Back to zero for uninsured migrant businesses

For the second time in two years, migrants in Johannesburg have witnessed the destruction of their enterprises. Many don’t know if they can pick up the pieces again.

When a phone call woke up Lukmon Alade just after 1am on Sunday 11 July, he didn’t think that he would be standing in the torched remains of his panel-beating workshop just a few hours later. This was the second time in as many years that Alade, 46, had to see his business looted and torched. The same thing happened in September 2019 following two weeks of xenophobic violence in Johannesburg.

The workshop he had rebuilt on Main Reef Road in Denver, east of Johannesburg, became one of the first targets as a mob from the nearby Denver and Cleveland hostels descended on the street, looting and vandalising businesses in the area. 

Alade, originally from Nigeria, has been living in South Africa for the past 15 years. He says he can’t make sense of why some businesses on Main Reef Road were targeted other than their being owned by migrants. His workshop and the factory next door, which is owned by a man of South Asian descent, were looted and torched. The Bangladeshi-owned supermarket across the street was also looted and vandalised but spared being set alight. 

15 July 2021: Lukmon Alade estimates the damage caused to his business to be more than R10 million. 

Another panel-beating shop nearby that was left untouched is owned by a South African, according to Alade. “They came here because they know I’m a foreigner. There’s a place there and they didn’t loot it but they came here.” 

Alade estimates the damage to his business, including about 20 torched vehicles, to be more than R10 million. He claims he is uninsurable because insurers designated it a high-risk area.

“They [the looters] put me to zero. They stole everything – all the machines, all the tools. They stole everything before they put the place on fire,” he said. “I don’t know where to start. I don’t know what to do but I have 25 workers who are depending on me. I don’t know what I’m going to do.”

Insurance complexities

The South African Special Risk Insurance Association (Sasria), which was established in the wake of the 1976 Soweto uprisings to provide cover for any damage caused during riots, strikes, civil disobedience and terrorism, estimates the costs of the week-long riots and looting to be in the billions of rands.

Cedric Masondo, Sasria’s managing director, says by 19 July the association had already received claims amounting to about R1 billion. “But based on what we’ve seen in terms of damages, our view is we are looking at anything between R10 billion and R20 billion. But this is guesswork. Bear in mind, our numbers will always be much less than what is the true value for two reasons: not everyone buys Sasria and our exposure to an insured [party] is limited to R500 million.”

Masondo says while some business owners only take out standard insurance, others add Sasria coverage as well. And those who don’t have either are now in “a tough situation”.

“That’s tough, it’s very serious. I get what they’re saying, because for you to have Sasria you need to have what we call underlying insurance. So if the insurance companies don’t want to insure that place, that person won’t have access to Sasria by default,” he explained. 

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“I don’t know whether it is possible, but I know the government is talking about or thinking about something for the uninsured. But I don’t know. It becomes difficult because these are foreigners. I feel really sorry for them.”

Acting minister in the Presidency Khumbudzo Ntshavheni said in a statement that work was under way to assess the cost of the damage to property and that the South African Property Owners Association (Sapoa) would be collating data on Gauteng after already providing estimates for the province. 

“Sasria will conduct an assessment on the full extent of the damage and the economic cluster of ministers are consolidating proposals for the government package of intervention, including for small businesses that are mostly uninsured,” she said, without providing further information. 

End of the road

But unlike large corporations that will mostly be covered by Sasria, small businesses in high-risk areas and those owned by migrants will struggle to recover their losses. Some will close their doors forever. 

Alade says he hopes to go back to Nigeria soon, where he will try to raise some money so that he can return and set up another business. But this time it will be in a safer area. “If I hear Denver, I will run away. Never again will I do anything here. 

“I came here that night and to see your business burning – I can’t tell you how it feels. I never slept since then. Yesterday was the first time I slept since seeing my business burn,” he said four days after surveying the destruction.  

15 July 2021: Bangladeshi migrant Antar Ahmed outside his takeaway and supermarket in Denver, Johannesburg. Ahmed says the looters took everything and he doubts he will reopen the shop, especially at this location.

Denver Takeaways and Supermarket, which is owned by Bangladeshi migrant Antar Ahmed, also suffered serious damage. Ahmed estimates that stock worth more than R300 000 was stolen along with eight fridges, the card machine, microwaves and a meat slicer. Yet the business opposite his was left untouched. 

“I came here at 2am on that Sunday. I saw there were people everywhere. I can’t do anything about that so I left and only came back later,” he said. “My shop was also attacked in 2019, but this time it is much worse. That time they just took some stock and ran, but this time they took everything.

“I’m not sure if I’m going to keep doing business here. It is too dangerous. Actually, right now I am looking for a new place for my business,” he said. 

‘This time it’s worse’

In neighbouring Malvern, rows of businesses on Jules Street were also looted, vandalised and torched but more indiscriminately, with both South African and migrant-owned shops targeted. As with Alade’s business, many of them had suffered major damage in September 2019. 

Christian Ndubuisi, 47, originally from Nigeria, estimates his losses at between R2 million and R3 million. Nine cars were torched in his workshop and it happened just as he and his business were recovering from the xenophobic attacks two years ago. 

“It was bad in 2019, really bad,” said Ndubuisi, “but this time it’s worse. The shop is closed and I don’t know if it will open again. I have four people working for me and I don’t know what is going to happen to them. 

“It is so difficult for me. It really hurts. I was at home on Sunday night when I was phoned and told they are attacking my business. I couldn’t come here immediately because it was not safe. But it hurts to see your business destroyed. I have nothing left.”

Ndubuisi says he is unsure what the future holds for him and his family; his wife is unemployed. 

15 July 2021: Two cars belonging to Cameroonian Paul Eyong were among those destroyed while at a vehicle workshop in Jules Street in Malvern, Johannesburg.

Karamoko Vafing, originally from Ivory Coast, only started his panel-beating workshop on Jules Street earlier this year. He had been excited about his business slowly growing during the Covid-19 lockdowns, until it was completely destroyed during the violence. 

“The business was up and down and up and down but it was growing. I just managed to survive and now this. Only God will know what I will do next,” he said. “It’s difficult, my brother. They never touched me but the business is destroyed. They burnt 11 cars. The whole office is gone, the compressor, the tools, a couple of laptops, even the spares are gone.” 

Like so many other businesses, Vafing’s was uninsured and his customers who brought their cars to his workshop did so at their own risk. “We are happy because at least they [the looters] also touched the government. Before they used to say the foreigners this and the foreigners that, but now they went for the government as well.”

One of Vafing’s customers, Cameroonian Paul Eyong, lost two cars in the violence. “We don’t have insurance,” he said. “We buy these cars from auctions and try to get them fixed and then sell them again. So this is tough. When you lose in life, you really lose.”

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