Covid-19: Lockdown leaves foreign business owners in dire straits

Covid-19: Lockdown leaves foreign business owners in dire straits

- Foreign businesses feel the South African government is xenophobic for excluding them from business relief funds

- Foreign business owners are suffering and cannot feed their families due to not operating during the lockdown

- These businesspeople are anxious that they cannot reopen their businesses due to the backlog of rent as a result of the lockdown

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By Neesha Maharaj - Freelance journalist

While South African small, medium and micro businesses are set to benefit from the government business relief fund in light of the Covid-19 lockdown, foreign-owned business owners are anxious over how they will get their businesses back on track.

Foreigners trading in South Africa need to earn their daily income to survive as many live from hand to mouth. Foreigners running businesses in South Africa are disappointed that the government has not thought of them when allocating funds aimed at business rescue, with one businessman describing the government as “xenophobic”.

Foreign business owners feel the brunt of the lockdown

Efrem Meskele, an Ethiopian national who runs a restaurant specialising in Ethiopian cuisine in West Street, Durban, said his restaurant was his only source of income.

Meskele, who has lived in South Africa for the past 10 years, set up his restaurant eight years ago.

“The restaurant was my only source of income. I have supported my four children and wife with the income from the restaurant.
"For the last six weeks, life has been a living hell. I cannot feed my kids or pay rent for our flat in Victoria Embankment. My landlord asks for the rent daily and there’s nothing I can do.
“I also haven’t been able to pay the R45 000 rent for my restaurant. If I’m back on rent I don’t know if my landlord will let me continue operating.
"I don’t have the money to pay the full rental on the restaurant. I am doomed if I cannot operate my restaurant again. Things are tough for my family and me,” said Meskele.

Meskele believes the South African government is xenophobic against foreign businesses by not offering any form of financial relief to revive their businesses.

“The South African government knows that refugees support the government with value-added tax. But when there’s a global crisis like the Covid-19 pandemic they exclude us from financial rescue. This is absolutely xenophobic to me,” he said.

Meskele, who is also the chairperson of the Ethiopian Community, said previously ordinary South African citizens were xenophobic against foreigners, now the police was displaying this (xenophobic) sentiment.

According to Meskele, the police abuse Ethiopian nationals on the streets daily, steal their money and raid their shops for petty reasons.

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Joshua Bitangalo, formerly from the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) who operates a barbershop on Warwick Avenue in the Durban CBD, said he has four children to support and no income.

He is a widower and had used the little savings he had to survive over the last six weeks.

Bitangalo, who lives in Ntuzuma, Durban has been in South Africa for 20 years.

“I’m fortunate in that I had a little bit of savings and I was able to buy a flat so I don’t have to pay rent, other foreign businessmen have to pay rent.
"I am the leader for all foreign barbers in Durban and we are all waiting to re-open our businesses. Now that all my money is finished I have to ask NGOs for food parcels.
“We feel the South African government has rejected all foreign businesses by not offering us any business rescue funding. Our futures are uncertain,” he added.

Another Congolese businessman, Willy Chikuru, who operates an internet café in Isipingo, said life has been difficult since the lockdown. He lives from hand to mouth and needed the income from his business to support himself and four children.

Chikuru said he received a once-off payment of R900 from an NGO, which is now finished, and he doesn’t know how he will feed his family.

“My only hope of recovering from the lockdown is re-opening my business; however I’m now two months behind on my business rent which is R4 300 per month.
"The South African government has ignored us by not including us in the business relief funds. At a time of crisis the government should not be political but help foreign businesses too,” said Chikuru.

Lockdown cuts food supply for refugees who live hand to mouth

Onismo Muzan, a Zimbabwean national who works with the United Nations High Commission for Refugees as an Assistant Project Coordinator in the KZN Office, said the major problem foreign businessmen face is not being able to trade during the lockdown because they live hand to mouth.

“Without trading, our members have no income, therefore they cannot meet their personal expenses such as rent and buying food. We have tried to help where possible but our resources are limited and we were only able to assist the most vulnerable,” said Muzan.

Muzan said they have asked small foreign business owners to apply for business rescue.

“We are optimistic that they might get some financial help from the government,” he added.

Yasmin Rajah, director of NGO Refugee Social Services, said in general, South Africa doesn’t provide a package of social services or support for refugees and asylum seekers to meet their needs, so people need to earn a living to survive.

“The fact that the means to earn a living has been stopped with the lockdown means most refugee businesses don’t have reserves thus are severely affected.
"These businesses support people so they should be considered for government assistance. A number of the businesses also support South African workers,” she added.

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