A look into the world of foreign-owned spazarettes; bracing themselves for looting – GG Alcock

Informal trade expert GG Alcock has given us a view into a world that many of us do not know a lot about. The street traders who can no longer trade because of the lockdown restrictions and the crisis that is developing around food in the townships. He has also introduced new terms like ‘kasinomics‘. In this article he looks at the 100,000 spazarettes in the country, 85% which are owned by foreigners. This is a group that has been targeted in xenophobic attacks; the most recent in September last year. Alcock describes meeting some of the Somali shop owners; saying the were not the ‘Somali pirates or Al-Shabaab terrorists’ he expected. Many of these spazarettes are bracing themselves for looting if the search for food becomes more desperate in the current 21-day lockdown. Alcock says there’s confusion on what the rights of spaza shops are during the lockdown and calls for decisions that would enable the kasi-sector to play a vital role in feeding the people in the townships. – Linda van Tilburg

Excavating Silence #3: The kasi spazarettes

By GG Alcock*

With lockdown there have been contradictory messages to the spaza sector with reports of police closing any that are immigrant-owned, which means practically all of them because 85% of the approximately 100,000 spazas are run by immigrants. Four immigrant groups dominate the spaza sector, Somali, Ethiopian, Bangladeshi and Pakistani with the first two being dominant in terms of numbers. But there is a massive misconception about the spaza sector, that they are hole-in-the-wall, expensive, dirty and stock ‘fong kong’ brands. This may be true for some, but a sector of spazas which I call spazarettes has emerged, these are supermarket and cash & carry style stores, with aisles, large ranges of quality branded products, premium shopper experiences and, most importantly, prices on par or cheaper than the Shoprites and Pick n Pays of the world.

I believe that the Spazarette channel represents a critical channel for food availability during the lockdown and should be encouraged to trade rather than be restricted or closed down as is happening in many townships. Apart from anything, they are close to consumers and limit exposure to queues and crowds that we are seeing in supermarkets and malls. If we are limiting social contact, then it is madness to discourage the spazarettes sector and its shoppers, particularly if they observe the right procedures in store.

I wrote this of the Somali Spazarette in Kasinomic Revolution: 

I know the guy from Black Hawk Down. He’s a tall skinny Somali wearing what I would describe as a skirt and slip-slops. He walks up to me and, instead of pulling out an AK and gunning me down, he reaches out his hand and greets me. ‘Good day, Sah, welcome to Fordsburg. You are here for Mr Ibrahim Adulahi, please come this way.’ It has taken me a while not to be surprised by the incredible warmth and gentle greetings of the Somali immigrants in South Africa. I guess, like everyone else, I expect violent Somali pirates and al-Shabaab terrorists. Ibrahim who runs a business called Hornafro Marketing, which researches, markets and distributes to the spazarette sector, is an invaluable resource letting me into the world of the Somali trader and networks, letting me access the massive spazarette, spaza and wholesaler world for clients.

The streets of Fordsburg are another world – women in a dazzling array of traditional Somali dresses, scarves wrapped rakishly over their heads. (I am told they are called garbasaars or shashes… they are beautiful.) The deep blues, bright pinks and flashes of green fill the streets. The men are tall and skinny, their high cheek boned facial features clearly Somali or maybe Ethiopian. They stride by in sandals, some in traditional gear, others in denims and American style T-shirts with silly one liners. The shops around me are foreign; a thousand exotic scents from a perfume store, waving rainbows of shawls and scarves, a travel agent offering trips to Afar (yes, it’s a place not a distance), Mogadishu, Nairobi, Addis Ababa… there is no Paris or London here! And the smells of coffee, real coffee, spicy Somali food and tables with no cutlery, hands delicately bringing food to the lips, basins serving as serviettes. It’s exotic, it’s African but not South African, and I feel safe; I feel a community around me, a community at home here.

Abdulrashiq Ali* is a Somali, owner of Mokopane* Cash & Carry in Soshanguve, a widely spread out township north of Pretoria, named after the various tribes who made up the population: Sotho, Shangaan, Nguni, Venda. His fleet of Mercedes trucks travels the length and breadth of Gauteng sourcing the best priced bulk supplies for his cash & carry. Mokopane Cash & Carry is a huge wholesaler and supermarket in one, although to most of the FMCG brand world it doesn’t exist. Ali left Somalia and travelled via Kenya, Tanzania, Malawi and finally Zimbabwe before arriving in South Africa in 2002, where he sought and received asylum. He started work as a hawker in Wynberg and Alexandra township selling cheap Chinese products door to door. Within two years he had saved enough money to open his first spaza in Wynberg. In 2010 he had built his spaza up enough to sell it. He moved to Stellenbosch where he bought a spazarette, a supermarket style spaza, and ran it for a year before selling it and returning to Gauteng.  After moving back to Gauteng in 2011 Ali bought a 30% share in a spazarette in Soshanguve from Somalis from his clan for R70 000. And in 2015 he decided to move into the Cash & Carry business, selling his share in the spazarette and borrowing R250 000 with partners to build the Cash & Carry. Once the store was built, Ali arranged R200 000 in consignment stock through an ‘ayuto loan’ from fellow Somalis. The payback for this ayuto loan, including fees, was six months. Somalis have a loan system called ayuto where a group of friends or clan members join up as shareholders, pooling funds to grow their businesses. – End of Kasinomic Revolution excerpt.

An invisible retail giant has awakened in the informal sector. This giant is not a single entity but a multitude of informal grocery supermakets who form an invisible matrix in the informal economy. Witness the rise of the “spazarette”.

Township shoppers now benefit on a number of levels, the shopper can now get cheaper, or priced on par, branded products at the Spazarette right down the road from their home. Shoppers are saving on transport, which can be a large part of shoppers’ budgets, plus the spazarette will arrange an assistant with a wheelbarrow or cart to help transport home larger staple items. Spazarettes give interest free credit at critical times of the month when consumers have no money and would otherwise resort to loan sharks to afford food. Add the inconvenience of public transport or carrying your heavy goods like bags of rice, maize meal, canned goods, litres of cooking oil and suddenly the massive attraction and competitive advantage of the spazarette becomes irresistible. 

Estimates are that South African homeowners earn more than R30bn a year in rental from the approximately 100,000 immigrant spaza & spazarette stores nationally. A ripple effect of closing them is that the South African homeowners do not get their rental income. I wonder how many authorities have thought about that?

Over the lockdown I am tracking the Spazarette impact and status with Ibrahim. Ibrahim has been working the phones since the start of the lockdown, calling his massive network of Cash & Carries and Spazarettes while I get the WhatsApp updates…

Day 1 Report – in Germiston. Tembisa, Soweto only 70% of spazarettes are open which serve through the burglar door. Police are instructing them to close.

Day 2 – Hi sir Today 95 % of the spaza, spazarettes were open, the situation was calm in general.

Day 3 – This are some of the stores in Tembisa very difficult day, (pics of closed spazarettes)

Day 4 – Report.

1-There is scarcity of eggs.The price of 15 Dozen & 12 Dozen has increased as Follows 15D from R180 to R230. 12D from R370 to R430 respectively.

2-Some of the common commodities like, Sugar Maizemeal and Cake flour have increased from 2.5% to 10% at the wholesalers there is also a shortage of all the above mentioned items.

3-Spaza & Spazarettes working hours changed depending on the area police commanders. Ranging from 3 hours to 10 working hours per day, while previously it used to be minimum 13 working hours.

Day 5 – In many areas police are forcing them to close the stores with threat. they arrested a butchery owner in Mayfair for not complying, but he had all the necessary document/ permit.

Then a picture of a Somali trader and the message – Somali brother killed in lower Philippi an hour ago by robbers.

Day 6 – Soweto 70 stores totally closed by Florida police station. Soshanguve cash & carry owner says police come driving past we close. They pass by we open (laughing faces). In Rustenburg a WhatsApp video shows a police officer telling spazas to open from 9 till 6 but all can be open.

Day 7 – This are some of the stores in Thabisong. The police, metro police and the military are forcing them to close shops. Not allowing them to sell from the burglar guard openings. But when they close the customers throw stones at them to open.

Confusion continues to reign today, day 7. Ibrahim says “Mr GG it’s unclear, Metro police tells spazas and spazarettes to close, then Army comes and harasses them, SAPS sometimes say close, sometimes open only from 9 to 18h00.” He adds, “in many areas the community say to spazarette owners, you must be open or we will break in to get supplies.”

So today the spazarettes are now either serving through hatches, or through closed doors, or close when police or army come by and open as they pass. Stock levels are reduced due to fear of either confiscation by police or looting by consumers. These issues affecting both street vegetable traders and spazarettes are already creating food or grocery shortages which are unnecessary. The lack of a clearly articulated national policy coming from the authorities and the SAPS just creates uncertainty and confusion, the population is uneasy, fake news proliferates, traders are frustrated and afraid.

We need decisions for the informal food chain, vegetable sellers and spazarettes, decisions that make sense, that are well articulated, decision passed down the line. Let’s enable the kasi sector to continue the vital role they play.

I hope someone in charge is listening and applying a little logic.

  • GG Alcock has been at times a shebeen owner, political activist, community worker and African adventurer, and more recently the founder of Minanawe Marketing, a leading marketing agency in the mass market.