Police officers overlook sacks of allegedly counterfeit goods in Johannesburg CBD on August 7 2019 during a South African Police Service raid. Picture: MICHELE SPATARI/AFP
Police officers overlook sacks of allegedly counterfeit goods in Johannesburg CBD on August 7 2019 during a South African Police Service raid. Picture: MICHELE SPATARI/AFP

SA’s embattled economy could be strained further if the crackdown on informal traders continues unabated, the African Diaspora Forum (ADF) warns.

The forum has asked that an inquiry be launched to establish the facts of the matter. 

This comes in the wake of rising tensions between inner-city traders in Johannesburg — many of them believed to be illegal immigrants — and authorities.

On August 1 a video went viral of vendors attacking police officers who had confiscated counterfeit goods in the city’s CBD. Authorities and political parties banded together to condemn the attack.

Last Wednesday the police, together with police minister Bheki Cele and Gauteng premier David Makhura, among other politicians, returned to the CBD. In subsequent raids counterfeit goods were confiscated, and hundreds of foreigners were arrested. The raid also reportedly uncovered an arms cache that included assault rifles and an AK47.

The ADF — a platform for African migrants to address their concerns on, for example, xenophobia and other forms of discrimination — has thrown its weight behind the traders, saying they are upstanding businesspeople.

Spokesperson Amir Sheikh said the raids should have been conducted in a legal and dignified manner. He said trade in the CBD contributed substantially to the country’s economy, and warned that raiding the inner-city traders “without following due process” could “destabilise the economy”.

“These are not small-time businesses; they are contributing immensely to the GDP of this country and that of the City of Johannesburg.”

Sheikh condemned “any sort of illegalities or criminality, whether it’s emanating from our members or law-enforcement officers”.

Most ADF members are legally documented and running legitimate businesses, he said. “If anyone among them is selling counterfeit goods, we call on the government to deal with them harshly. A criminal is a criminal and ought to be dealt with as a criminal.”

Sheikh said the ADF’s members have been on the receiving end of police harassment and corruption for the past 15 years. This, he said, was highlighted by the fact that seven police officers were reportedly arrested for corruption and defeating the ends of justice after they allegedly tried to resell the counterfeit goods.

“Our claims are not baseless at all. This tells us that there is a lot happening when the [TV] cameras have been switched off,” he said. 

On Wednesday, Tandi Mahambehlala, the chair of parliament’s international relations & co-operation portfolio committee, called for caution when reacting to skirmishes between police and vendors.

“The temptation to resort to an ‘us-against-them’ approach when dealing with foreign nationals should be rejected. We should not respond in a way that may undermine SA’s standing on the global stage,” said Mahambehlala.

“We have a responsibility to lead regional integration and promote intra- and inter-trade among African countries. However, thuggery and criminal elements that seek to destabilise our country in the fight against crime should be dealt with decisively.”

The ADF has proposed that a fact-finding inquiry into last week’s violence be initiated to look, among other things, at the factors that led to the incident and determine how such events could be avoided in future.

“We would like to propose the establishment of a liaison committee that could serve as a channel of communication and mediate conflicts situations,” said Sheikh.