Local traders caught in anti-immigrant crossfire: “We can’t eat politics”

Everson Luhanga

For more than 30 years, Gogo Gretta Ngqanda has been selling sweets, belts, wallets, and other items on the streets of Johannesburg.

But two weeks ago she was among a group of vendors confronted by angry vigilantes – and this week her operation was shut down by metro police.

Gogo Gretta, now 65, can hardly remember the time when she was a young woman from the Eastern Cape, looking for opportunities in the City of Gold.

But two weeks ago, gogo Gretta and many other street vendors were confronted by an angry group of people calling themselves Operation Dudula.

The vigilante group went on to demolish and burn down stalls belonging to vendors they suspected of being illegal foreign nationals.

The group also evicted business operators who are not South Africans and handed over the keys of the shops to some locals.

Gogo Gretta was one of the people who received keys.

“They gave us the keys, posed with us to take videos and photos and left,” said Gretta.

She said after two days, the real owner of the shop who had rented it out to a foreign national, arrived with his spare keys, kicked her out, changed locks, and locked the doors.

She said she had to go back to the street and start afresh working from the spot she has been working from for years.

“As South Africans we are now suffering from the same operation,” she said.

Thabiso Mnisi, who is also out in the cold after the Dudula operation, is finding business difficult.

“All I want is to trade and provide for my family. I can’t eat politics,” he said.

Joburg mayor Mpho Phalatse said she strongly condemns the conduct of the people who operated in concert with Operation Dudula.

“It should be understood that Operation Dudula is an illegal operation and is not sanctioned by the City,” she said.

She said while the city understands that some residents may have frustrations regarding the prevailing socio-economic conditions, this was not a licence for anyone to take the law into their own hands.

“Immigration is a matter for the National Government through the Department of Home Affairs. We call on Minister Aaron Motsoaledi to act within the powers of his office to get the situation under control,” she said.

Mayor Phalatse said the City has deployed 1,800 Metro police throughout the City to curb lawlessness.

Johannesburg Metropolitan Police Department (JMPD) spokesperson Xolani Fihla confirmed they issued administration notices warning traders who were trading in restricted areas to move out.

“A resolution was made to formalise informal trading at the taxi rank, with the Department of Economic Development issuing trading permits to legal traders at the end of February and March 2022,” said Fihla.