Immigrant shop owners in Diepsloot, Johannesburg, have accused police of extorting money and goods from them under the guise of a “crime stabilisation” operation.
They have claimed they have lost thousands of rands in goods because of these alleged shakedowns by police, and GroundUp has seen footage given by the shop owners which shows police going through shelves, taking cigarettes and leaving with the cigarettes.
Some shop owners have photographs of vehicles which they say are used by police who took their cash. Others have security footage of police going through their things.
The shop owners say police search their shops for illegal firearms or goods, mostly at night, turning their shops and sleeping quarters upside down. Sometimes police come after shops have closed and demand to be let in.
Police have conducted raids on the businesses who are accused of selling fake or expired goods and having fake asylum documents, and demand cash to save the immigrants from arrest, say the shop owners.
Business owners claim they have lost thousands of rands in South African manufactured cigarettes, which they buy from local wholesalers. They say police officers also take cooldrinks, airtime, tinned food and cash.
But police said the raids are part of an operation ordered by Minister of Police, Bheki Cele, which is being done with SARS.
Diepsloot police spokesperson Tinyiko Mathebula said: “Some members of the Diepsloot community forwarded a memorandum of demands to Minister Cele requesting that special police units be deployed to stabilise crime in the community. In response, a crime stabilisation operation, which is a daily operation targeting all shops in Diepsloot, started about a month ago.”
Mathebula said shop owners should report any allegations of wrongdoing by police.
‘Daily the police harass us’
But most shop owners whose asylum documents are not up to date due to irregularities at the home affairs say they are afraid to report incidents.
The operation came after xenophobic attacks erupted in Diepsloot in January following the death of a police officer who is alleged to have been killed by an immigrant.
Diepsloot immigrant shop owners say police are making their lives a nightmare.
“This is operation robbery. As if the xenophobic violence was not enough, daily the police harass us. They take our goods and money,” community leader Desta Markos said.
Resident Jackson Moagi says he has seen police accusing immigrants of having fake asylum papers.
“Many people say they end up giving the police money even though they have legal documents,” he says.
“Many shops have been raided at night, with police taking goods and money. We feel that police are abusing their power to oppress immigrants.”
Last Wednesday around 18:00 shop owner Abeta Lire was inside the shop when police arrived.
“They said I should come out so they can do a search. When l refused and asked for a warrant they swore at me and cut the security door with a cutter. They pushed and swore at me.”
He says they did not give him a chance to go inside his sleeping quarters to fetch his asylum documents. They allegedly tied his hands with cables and took cash and airtime.
Lire says he was put into a police van. He was released after he phoned his brother, who brought R1 200.
He has bruises on his hands where he says police tied him up. He says police had already taken goods and cash from the shop in February.
Lire’s landlord, Bethwell Mbengwa, says he witnessed the incident.
“Police pushed him and dragged him inside the van. They are only after money and nothing else,” says Mbengwa.
Abeta Lire says police tied his wrists with cables and took cash and airtime from his shop. (Kimberly Mutandiro, Groundup)
Martin Esamber says he had closed his shop when police banged on the door at 21:00 last Wednesday night.
“They said I must give them money if l do not want them to come inside.
“I gave them R500. They said it was too little and that l should give more. When I told them that I did not have it, they asked for a crate of cold drinks and drove away.”
Another Ethiopian national Abbera Babo says police had paid him a visit last Monday. He has security footage of police searching his things and taking cigarettes.
GroundUp has seen footage which shows police going through shelves, taking cigarettes and leaving with the cigarettes.
“I have been going to home affairs and all l get is appointment letters. The police said they would arrest me if l did not give them money. l gave them R1 500.”
Babo says police also took cigarettes worth R30 000 from his shop in February.
Police visited Mulatu Nurmo’s shop earlier this month, taking cash and goods. He says when he tried to resist they slapped him.
“Police just come to my shop and take what they want. I have lost cash and lots of money in stock. The same police who we are supposed to seek help from, are attacking us,” he says.
Markos took GroundUp to several other shops where owners said they have lost goods and cash.
Dateso Abera has been trying to recover R40 000 worth of South African manufactured cigarettes, which he says police took from him in February.
‘They demanded that we give cold drinks to all officers’
He says officers broke the door to the shop, assaulted him and took the cigarettes, although he showed them an invoice from the wholesaler. One officer went to his shop recently and asked for money in return for the cigarettes, he says.
“We gave him R500 but we still do not have the cigarettes. The cigarettes were given to us on credit by the wholesalers, that is how we work. We invoice the goods and we pay as we sell,” he said.
“I have tried to explain that the police took the cigarettes but the wholesalers do not understand.”
He and his brothers have been running the shop for seven years.
Brothers Solomon and Dester Abebiya say they had just closed their shop two weeks ago when police came around 22:00 and banged on the door. When they opened they saw three police vans parked outside.
“At first they demanded that we give cold drinks to all officers in the vans. When I told them to pay, they demanded that l open the main door to let them search the shop,” says Solomon.
He says during the search the police officers demanded asylum papers.
“When I showed them my asylum document, they said it’s fake. They threatened to arrest my brother who has lost his asylum document and demanded money. I had to give them the money.”
Solomon says the officers went on to take all the cool drinks in the refrigerator, money in the cash box and cigarettes. They threatened to come back, he says.
“This is disappointing because our Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed was in South Africa having talks with President Ramaphosa,” Markos says.
“They spoke of oneness and unity among African brothers but now we are being terrorised. What happened to unity and living in harmony?”