Pretoria - It is business as usual at Big Pocket Supermarket in Phomolong, Mamelodi East, as men, women and children stream in and out with goods bought in the well-stocked shop.
Some come in to buy airtime, others soft drinks, a bar of soap or a packet of mealie meal; others need paraffin or leave with grocery bags full of necessities: “It is the kind of corner shop every community needs,” Lungiswa Zolani said as she left with a packet of powdered soap.
She was in the middle of doing her laundry when she ran out. It would take only a few minutes to get back to the washing, she said.
Big Pocket is a foreign-owned shop at the heart of Pomolong in the township’s Mandela Village, and for most of June residents had no access to it. The shop, owned by local businessman Norman Mamogale and run by a group of Somali cousins, was the site of the first of a three-week looting spree that hit the informal settlement and sparked fears of xenophobic attacks.
The trouble started when a few youths stole from the shop, one of them being shot by the owner. A looting spree followed the Somali nationals being removed from the scene by the police.
The looting spread through Pomolong, young men running from one end of the township to the other, forcing their way into Somali-owned shops and cleaning them out of everything.
The youths moved in organised groups and managed to cart heavy equipment, including fridges, from the shops, attacking some of the shopkeepers and badly injuring some.
More than 300 Somali men fled the township, some with nothing more than the clothes they were wearing, and this forced local community structures to get together to find solutions to the lawlessness.
Criminal elements were blamed for the incidents, which left three dead and no one arrested. While they were out of the township, some of the Somali nationals were called by community members living near their shops who begged them to return, assuring them of their safety.
“We sent a strong warning to the unruly youths around here and promised them they would be dealt with very harshly if they ever threatened foreign businesses again,” said Jabulani Siboza, a tavern owner.
Pushing a wheelbarrow full of soft drink bottles he had just bought from Big Pocket, Siboza said they would not tolerate the disruption of normal life, which included easy access to goods.
Jerry Matlawa, who was in the shop to buy airtime, said: “The people who did this to our brothers here need to be brought to book; they cannot get away with it.”
A group of young mothers with children on their backs were casually looking around the homeware section, selecting containers for storing baby food.
They complained about the long walk and sometimes taxi trips they had been forced to take during the closure of the shops. One said: “This shop is the best stocked shop for miles. There is never a time when you need something - from groceries to hardware to hair care products - that you would not find it (here).”
They agreed that everything was cheaper, fresher and easier to access. “They run a business better than any local businessman ever could,” said a shopper, Thuli.
Shopkeeper Ahmed Abdul and his cousins said they were grateful for the support given by their customers. While they could never shake off the fear of another looting spree, they relied heavily on the promises of protection.
“Although it was locals who turned against us, it is locals who have again allowed us back into their midst and we feel like a part of the community again,” Abdul said.