Rose Nkosi, a tall woman wearing glasses and a short weave, apologises for the state of the converted four-roomed house in Soweto that is the headquarters of the South African Spaza and Tuck Shop Association (Sasta).
“We’ve just been on holiday,” she says. “We’re just cleaning up.”
Twenty-seven days into January, the house has the feel of a dormant organisation waking from a sustained slumber. The organisation’s banners hang skew on the walls, half falling off, and half of a Mail & Guardian article, on Nkosi talking about Sasta’s bulk-buying efforts, has been stuck on a wall.
Nkosi’s “return from holiday” couldn’t have been more coincidental. On January 19, there was a looting frenzy in Soweto, which later spread to other townships in Gauteng and broke out in pockets around the country. It left six dead and thousands of Bengalis, Pakistanis, Ethiopians and Somalis displaced.
The apocalyptic scenes were accompanied by patriotic zealotry. The fanaticism displayed by some business groups dovetailed perfectly with the denialist bent of ANC politicians, ranging from Gauteng Premier David Makhura to Small Business Development Minister Lindiwe Zulu. Both have refused to use the dirty “X” word.
- Read: Comments by state and union officials betray xenophobia
- Read: Mind your own business, minister
In Sasta’s dimly lit office in Dube, Soweto, Nkosi likens the events to a righteous crusade.
“Everything happens for a purpose,” she says, pulling up a chair. “Nineteen seventy-six happened for a purpose. People opened their eyes and there was change.
“Someone has died [referring to 14-year-old Siphiwe Mahori]. It’s painful, but the Lord knows it was for a reason. Otherwise they [foreigners] wouldn’t have been kicked out.”
Nkosi closes her eyes. The volume of her voice rises and the pitch intensifies. She is delivering a sermon.
“I asked them whether they are paying tax, and they said: ‘When you buy a sweet, you are already paying tax.’ I said: ‘No, that’s not what I’m talking about.’
“They have children now [with South African women], and the services for those children and their mothers come from us [our taxes].”
Nkosi’s tirade includes her assessment that houses in the township have been turned into “refugee camps”, full of insolent foreigners and huge amounts of “imported stock, some of it expired”.
Nkosi says she and the former Sasta chairperson, Mandla Malinga, have “evidence” that foreign traders are supported by “international companies”, but she could not provide it.
Although her generalisations might sound outlandish, they are in tune with a similar chorus from unaffiliated business forums and associations throughout the province.
Many have used inflammatory language, the legitimacy of their concerns lying buried under an avalanche of populist invective.
On air this week, Mphuthi Mphuthi of Soweto Business Access described foreigners as “rude”, and repeated Nkosi’s generalised claims of needing to save the economy from “the dumping of foreign goods”.
In the press, he warned that foreigners should not return to their shops in Soweto until the “core issues raised by local residents have been resolved”.
His Twitter account (20 of his 23 tweets are after January 23) appears to have emerged out of thin air.
Speaking to the M&G, Mphuthi said Soweto Business Access was formed in October last year to help small and medium enterprises to do business with the government.
He would not give its membership numbers – they were “muddy”, he said – but added that it represented people in the informal sector, but specifically in the fields of plumbing, welding and carpentry.
Referring to what his organisation was doing, he cited the Gauteng premier’s five-year plan to pump R1-billion into improving infrastructure for entrepreneurs to operate in, and how he was seeking to bridge the gap between expectations “on both sides”.
He denied he was inflaming an already volatile situation. “A lot of people in leadership positions feel that these guys [foreigners] must leave, but they are not saying it out in the open. We haven’t said they must leave. We have said we want dialogue.
“If South Africans want them to leave, we have no option but to observe that. But the criminals [who looted] do not represent the township.”