South Africa: City of Cape Town and Immigrant Shop Owners Meet to Resolve Tensions

“We come unannounced not to catch you doing wrong things, but to ensure that your shop is in satisfactory hygienic condition”

  • Human rights organisation, Africa Unite, recently hosted a dialogue between City of Cape Town health inspectors and mostly immigrant business owners in Mitchells Plain.
  • The meeting follows recent conflict between immigrant shop owners and City officials which the organisation believe was “misunderstandings” over health and safety requirements.
  • The inspectors highlighted some compliance issues which included sleeping inside their ceiling, toilets being in a bad condition, lack of ventilation, and keeping pets.
  • But Somali shop owners explained that they are struggling to meet the City’s requirements, mostly because they do not have the necessary documents. This is largely due to failures and delays at Home Affairs.

“We come unannounced not to catch you doing wrong things, but to ensure that your shop is in satisfactory hygienic condition and is documented correctly,” says Lerato Tswele, a City of Cape Town health inspector.

Tswele was speaking to a group of people, most of whom are immigrants, who run small businesses like spaza shops in Mitchells Plain. The dialogue, mediated by Africa Unite, follows recent conflict between immigrant shop owners and City officials over health and safety requirements.

According to Lelethu Sisakazi Nogwavu of Africa Unite, “City inspectors go to the immigrant shops and start fighting with them because the immigrants [store owners] don’t understand why the inspector is visiting them. We want to educate them of the legal requirements to run a business in South Africa. Immigrants told us they feel intimidated by the City but this was a misunderstanding.”

During the meeting, Tswele explained that the law gave them the authority to make unannounced visits and conduct searches to ensure businesss are compliant as stipulated by the National Health Act. All food stores must have a Certificate of Acceptability issued by the municipality and it should be visibly displayed. There should also be no smoking in the shop, she said.

“The food in your shop is for public consumption. If the food was for your family, we would not impose on you. Sometimes when we come to the shop we are told to come later or another day. That is not how we work,” she said.

Some of the issues health inspectors encountered at different businesses included people sleeping in the same space where they store food to be sold to the public, sleeping inside their ceiling, toilets in a bad condition, no ventilation, having pets in a store, and proper lighting in the shop.

Tswele also cautioned the business owners against extortion attempts and urged them to report it to authorities.

Abdul Mohamed Ogas from Somalia told the group that he has lived in Lentegeur for 18 years and runs two shops in Mitchells Plain. He said Somali refugees are struggling to complete the City’s application process, mostly because they do not have the necessary documents. “Many people have not been able to renew their documents since Covid [in 2020] while the status of others has been pending for five years now,” said Ogas.

“Home Affairs is still failing to provide services. We still stand in long queues in very cold weather. And at the end of the day, they tell us to come back the following day,” he said.

Responding to complaints that law enforcement had delayed responses to incidents reported by immigrant store owners, officer Eugene Galetta said, “If you feel in a way that you have been discriminated against or an officer treated you unfairly, there are reporting channels.”

He said the main complaints they receive from residents are about shops being open late and “bad characters hanging around”.

Adrian Jackson, representing Home Affairs at the meeting, refused to answer questions from the refugees who complained about their battles to get documents. He only said, “It is out of my scope.”

In response to GroundUp, Mayco Member for Community Services and Health, Patricia Van der Ross, said 1,265 inspections were done in the Mitchells Plain area so far this year.

“Some of the challenges are that businesses are not sticking to operating hours in terms of the land use regulations. Some shop owners stay in their stores, either for economic reasons, or for safety reasons.

“Acceptable food handling and stock management practices are also of key importance, as well as overall hygiene standards. The session hosted was to highlight some of the behaviours that are contrary to existing legislation or bylaws,” she said.

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