Living on the margins of the South African dream

In a quiet corner of the Lilla spaza shop in Kanana, Rafik Patel, a 34-year-old man with a sunny disposition, speaks in broken, chattering English, about how, on the instruction of his family, he left India for South Africa eight years ago.

He abandoned his job as a car salesman with the aim of opening a business in this dusty township wedged somewhere between the gold-mining towns of Orkney and Klerksdorp in the North West.

As a young boy he had dreamed of becoming a pilot. “I had a fantasy of flying,” chuckles Patel, now a spaza shop owner.

He doesn’t really like living here but he tries not to give that too much thought. He says he doesn’t have much of a choice.

“Sometimes I want to get out, but I have to run a business,” he says. Dressed in a neat winter coat with a large, rectangular-shaped beard and a middle parting through his thick black hair, his immaculate appearance is in stark contrast to his dilapidated shop. The shelves are packed with everything from methylated spirits to body lotion and fresh fruit and vegetables, and every single pane of glass is cracked, if not broken entirely.

It was in 2006 that he first left his hometown of Bharuch, which sits at the mouth of the Narmada River in North-West India. For the first six months in South Africa, Patel worked in a friend’s shop to gain experience. Then his family, who are farmers back home, pooled their resources to send money so he could set up his own shop. The business’s proceeds, minus basic living expenses for Patel, are sent back to his family in India which, in turn, takes care of his wife and five children.

Similar journeys
His journey began in the same way of many foreign shop owners, whether from India, Bangladesh or Pakistan. The family, headed by a patriarch, instructs one of their young men to go to South Africa and open up a store. Usually there is a connection here, someone who already is living in the country and can help him settle in.

When they are ready to set up their own shop, the newcomers will identify an abandoned building and locate the owner in order to hire the premises. They are likely to sign a long-term lease of three to five years.

In some instances they will take over a property from an existing, locally run spaza, paying the owner what their store would have turned over monthly, which can be as little as R1?000 a month. Research by the Sustainable Livelihoods Foundation found start-up capital for larger, typically foreign-owned shops ranged from R20?000 to R60?000.

Foreign-owned spazas have sprung up throughout the capillaries of virtually every settlement in South Africa, successfully drawing in customers looking for the best deal –and, many times, subsequently forcing uncompetitive locally-owned shops to close their doors. A large enough store can turn over serious cash each month.

Lilla (which is a truncated spelling of a phrase meaning any charity done “for Allah”, Patel says) is fairly large as far as spazas go. It is crammed full of goods worth R200?000 at any given time, Patel explains as the resident cat preens itself at his feet.

But always having cash on the premises is what makes foreign shop owners like Patel soft targets for criminals. Immigrants in Kanana live in constant fear of being robbed or killed by those motivated by hatred, greed or both. It’s not just idle chatter or paranoia that fuels their uneasiness.

Looking around the quiet settlement, it is hard to envisage what went down here in March. That’s when municipal offices were set ablaze, stones were pelted at windows, flaming tyres barricaded the roads and nearly 240 foreign-owned spaza shops were looted of an estimated R10-million in collective stock. Everything was taken; even fridges were dragged out.

Xenophobic attacks, and the attitudes that fuel them, are part of every day of his life here. “Every day there is something, someone is robbed,” Patel says. When he walks down the street locals give him “trouble”.

“Most of the people are nice, but some of them have the criminal mind,” Patel says tapping his forefinger on his left temple. In February he was shot in the leg when his store was robbed. “There is too much crime. I’d never seen gun in my life until I came to South Africa.”

“Stealing is the nature of the South African,” rings in his friend, Sadet Ahmed, a 29-year-old Pakistani who is also a spaza owner in Kanana. “The police, they can’t help us.”

Ahmed sits in the corner of the shop nodding his head. In a blue zip-up jersey and jeans he looks like he would fit in better on the streets of downtown London than here.

“At home, we are fighting,” says Ahmed, gesturing toward Patel. “Here, we are friends.”

Following the attacks earlier in the year, foreign shop owners like Ahmed and Patel formed a loose collective. Every month, each store makes a donation of R100 into a pool used to help those who are victims of robbery, looting or damage.

“Even now we make it a community, we are increasing the members,” says Ahmed. “If someone gets robbed, we all come and look. Fifty or even 100 people will go to the police station to report [the incident].”

Panga attack
Which is exactly what happened to Shahal Islam, a young Bangladeshi who owns a shop on the northern side of Kanana. He looks ultra-cool in his leather rocker jacket as he mans the till at his store, but he is anything but relaxed as he tells of how he was held up a couple of days ago.

As a Bangladeshi news programme broadcasts from a mounted television, he recalls how the men came into his shop brandishing pangas fashioned out of misshapen scrap metal and insulation tape. One of the pangas was left behind during the hurried exit of the assailant. Islam lifts the weapon from under the till to show me. He kept it as evidence for the police, but they never came.

Sitting behind the till, protected by a metal enclosure is Jarar Ali, a nervous 21-year-old with a thin moustache struggling to grow from his upper lip. He has only been in South Africa for two months and is paying his dues in this dimly lit and cold shop.

The owner of the store is a Pakistani like himself. His father had been in Kanana before he was sent, but sold his shop when he left. Ali, like many of the other foreigners here in Kanana, has taught himself Setswana, enough at least to allow him to haggle with his clients about airtime. “We have to speak [the local language],” he says. “If we don’t they ask, ‘Why don’t you speak’.”

That may level the playing field, but the clear advantage for foreign traders is their ability to pool money to access bargains through bulk buying.

Patel and Ahmed say that all foreign merchants here buy regularly from the local cash-and-carry stores, purchasing stock worth up to R15?000 for each shop at a time. Buying on account or with cash at such a wholesaler is the very same thing, they say. “You don’t pay any interest,” Patel says.

Less than a minute’s walk away from Lilla spaza is a locally-owned shop. A few necessary items – cans of Lucky Star pilchards, bags of maize meal and loaves of bread – are perched on the otherwise largely empty shelves that stretch along the wall. Their customers are lured in mainly by their additional restaurant offering of Russians, chips and atchar. Otherwise, distaste for foreigners brings in foot traffic.

“Some people don’t like the Pakistani,” the supervisor of the shop says. “So they buy from us.”

The supervisor here knows full well her shop simply cannot compete with foreign-owned spazas as far as general consumables are concerned, and says: “There is no profit for us if we sell like them.” She knows too that their advantage is bulk buying, but says locals just don’t have the money to do it themselves.

Long hours
But it’s not just the bulk buying that appears to put them ahead in the game. Like many foreign shop owners in Kanana, Patel works 12 hours every day. He wakes up at 5.15am and attends mosque, one of several in the area. He works from 8am to 8pm before returning each night to a house he rents in a neighbouring settlement. Most foreign traders work even longer hours, with Somali-run stores staying open until 10pm to catch as much foot traffic as possible. Many shopkeepers will also stay on the shop premises to save time and money.

At the back of Lilla is a room with two single mattresses, each neatly made up with identical thick blankets. The back door is open to allow fresh air and the insipid winter light to stream in. Even Ahmed, who lives in a house in the township, has slept here on occasion.

“In Pakistan we have a nice house where my family lives, maybe four or five rooms,” he says. “We don’t have a roof like this.” Ahmed points up at the dilapidated and water-stained ceiling.

“We miss it, but … life is tough,” he concedes. Electricity is available but a shower is a thing of the past, “we had to give it up”, he says. He now uses a bucket bath.

What’s clear after spending the day in Kanana talking to these men is that, whether they just arrived, or they have lived here for years, most dream of returning home one day.

Shop owner Naeem Solanki has only been back to Pakistan once in the seven years since he left and it was then that he was married. His wife – a qualified lawyer, he says, beaming with pride – and his three-month-old child are back at home.

“I phone not every day, I phone every hour,” says Solanki.

Many people sell their shop and eventually go back home, says Ahmed, but he has integrated more than most, having married a local woman in Kanana five years ago.

“She’s a nurse.” He, too, proudly volunteers his wife’s occupation without being asked. He also plans to leave one day, but he won’t go back home – he no longer belongs there. “I’ve been here eight years I can’t fit in with that culture anymore.”

The future
The young Ali shrugs his shoulders when asked of his future plans.

“I don’t have a plan. South Africa is nice, but is not better than Pakistan,” he says, staring out from behind the bars, his disheartened expression deepening. “Maybe after one or two months, I can go back.”

When Patel eventually does leave South Africa, the only thing he will miss is avocado, he says.

He looks down at the leg in which he was shot some months back.

“I’m okay,” he says with a bright grin. His family does not know yet of the incident but he is soon due back home to visit, as he does every few years, and he hopes the shock of the news will be enough. “Maybe he [the patriarch of the family] won’t send me back.”

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