Somali shop owners gripped by alarming apprehension over looming turf battle among extortion gangs
By Sandiso Phaliso
Tuesday June 20, 2023
In an unexpected turn of events, Somali spaza shop owners in Philippi found themselves caught in the crossfire of rival gangs, resulting in the forced closure of their shops for an entire day.
Already burdened with paying protection fees to one gang, the shopkeepers were now being targeted by a new extortion syndicate, creating a perplexing and precarious situation for them.
It seems that these protection rackets have become an unconventional form of policing in the township, effectively curbing robberies by bribing criminals. However, this arrangement has now taken a burst of chaotic energy as the competition between the rival syndicates escalates.
On Saturday, the Somali shopkeepers in Philippi had no choice but to close their shops for almost half a day due to the demands of the new criminal syndicate. The men, traveling in a white Avanza, went around to various shops, demanding hefty protection payments ranging from R1,000 to R2,000 per month.
To make matters worse, the shopkeepers were already complying with the demands of another syndicate, adding to their confusion and desperation. With the shops closed, the residents of Philippi were left frantically searching for basic groceries, facing a burst of inconvenience and uncertainty.
Amidst this perplexing situation, fears of a violent turf war between the rival criminal gangs have emerged. Mzikayise Pawu, a local resident, expressed his frustration as he struggled to purchase something as simple as bread, using a significant portion of his money for transportation expenses.
This unexpected turn of events has left the Somali shop owners feeling trapped and exposed. One of them recounted how the new gang instructed them to close their shops for the day, and they reluctantly complied. Upon contacting their fellow shop owners, they discovered that they too had experienced the same ordeal.
Caught in the middle, the shopkeepers now find themselves in a precarious position. They are left with no choice but to pay both gangs for protection, as their lives are at risk if they fail to do so. This perplexing reality of paying two groups of criminals has left them terrified and trapped.
Fearful of retaliation, the shopkeepers rarely report these extortion rackets to the police, leaving them even more vulnerable and exposed. The absence of a formal policing mechanism in the township has allowed these protection rackets to step in and fill the void, putting a twist of perplexity into the local dynamics.
According to an anonymous community leader, before the involvement of the protection rackets, spaza shops were frequently targeted by robberies, resulting in damage to property. However, now these criminal groups ensure that the culprits are apprehended, stolen goods are returned, and damages are repaired.
This unorthodox system has enticed many former criminals to become part of this web of street intelligence, transitioning from breaking into spaza shops to protecting them. The money collected through monthly protection payments, which amounts to a substantial sum considering the number of spaza shops, serves as an income for these young criminals. They use this money to support their households, pay for education, purchase food, furniture, and even improve their living conditions.
In a surprising twist, the community as a whole has also benefited from this unconventional form of protection. With the spaza shops now operating uninterrupted and extending their hours, locals enjoy increased convenience, with some shops remaining open until 11pm instead of the usual 9pm. Additionally, the spaza shops serve as a source of credit, functioning as informal ATMs and even providing loans to trusted customers. Therefore, the protection gangs not only safeguard the spaza shops but also contribute to local policing efforts, resulting in a burst of unexpected complexities.