Four trucks full of Red Ants – so named because of their red overalls – are parked outside the Hillbrow magistrate’s court. I asked them where they were going, but they couldn’t, or wouldn’t tell me.
The trucks set off and I follow them on foot, easily keeping pace. They pull up outside a block of flats – Castle Blaney, just next to Park Station – and the Red Ants jump out, forming a line outside the nine-storey building.
It’s still early, and a cold morning. The residents are gripped with panic. They begin throwing their possessions: furniture, televisions, beds, mattresses, kettles and microwaves from the windows on to Leyds Street below.
Others throw black plastic bags of clothes from the balconies, which quickly pile up. There are loud whistles, and pedestrians scatter as possessions rain down. One man drops two bottles of whisky from his fourth-floor window; they land on a mattress.
From the fourth floor a burly man slowly opens his worn curtain. He looks down on the street, littered with belongings. The guards shout: ” Phuma wena! Phuma wena! [Move out!]”
The man lets the curtain fall and moves away from the window.
Wall of Ants
The Red Ants, armed with crowbars, wooden sticks and rifles, form a wall in front of the entrance. They appear to be giving the residents a chance to gather their possessions before they enter the building.
A thickset Red Ants man then starts directing 10 or so of them into the building. They emerge minutes later carrying furniture and clothes, and add them to the growing piles on the street. Residents rummage through them and claim their goods. Broken glass from television screens and mirrors litters the ground.
Residents stand next to their possessions. A man keeps watch over a keyboard, a drum kit and an amplifier.
A Red Ant steps out of the building, carrying two black rubbish bags of clothes. He hands the bags over to a woman in pink pyjamas. The woman gives him R20. “This is what dwellers do when they want the Red Ants to handle their goods with care,” the woman tells me. “They offer to pay them.”
A barefoot girl of about three years old has been crying since I arrived. One woman has been keeping an eye on her, and says she is looking for her mother, who got lost in the crowd.
Alice Bopape (74), a domestic worker at Rantjiespark in Midrand, says someone phoned her, alerting her about the eviction. She has lived in Castle Blaney since 1985 with her grandson. “I heard rumours yesterday that we might be kicked out, but there was no one to confirm them,” she says.
It is now after 5pm, and still the eviction carries on. The Red Ants look tired. Some squat or sit on the ground. A group of four take turns drinking from a quart of Hansa.
Mood of desperation
There is a mood of desperation among the residents. Others speak to relatives on their cellphones, asking for accommodation. “We don’t know where we are going to sleep,” says Alex Mabunda, a man wearing a green cap, as he feeds yoghurt to his two-year-old.
Resident Lydia Ledwaba, wearing a doek, bustles to the entrance, and shouts: ” Mamelang! Mamelang! [Listen to me!] We have won the case. The judge at the high court says we can move back.”
The residents scream. Some shake their heads. They slowly pack up their scattered goods and carry them inside.
The Red Ants now walk away from the scene. ” Sizobuya! [We will be back!],” they shout.
True enough, three weeks later, they returned to Castle Blaney. A man living in a nearby flat says they fired shots when residents refused to move. About a dozen people were injured in the melee. In a replay, possessions were again piled on the pavement.
“The municipality is failing these residents,” says Ledwaba after the second eviction. “They should have provided us with alternative accommodation.”
Last month the Gauteng MEC for human settlements, Jacob Mamabolo, signed a memorandum of understanding with the Red Ant Security and Eviction Services. The memorandum says the Red Ants need to carry out evictions in a “humane manner”, and must give notice of 48 hours to the department’s housing unit head before an eviction order is carried out.
The intention is “to inform evictees of the proposed eviction so that they are prepared and are not caught unawares”.
Department spokesperson Motsamai Motlhaolwa said this week the department would in future distribute pamphlets to those about to be evicted.
Red Ants managing director Johan Bosch said he has spent millions of rands training his employees to “show compassion” during evictions.
The compassion training was also done for his other 2 000 full-time employees working in other projects.
He refused to disclose the number of security guards working for him, but said they have all been properly trained. He said the guards are among 8 000 part-time employees who are called upon when there is work for them to do.
Bosch declined to answer more questions posed by the Mail & Guardian, asking that they be sent to him in writing, but successive attempts by the M&G over the past three weeks to obtain answers in this way have been unsuccessful.
Castle Blaney resident Junior Poulten says he moved in during the 1980s. He said he thought the Red Ants were acting on behalf of the City of Johannesburg to evict them for failing to settle R6-million in unpaid electricity bills.
City spokesperson Gabu Tugwana denied this, saying the city was only part of the court proceedings to ensure that residents were provided with alternative accommodation.
Castle Blaney residents attempt to preserve their belongings on the pavement outside the building. (All photos by Oupa Nkosi)
Tugwana said the liquidator of Castle Blaney, Christiaan de Wet, had applied for the eviction order, granted by Judge Haseena Mayat on May 12 2014.
“The unlawful occupiers were supposed to vacate the premises on or before June 13 2014,” he said.
Tugwana said the Red Ants “are often used by the sheriffs’ office and private liquidators, who will be better placed to address your questions about their eviction activities”.
Legal researcher at the Socio-Economic Rights Institute of South Africa Michael Clark said evictions take place “constantly” and that people “are scared of the Red Ants because they are violent and abusive”.
In November 2013 Clark conducted research to explore how evictions expose the inability of the municipalities to provide people with houses. He says the government is constitutionally bound to provide accommodation to those rendered homeless by evictions.
Recently, a group of people who claim they were unlawfully evicted from their flats in Johannesburg since 2002 met at the Methodist Church in Prichard Street to plan how they could reclaim their flats.
The evictees’ de facto leader, King Sibiya, said the victims were thrown out into the street by the Red Ant security guards. He said the first step would be to fight against the evictions by Red Ants in the inner city.
At the meeting, a woman in a black dress asked: “When will the sheriff of the court stop serving the eviction orders, and [stop] the Red Ants kicking us out of the buildings we have lived in for years?”
“Where I used to stay in Madulatsela building in Newtown, a fellow resident gave birth outside the building after she was kicked out by the Red Ants.”
Sibiya said evictees intended to organise a “class action” lawsuit because “most of the evictions were carried out without court orders”.
Watchdog to dig into human rights abuses
The Private Security Industry Regulatory Authority – the security industry watchdog – told the M&G recently that the Red Ants are being investigated by the organisation after allegations of human rights abuses during evictions were reported in the media.
Spokesperson Siziwe Zuma said the investigation also probed whether the company was using the security guards for evicting people against security regulations, which prohibit such practice.
Zuma said security guards must be used for security purposes only, which excludes evictions.
She said their investigation had found that some in the Red Ants were responsible for evictions, and others worked as security guards. She said she believed the company hires “labourers” for evictions and not security guards.
Meanwhile, it appears that the city continues to do business with the Red Ants despite apparently cutting ties with it in 2005 after it was found the Red Ants had misrepresented its black economic empowerment credentials.
At the time, the M&G reported that the company had named one of its former employees, Selepe Madimetja, as one of the directors without his knowledge.
In the wake of the report the city said it had cut its ties with the Red Ants.
Johannesburg spokesperson Gabu Tugwana deliberately evaded questions relating to the costs of hiring the Red Ants. He said the issues related to procuring the Red Ants services “have been referred to the “procurement and revenue” office, which had failed to provide answers.
Last month the Red Ants demolished 114 shacks in Zandspruit that had been illegally erected on a piece of land earmarked for building houses, according to Tugwana.
In Mogale City, the Red Ants were awarded a three-year security tender last year, according to spokesperson Nkosana Zali. “The municipality has no budget set aside for services because their services are enlisted on an as-and-when basis and paid only when rendered,” he said.
He said the services the Red Ants render to the city “vary from guarding strategic installations when there is a need; situations of protest, land invasions and clean-up programmes post protests”. He said he was not aware of any investigation into the Red Ants.
Red Ants managing director Johan Bosch says his clients are mostly private companies and “almost every” municipality in the country.
Rapula Moatshe is the 2014 Eugene Saldanha fellow for social justice reporting.
- An earlier version of this story indicated that Michael Clark was a senior legal researcher, when in fact he is a legal researcher. In the same version of the story the date was incorrectly stated as November 2003 when in fact it was November 2013, that Clark conducted research to explore how evictions expose the inability of the municipalities to provide people with houses.