Minister Khumbudzo Ntshavheni says the government is concerned about the rise in food poisoning incidents.
• The government wants to audit how many foreign-owned shops are operational in the country.
• It wants to allow traditional leaders to keep a register of foreign nationals present in communities.
• Lawyers for Human Rights warned the proposal was dangerous because it could fuel xenophobia.
Foreign-owned spaza shops are set to face renewed pressure from the government as traditional leaders and municipalities may soon be expected to conduct audits and keep records of the number of foreign nationals in their communities.
Minister in the Presidency Khumbudzo Ntshavheni said on Monday that Cabinet was concerned about the rise in the number of reports of children being poisoned by consuming allegedly contaminated food from spaza shops, sometimes leading to death.
However, the link between the illness or death of children to food from spaza shops has not yet been proven.
Cabinet`s concerns were qualified during a briefing from a migration workshop, which concluded with outcomes that could spell a contentious time for foreign-owned businesses in townships and rural areas.
The government wants to introduce `omnibus by-laws` to strengthen the hand of municipalities and traditional leaders in enforcing business by-laws.
It includes the inspection of spaza shops by inspection teams from labour, health, business development and home affairs.
Another enforcement effort is to audit spaza shops in villages and townships by registering them with municipalities and traditional leaders, Ntshavheni said.
However, this is being met with extreme concern by human rights groups.
Lawyers for Human Rights described the announcement as deeply concerning, saying the government was shifting the blame.
Sharon Ekambaram, the head of the refugee and migrants` rights programme at Lawyers for Human Rights, said the proposals were unfairly focused on blaming foreign nationals.
She said it would reinforce the growing hostility against a minority.
Ekambaram told News24:
Where is the evidence and proof that all of the people who run spaza shops are undocumented [immigrants] or that they do not have the permits to run these businesses? Once again, this shows that the government`s stance is based on unsubstantiated [assumptions]. The fewer than two million foreign nationals present in our country cannot be the source of the ills we face as a country.
`There should be standards for everyone to comply. It can`t be only for foreign nationals. We can`t have laws that simply target them because that is racist and xenophobic, and goes against our constitutional values. Laws and concerns around the selling of expired food should be a concern for every business, even supermarkets, not just foreign-owned spaza shops.`
Ekambaram added that it was illegal to allow traditional leaders to keep lists of foreigners, and several court judgments had pointed to its illegality.
She described it as akin to the apartheid government keeping a record of black people during apartheid.
`It is categorically illegal, and there have been judgments handed down where you can`t even go and close off a community or go door-to-door asking people. It is unconstitutional to do that. The danger of this is that, tomorrow, it will give traditional leaders the same powers to keep an eye on ethnic groups.
`Our Constitution and the Bill of Rights are very clear on the rights of everyone living in our country. You cannot just keep lists of people,` Ekambaram said.
Meanwhile, the Congress of Traditional Leaders of SA welcomed the strengthening of traditional leaders` powers.
Its representative, Zolani Mkiva, described the proposals as `progressive`.
`Traditional leaders have to be at the forefront of ensuring that their people are protected,` Mkiva said.
On whether such targeted proposals were xenophobic, Mkiva said all businesses must be registered to enable a swift accounting mechanism when there were reports of deaths because of expired food.
All businesses should register, and there is nothing discriminatory about that. If a South African is selling expired food, he is actually selling poison, so all spaza shops must be registered and monitored. The issue of the legality is a subjective notion because, if people are doing wrong things with the idea that the law protects them, that law is wrong.
An Eastern Cape shop owner told News24 he was worried about all spaza shop owners being tagged as sellers of expired products.
Alex (who would only provide his first name), who is originally from Ethiopia, and has lived in South Africa for nine years, said he had a permit.
He found it unacceptable that some vendors were selling expired goods to consumers.
`I do not sell expired food. I throw away food that is not in good condition. It is not right to sell people expired food. My stock is kept up to date and I have a permit,` Alex said.
He added that he was not against legislation to control food safety, but he was worried about the unintended effects this could have on the movement of foreign nationals.
In the meantime, the ANC recently echoed the political rhetoric of clamping down on foreign nationals in Gauteng, with the party`s leadership proposing restrictions on how many foreign nationals could be employed at one business in the province.
ANC Gauteng leaders Panyaza Lesufi and TK Nciza said the party was concerned about unemployment levels in the province, and the proposed restrictions were seen as a move to strengthen the opportunities available to South Africans.