tribe settled in Sepeding in 1939 to escape the conflicts taking place in present-day Limpopo. It is home to former Kaizer Chiefs footballer Jacob Tshisevhe, probably the only celebrity the village has ever produced.

He lives next to the Kwa Masipa butchery, a favourite drinking hole for locals who usually gather there at weekends to socialise and braai.

Danger
At another grocery shop, a barefooted Somali shopkeeper, David Alfis (19), says: “Life in South Africa is fine, because there is … freedom, unlike in my home country where the people are experiencing constant fighting.”

He objects to having his photograph taken, however, because “some rival group back home might identify me and send someone to kill me”.

“I was still at school before I come to South Africa but I had to leave the country because schooling was always disrupted by the bombing and killings of people.

“You see, it is not easy to learn under that condition. Me, I can go back home any time if the war could be stopped.”

Alfis says there are a “very few” hostile customers who refuse to pay for goods they take.

Abdullah and Ali admit they also have to put up with troublesome ­customers from time to time.

“[But] the mere fact that I am here means life here is better compared with life at home,” Abdullah says.


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