Spaza shop owners in Port Elizabeth fear police raids

In Motherwell, residents say spaza shops should stay open to save them going to crowded, expensive retailers. One study shows street vendors are vital to food security in South Africa.

Spaza shop owners with permits to trade have the right to keep their businesses open during the lockdown, but in Motherwell, Port Elizabeth, they remain fearful of police raids.

It has been business as usual during the lockdown for spaza shops, with local residents able to walk down the road for their daily essentials.

“I use a sanitiser to clean my counters,” said a spaza shop owner who did not want to be named or photographed in case the police shut him down. “I have no choice but to open the store. I need money to live, and also the government can’t expect people to walk all the way to the Motherwell shopping complex to buy a single loaf of bread.”

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Motherwell is 20kms from the city centre of Port Elizabeth and was established by the apartheid government in 1982 so it could forcibly remove black people from other parts of the city. Today, there are over 150 000 people in Motherwell, living in 29 sections, from NU1 to NU29. The formal retail stores in the area are found in the Motherwell shopping complex, in NU4, which can cost residents from other sections up to R20 in taxi fare to get to. Alternatively, it is a 5km walk each way.

“We can’t afford to buy a loaf of bread at the complex while we have to still pay a taxi when we could’ve bought more bread or something else with that money at the spaza,” said a resident.

As the coronavirus persists, many scientists remain uncertain of its lifespan on surfaces. But businesses such as internet cafes are certainly high-risk spaces. In Motherwell, an internet cafe is still open. The owner said she was afraid, but residents need her services.

“I wear gloves and sanitise a PC that has been used before another person uses it. I am a breadwinner at home. I can’t just close the cafe,” the owner said.

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On Govan Mbeki Avenue in Port Elizabeth, independently owned grocery stores all closed down at the start of the lockdown, even though they have the right to stay open. The inner city of Port Elizabeth houses thousands of poor and working-class residents in blocks of flats and run-down houses.

One owner opened his shop briefly on day four to sell a city resident some bread through a locked gate. Speaking to New Frame on condition of anonymity, he said that although his colleagues with smaller spaza shops in the townships were trying to remain open, the police said that only major supermarkets could trade in the inner city, not smaller grocery stores, even if they had a municipal licence.

Inner-city residents had been left with no choice but to flock to the Shoprite in Govan Mbeki Avenue, just 100m away from the fully stocked but closed shops.

The importance of vendors

In areas where spaza shops were closed, one resident said he was unable to buy as much food as he had bought before the lockdown. “I am feeling the impact of a lockdown as an unemployed person. Firstly, my hustles have suffered. Then, I have to spend more in retail shops, in some instances, more than 100% of what I would from informal traders in my neighbourhood. A pack of tomatoes and onions for which I was paying R7 … each, I now have to pay about R20 … each. I have been buying a cabbage for R6 from the informal sector guys, I am parting with R15 at the retail [stores]. For R10, I would get a banana, apple, peach and plum from the street guys, at retail [stores] I get only two of these. The situation is still to get worse. I am afraid,” Vusumzi Xaba said.

A report from the Institute for Poverty, Land and Agrarian Studies (Plaas) at the University of the Western Cape noted that while spaza shops were allowed to open as long as they didn’t sell cigarettes or alcohol, “this is not how regulations are being enforced. Together with street traders being unable to operate, this means that the main ways in which poor people access food from small and informal enterprises – therefore supporting the township economy – are being closed down.”

Plaas warned that shutting township spaza shops and locking down informal food traders for the first week of the lockdown meant that there had been “a dramatic decline in fresh vegetables and fruit” being traded in townships. According to Plaas, 40% of the informal township economy involves street food vendors, which supports about 500 000 people nationally. About 70% of all township homes “usually source food from informal outlets”.

If people could not access food, “there is every likelihood of violent conflict, including widespread looting. If SAPS and the SANDF choose to use violent or repressive means to enforce lockdown or social distancing regulations, as has already happened in the last few days, this poses a risk that the legitimacy of the lockdown as such could come in question, with disastrous public health consequences,” Plaas wrote.

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The institute added that small-scale farmers were also affected as they could no longer hire street vendors to sell their produce or sell it themselves. This meant the farmers would not have any income to replant, which would reduce the amount of food available in South Africa in the long term. Plaas recommended that “food hawkers and spaza shops which provide a vast proportion of the food consumed by poor people must be allowed to continue to trade, and to do so safely. All this requires appropriate regulation to allow those small-scale operators in the production, transportation and sale of food to operate, with provision of protective gear.”

If lockdown regulations were not amended to allow this, the informal food sector could “suffer a massive setback, further pushing large numbers of people out of economic activity and into desperate poverty and lethal hunger, while further consolidating corporate domination in South Africa’s food system,” Plaas wrote.

Following the statement from Plaas, the department of cooperative governance and traditional affairs amended the Disaster Management Act regulations pertaining to the lockdown. From 2 April 2020, spaza shops and informal food traders, as well as all grocery stores and wholesale produce markets, would be allowed to operate during the lockdown as long as they had a permit from the municipality.

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