Foreigners in Johannesburg struggle under pandemic regulations
Covid-19 and the subsequent lockdown have had a devastating impact on many business owners and employees. Included in this scenario are foreign nationals and undocumented people who have had to try to pick themselves up in usually packed commercial trade areas such as Fordsburg and China Mall, experiencing low recovery .The ability to easily find parking on the usually packed and busy streets of Fordsburg on a Saturday where road rage, traffic and double parking were a staple no more, was already a tell-tale sign of the devastating effect the covid-19 pandemic has had on businesses and their employees.
Many were forced to shut their doors for over three months, with no source of income, after the hard lockdown was implemented in South Africa on March 27. This resulted in more than three million jobs being lost between February and April, and over 1.5 million people who had jobs but no pay, according to a Nids-Cram survey of 7 000 people. Some were able to keep their businesses and jobs, but are still far from full recovery.
Fordsburg, a hub for foreign-owned businesses and migrant workers, started off as a place where locals and foreigners would sell goods in the open Fordsburg Square flea market. This created an affordable marketplace for selling a variety of items such as fruits and vegetables, Indian and Pakistani spices, replica clothing items and pirated DVDs.
The opportunities for foreigners grew with the influx of shoppers looking for affordable haircuts, groceries, food stalls and established restaurants. The conflicting aromas of the different restaurants were soon overtaken by the scent of curries and chicken tikka, the sweet smell of hubbly bubbly flavours, and incense as Indian, Pakistani, Bangladeshi and Egyptian nationals saw the growth of the commercial trade in the area. This allowed foreigners to generate sufficient revenue to open shops, and created a sense of community and a piece of their home countries as they drew on their common nationalities.
South Africa in general has been an economic magnet for many migrants searching for better job opportunities, but a true indication of the numbers is hard to quantify. It is estimated by the African Centre for Migration and Society that there were two million international migrants of working age (15-64) in South Africa in 2017, representing 5.3% of the country’s labour force. The International Organisation for Immigration’s (IOM’s) 2020 World Migration report estimates that this number is as high as 4.2 million as of 2019, accounting for 7.2% of the population.
A couple scorned by lockdown woes
With the lockdown, however, Fordsburg has struggled to regain its allure. On the now desolate Park Drive stands a beauty parlour that was forced to close its doors for three months due to its “non-essential” status. Only those that provided food, medicine, banking services, healthcare, fuel, internet and municipal services could remain open.
The parlour owner, Samim Patel, does threading, waxing, facials and cuts hair. But upon entering her shop, now overflowing with her one-year-old’s toys, she was found sitting in anticipation, for just one customer to walk in. Looking out at the empty streets, a slow reminiscent smile spread over her face as she said, “Before the lockdown, we never even had the time to eat. I even remember those days when I used to have a biscuit and water and carry on working, because there was no time to eat.”
Her shop of seven years, which used to open from 8am to 8pm, now with the lack of foot traffic sometimes opens at 10am and closes at 3pm.
Regardless of many businesses opening their doors again, the fear of contracting covid-19 has overpowered the desire to seek grooming. Samim’s smile quickly vanished as she brought herself back to the present, “I don’t really get customers anymore. Sometimes I get R20 and sometimes nothing at all. I had regular customers for 10, 12 years. They’ll phone or message and ask how am I, how’s the baby, but they don’t want to come because they’re scared of covid.”
Sameer Patel, her husband, felt the full brunt of the lockdown as his one-year-old business venture went up in smoke. He had to completely close down his newly established curtain shops in Ormonde and Boksburg. The word “tension” was uttered frequently, and his face crumpled when asked about his shops. Both he and his wife struggled with sleeping and eating because of the stress over the future of their businesses.
“It’s a terrible feeling. I can’t sleep,” he said as his face turned red, sweat streamed down his forehead and his fists clenched.
Terrified that her shop could close too, and with the burden of owing thousands in accumulating rent, Samim said, “Some of the nights I couldn’t even sleep. I didn’t know what was going to happen. There’s food on the table, but you can’t eat because you’re stressing. Until today, days are like that.”
Sameer was reluctant to speak about the loss, but the little he did say caused water to well up in the bottom of his eyes. Fighting to hold back his tears as they threatened to fall, he said, “I don’t want to talk about it because it’s really stressing me. I was opening a big business and bought a truck for it, but it didn’t work just because of the lockdown. I sold all the things under cost, so it’s actually costing me more than R500 000.” His employees were paid with whatever he had left, and went back to previous work.
The lockdown affected the economy immensely as South Africa’s GDP contracted by 51% in quarter two. The government, to minimise the impact of covid-19, offered relief to businesses in the form of the Debt Relief Fund and the Unemployment Insurance Fund (UIF). A special covid-19 social relief of distress grant of R350 a month was also set up for those that lost employment.
The Debt Relief Fund was aimed at small businesses that experienced financial difficulties during the lockdown. The requirements, however, automatically excluded this group as businesses had to be 100% owned by South African citizens, at least 70% of the employees had to be South African nationals and they had to be tax-compliant and registered with SARS. Sameer and Samim, armed with only work permits, were not eligible for this fund.
The many hoops to jump through
Many shops located in one of Fordsburg’s main attractions, the Oriental Plaza, saw the same fate as the lockdown took the familiar overcrowding of shoppers away. Built in the 1970s as a shopping centre for Indian traders, because of its low prices it became a haven for bargain hunters where finding space to even walk, was difficult. Bursting with a multitude of shops, the Plaza sells curtains, kitchenware, colourful fabrics and traditional Indian clothes.
Opposite the now strangely deserted parking lot of the Plaza stands a small barber shop, which can house only three customers at a time. Outside the barber shop sits 46-year-old Indian national Imtiyaz Shaik, with his single employee standing in the doorway with the same look of anticipation and desperation as Samim.
The lockdown led to a 26% increase in food insecurity and hunger, due to income shocks and job losses. The Nids-Cram survey found that 47% of respondents reported that their households ran out of money to buy food in April 2020.
Shaik has three children, and worry occupied his days as he experienced difficulty buying groceries, paying school fees and the uncertainty that still surrounds his barber shop. But with the help of his friends and clients bringing him groceries during that time, he was able to get by.
The UIF provided funds to registered companies unable to pay their employees. This meant that foreign nationals who were not legally documented or legally employed were not eligible to receive this. As of October 27, R1.6 billion has been paid to declared foreign nationals, but there are still delays, with them receiving their payments much later than their South African counterparts. The reasoning provided by the UIF was that its system uses ID numbers and does not recognise passport numbers, as well as extra verification processes required for foreign nationals.
Instructions on how to apply for government relief, and the rules pertaining to who could receive it, caused confusion among some foreign nationals. Shaik explained, “The government announced that they want to help, but actually we don’t know the process and rules of going to government for help. They said they were going to give you a link to go through. But I try, I try, how many times I try to get through the link, but I can’t get it right.”
No work no pay
The China Mall in Crown Mines, like the Plaza, is perfectly designed for foreigners as it allows shop owners to conduct business under the radar with many who do not pay tax. Bordered by large containers of goods, China Mall is famous for its cheap products ranging from clothes and bridal wear to toys, homeware and electronics. It is also where traders come to buy in bulk, with the cheap wholesale prices.
China Mall has been largely affected by the pandemic due to the stigma surrounding the mall and Chinese nationals. Finding parking was abnormally easy when visiting this bargain-filled mall, which has now seen an influx of PPE and infrared thermometers occupying several shops. Many shops that it previously housed are non-existent due to the loss of customers and the high rentals, ranging from R20 000 to R90 000, depending on size. This is due to the intense competition in the mall and the high volumes of passing trade, where whoever offers to pay more rent gets the space.
Located west of the mall is a food court owned mainly by foreign nationals and which shut down in February, before the lockdown, because of that stigma. One of the businesses was Anish Sheth’s fast food restaurant, which left him and his employees without a salary for four months. This is because he pays his employees on a per day basis, as most of his employees are undocumented and therefore do not want to be on the employees register. This automatically excludes them from the UIF, Debt Relief Fund and R350 grant.
UN DESA estimates there are 100 000 Malawian and 376 668 Mozambican migrant workers in South Africa, driven by the prospect of better jobs and escaping the poverty of their home countries. Etoo Kuiuwangu, an undocumented Malawian national, and Malemu Baleaa, an undocumented Mozambican national, work for Sheth making all types of Indian food in an aroma-filled, tiny corner next to the main kitchen of the restaurant.
Kuiuwanga spoke of receiving no money during this time. “It’s very difficult, because when you don’t have any money it’s fucked up. There’s not even supper, sometimes.” He had to lend from people to try and look after his wife and two-year-old son.
Baleaa, who has been working there for 13 years, expressed the same, with having to look after three children. “During the lockdown I took credit from someone. Now I’m working so I can pay them. It’s a little bit better now, but it’s not yet 100%.”
The financial impact of those months of complete shutdown, according to Sheth, resulted in a loss of approximately R800 000. “Now, as a business, it’s not like before because people are still scared to come to the restaurant, especially China Mall.” He explained that they are not making their turnover, which was previously about R300 000 a month. With an average loss of R100 000, their turnover now ranges from R180 000 to R190 000.
Given their undocumented status, Kuiuwanga was stoic about his non-payment during that time, but displayed a tinge of anger when speaking about it. “I’m working here for five years, but I never get anything. So when he [Sheth] opened in May, I just came to work because I don’t have any choice. I’m going to do what? Nothing.” He is using the money that he is making now to slowly pay back the loan he took out.
Some business owners, like Samim and Shaik, await the new year in hopes that it will return to normal, using what little income they make now. Sheth extended his restaurant hours from nine hours to 12. “Recovery is nothing. Still we are struggling and battling with reversing all of that [the financial impact of the lockdown].”
Others, like Sameer, have sought employment elsewhere. He went from owning his own curtain shops to working in someone else’s curtain shop: “You have to do anything, anyhow, because if you have a family you can’t just sit with your hands, you have to do something to get food for your family and everything else.”