The silent war against foreign tuck shop owners

Everson Luhanga

Foreign spaza shop owners in remote rural parts of Limpopo experience kidnapping, robberies and shootings while running their businesses

In rural Limpopo, a different type of war is being fought. Foreign spaza shop owners in this remote part of Limpopo experience kidnapping, robberies and shootings while running their businesses.

It’s become part of the working day, and village life goes on as if nothing is happening.

This is because according to police, the war is being fought amongst foreign spaza shop owners, so the locals turn a blind eye and the foreign tuck shop owners try to keep it business as usual.

The spazas in the Greater Letaba municipality, which are growing in number and size, have a monopoly in the villages, thriving in places where there are no main shopping centres.

Like a newly discovered gold mine, the fight to settle in these villages has been far from easy for most of the shop owners. Many have suffered great losses at the hands of what they described as a syndicate of heavily armed criminals.

From his warehouse in Ga-Raphahlelo Village, Scrolla.Africa spoke to Idris Patel. Patel runs a chain of spaza shops and one of the three biggest warehouses in the villages. He said in the past he has survived shootings, kidnappings and robberies at gunpoint.

“I have been doing business in these villages for more than 15 years,” he said.

“I have been a victim of crimes where I have been kidnapped and robbed. Just early this year, I was shot and the bullet went through my leg.”

Patel said he suspects that there is a crime syndicate who target business owners in a fight over territory, kidnapping, robbing and murdering their way to gaining control of the area.

Sekgosese Police Station head Colonel Machete confirmed to Scrolla.Africa that he attended one of the crime scenes where Patel was a victim. “The victim was kidnapped and robbed,” he said.

“After robbing him, the unknown suspects left the car keys at a distance where he was told to go fetch them after they had gone.”

Colonel Machete said police have intensified their patrol in the area since his arrival as the head of the station in March this year.

Patel said he is the major supplier for different spazas in the villages. When Scrolla.Africa visited his warehouse on Friday, bakkies loaded with all sorts of goods were being dispatched to other spazas.

“At the moment, business is good but we are appealing to the police to help intensify their presence to help us be safe while operating business here,” he said.

In this silent war, local residents who owned spazas have had to shut their doors due to what they called a deliberate exclusion from this economy.

Angelina Ramano, 45, took over her late father’s spaza shop.

She said for many years, her dad Alpheus Ramano, who died in 2016, tried to keep his business alive.

She said her dad’s efforts to grow the business were shot down by the mushrooming foreign-owned spaza shops. “I have four spaza shops surrounding me. Customers only come to me to buy kotas,” she said.

Another former spaza shop owner, Phalange Nelly Matye, now runs her business on a small machine where she fries chips for her customers, making less than R300 a week.

“There is nothing I can do. I had to close it down. I couldn’t stock anymore,” she said.

She claimed that the foreign-owned shops have forced them out of business in many ways. One way is offering credit to locals, which they can do as they have a support system. But the local shop owners need their daily cash to keep stocking.

“Many people rely on Sassa grants and don’t have the money all the time. These guys capitalise on the suffering residents, especially the old people,” she said.

Scrolla.Africa interviewed more former local shop owners who shared this sentiment.

On Sundays, the foreign-owned spaza shops collectively shut their doors for hours for church, leaving the villagers stranded. Locals say this shows just how comfortable the spazas are with capturing the township’s spazas – that they can afford to close basic services weekly without regard to the impact.