'Risky-food' hysteria fuels looting
Foreign traders fear for lives after orgy of violence in Gauteng townships this week
The looting that rocked Soweto this week and left four people dead was prompted partly by the illegal confiscation of food that was above board and safe to eat, experts say.
While some of the food seized by police and municipal health inspectors was suspected of being unlawfully repackaged, much of it was merely past its best-before date and could still be legally sold. Shop owners would therefore have a legal case against the government, said consumer lawyer Janusz Luterek.
But the greater cost was the lives lost.
In the first incident, on Wednesday, a Somali shop owner opened fire to scare away looters, allegedly accidentally killing Banele Qhayiso, 23.
Banele's brother, Mandlekosi Qhayiso, told the Sunday Times Banele had not been there as a looter but as a paying customer.
"He left the house saying he was going to buy bread and snuff. While he was there, the community members came in, wanting to do this thing of theirs of looting. Unfortunately, Banele was inside. The next thing, a shot was fired," Mandlekosi said.
Police said another person died after being stabbed in the chest in Mofolo, while a third person was shot in the head in White City. Their names have not been released. In all three cases, foreign shop owners were arrested. Twenty-seven people have been arrested in connection with the looting.
On Wednesday night Nolulama Mcwerha, 34, was shot dead in Tshepisong, on the West Rand, where residents were looting.
PEOPLE WERE BREAKING INTO A SHOP
Mcwerha's husband, Peter Matjatje, 41, said he was so heartbroken he could not find the words to tell their children, aged three, eight, 11 and 13.
"I asked her friends and relatives to explain to them. I am devastated."
He recounted how Mcwerha left home about 11pm when she heard noises outside.
"People were breaking into a shop and she wanted to see what was happening."
Luterek told the Sunday Times it was not illegal to sell food past its best-before date, as long as it was still safe to eat.
"Expiry of foods is a misnomer in most cases. I personally would eat a pasta sauce in a jar which is two years past its date as long as it was properly sealed and there was no damage to the lid or jar. This applies to most products with a best-before date."
"The use-by date is a different story and applies to perishable foodstuffs such as ready-made meals and meat. These products should be treated with care," Luterek said.
The rules are set out in the Consumer Protection Act.
The allegations of "fake food" emerged on social media last week as videos were shared on Twitter showing bread rolls that were manufactured in what appeared to be private homes or shops.
They sparked an emotional response from various organisations.
On Monday, the national health department said municipal health inspectors would investigate the reports of expired or fake food being sold.
Inspectors, known as environmental health practitioners, visited township spaza shops.
Raids on Tuesday and Thursday uncovered drinks, sweets and chips past their best-before dates, which were seized.
MAYOR ACCUSED SHOPKEEPERS
On Thursday, Ekurhuleni mayor Mzwandile Masina, accompanied by journalists, environmental health inspectors and police, visited foreign-owned spaza shops in Reiger Park, on the East Rand, and confiscated food.
He then took to social media to accuse shopkeepers of selling "dangerous" food.
This, he explained, was food without sell-by dates, expired food and bread made by little-known, smaller companies.
Rose Nkosi, president of the South African Spaza & Tuckshop Association, added fuel to the fire, accusing foreign shop owners of "creaming our people" by buying goods in bulk at a discount just before their expiry date and then selling them cheaply.
On Friday, members of the association marched to Johannesburg mayor Herman Mashaba's office to demand he stop foreigners from running spaza shops.
Selva Mudaly, head of the South African Institute of Environmental Health, said environmental health practitioners were not permitted to confiscate food that was past its best-before date, as it was not illegal to sell it.
Mudaly said inspectors could remove only food without labels, or damaged, rotten or leaking goods, which would then be destroyed. He said he believed the looting this week was not about the sale of unsafe food but xenophobia.
His view was supported by the African Centre for Migration & Society at Wits University.
Researcher Jean Pierre Misago said: "Communities find different reasons for attacks. They mobilise people by feeding them stories that are not necessarily correct.
"This is a clear case of xenophobic violence. In previous instances WhatsApp messages calling for violence have originated from local business associations, whose members want to get rid of foreign competition."
Police spokesperson Col Lungelo Dlamini said 27 people had been arrested for immigration offences.