Robbers target foreign hawkers in Port Elizabeth

| Joseph Chirume
Two Zimbabweans hawking their wares in Motherwell. Photo by Joseph Chirume.

Foreign nationals trading in Motherwell, Port Elizabeth, live in fear following a spike in robberies in recent months. The traders say they are being targeted by criminals who rob them of their goods and then sell the loot to locals at a heavily discounted price. Most robberies happen in daylight.

The hawkers are vulnerable because they carry their goods with them to make door to door deliveries. They sell on credit and after striking a deal they return on an agreed date to collect payment.

Most are refugees and asylum seekers from Zimbabwe, Mozambique, Malawi and Lesotho.

Earlier this month, 37-year-old Tsitsi Mhere from Zimbabwe was robbed by four men at gunpoint. The criminals took her cash and robbed her of 20 mops and eleven containers of skin lotion. The combined value of the goods was R1,900. Mhere had borrowed money from a friend to buy the stock.

“I have been selling mops and brooms on credit for more than ten years,” says Mhere. “We were safe to carry out our business then.This is the only way I am able to support my children in Zimbabwe.The criminals pulled out a gun and asked me to choose between life and death. I gave them everything that I had. They then ran into houses nearby with my goods.”

Tsitsi, who is diabetic, says her condition worsened after the attack. She says she has scaled down since the robbery and as a result she is struggling to pay her debts and send money to her mother in Zimbabwe who is looking after her four children.

“I have never been robbed before.There were some people in the street, but no one dared to intervene,” says Mhere.

Charles Shamu, 56, also from Zimbabwe, has survived three robberies in one month in Motherwell.

“I was in the street carrying wooden ironing boards that I manufacture. I sell one for R300 on credit. I also accept R250 if it’s cash. My wife, Margaret, was following me when five men stopped in a van beside me.The driver politely asked me for the price of the ironing boards. I had not even finished telling him when one of them pulled out a large knife and ordered me to drop everything in their van. I resisted and a tussle ensued.

“One of them stabbed me in my arm … My wife was screaming. I think that saved me because the criminals drove off in haste with eight ironing boards leaving three that had fallen to the ground … The injury was so deep and very painful.”

Charles said he was discouraged from reporting the incident to the police by other members of the community who feared the criminals would hunt him down if he reported them.

Alberto Jonas, 49, has been robbed numerous times. He left Mozambique in 1993, fleeing the civil war. He ended up in Port Elizabeth after living in Johannesburg for five years.

“I sell women’s handbags and designer clothes which I buy in bulk in Johannesburg,” says Jonas. “These goods attract criminals because they are status symbols. I have lost count of how many times I have been robbed. Some criminals know me so they send their friends who I don’t know to rob me.”

“I want to go back home, but each time I have saved enough money for the journey, criminals rob me … That’s the irony of my life,” says Jonas.

Lovemore Munemo, secretary general of the Zimbabwe Association in South Africa, said, “We have received 16 such cases in a space of five weeks where foreigners are targeted and robbed of their valuables in Motherwell alone. It is a new phenomenon. Some of the victims are old men and women who are just defenceless. We will engage with the community and ensure that our members are safe to carry out their businesses.”

Ward councillor Aaron Nyikilana condemned the criminals. “Anybody who feels threatened should approach me. I am prepared to hold a meeting with the victims and assure them of their safety in the presence of the police.”

Luthando Ziba, a community leader in NU12, one of the crime hot spots, discouraged community members from buying stolen goods. “Members of the community should desist from buying stolen goods. If we stop doing that then criminals will have no one to sell their stolen loot to. Crime is a double edged sword. The criminals will also turn against us one day, so let’s stop them now.”

Police spokesperson Andre Beetge said he was unaware of the robberies in this specific street in Motherwell. “I will pass on this information so police can be on the lookout in these specific areas. Victims should report such incidents to police rather than keep quiet.”

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