THE ENDANGERED LOCAL SPAZA SHOPS OF LIMPOPO

Everson Luhanga reports from the Mopani District in Limpopo that local spaza shop owners feel they have been excluded from the economy as foreign-owned warehouses move in

In early 2000, madala Samson Mkhatshani Hlungwani owned a thriving shop in the Sekgosese area in the Mopani District in Limpopo.

From the front garage of his house, he ran a successful business – the go-to place for school kids and families for groceries and snacks. It was his only income, but it was enough to feed his family and take his children to school.

Starting his business with only R2,000 in 1998, Hlungwani made it big by having a fully functioning spaza shop. “My place was buzzing,” he said.

“I could wake up in the morning only to find people waiting for me to open the shop. I couldn’t close the shop early because customers kept on knocking on my bedroom window asking me to sell them whatever they wanted.”

But that is an old story now. Hlungwani’s is the last spaza standing, holding on despite the terrible returns ever since foreign-owned warehouses arrived and wiped out the local competition.

The heavy-hearted old man said that after over two decades, his business is on the brink of collapsing due to competition brought by the newcomers who have opened several now-thriving shops.

“They came and lowered the prices of everything, making it difficult for my business to compete with them.

“I don’t know where they stock their products and how much profit they make with their reduced prices.”

He said he travels more than 80 km to Tzaneen in a rented bakkie to purchase his stock.

“Even at the price I sell, I make very little profit.

“In the 1990s, the foreign shop owners fondly called me ‘my friend’.” He said it was the phrase they used to refer to the locals when they sold items on credit. They would say  “It’s alright my friend, take now and pay little by little monthly.”

They went door-to-door selling brooms, carpets, mops and tablecloths.

Hlungwani said he has witnessed the deliberate capture of the township economy through this ability to give credit whilst locals cannot afford to give credit.

“They penetrated our spaces by firstly giving goods to the locals on debt and collecting their money over a period of time.”

Over the years, this careful system cemented its place in the communities. So did their custom of operating from back rooms and garages belonging to local families, who were grateful for the money for rent.

“When one person was allowed, they would bring a group of their friends or family who were selling and sleeping in the same garage shop.

“After some weeks, all their friends would be operating spaza shops across the villages and townships at reduced prices. That’s where most local businesses started suffering the loss and many closed down,” said Hlungwani.

In a small village called Senwamokgope, there is a street where these foreign owners have rented out almost all the houses and even built a church, cementing these villages as their home.

A local woman who asked not to be named said this is where hate and friction with foreign nationals grew and fostered to dangerous levels. Locals were no longer able to compete in the business and quickly lost control as well as their only source of income.

In Sekgosese, Scrolla.Africa spoke to three local former shop owners who all confirmed that this system rendered their shops useless. They have rented out their shops to the foreign spaza owners, who now have warehouses supplying all the regions.

While foreign spazas are thriving, more and more locals have had to shut down and rent out their spaces in what they call a deliberate exclusion from this economy.