Red Ants in fishy Midvaal deal
Fishermen in red overalls closed off a section of the Vaal Dam in April last year. They launched their boats from a pier of blue barrels, and pulled a net across a finger of the dam. Then they dropped metal rods over the sides of each boat.
For four minutes, electricity flowed across the inlet, stunning fish. These were hauled out of the water and taken to shore.
“We all know that commercial fishing is not allowed in this part of the dam, but here it was going ahead without any of us being informed,” said Corinne Smit. A resident of Vaal Marina on the eastern shore of Gauteng’s most important dam, she started taking photographs. “It was the strangest thing to watch.”
The fishermen were from Red Ant Security, Relocation and Eviction Services, a company with operations in various sectors of the economy. Infamous for evicting people in inner-city Johannesburg, it also runs several farms and the Krugersdorp Nature Reserve.
A published explanation at the time said the company wanted to catch fish to add to the basket of food it was giving to people living around the Vaal.
Despite many attempts by the Mail & Guardian to get more information from the company, no response was forthcoming.
The Gauteng directorate of nature conservation, gave the Red Ants permission to catch fish with a net, but indigenous fish had to be released and only invasive species could be kept – hence the use of stunning. A councillor from the Midvaal municipality, which is run by the Democratic Alliance, gave them access to the dam.
But commercial fishing on the upper reaches of the Vaal is illegal. The Gauteng ordinance 12 of 1983 states: “No person shall catch fish in waters otherwise than by angling, unless he or she is a holder of a permit which authorises him or her to do so.”
A municipality can relax this rule if it gets permission from the national water and sanitation department.
Knowing this, a group of locals joined up with the nongovernmental group Save the Vaal Environment (Save) and pressed the responsible national departments to investigate the fishing. Irene Main, head of Save, said: “Everyone knows that you cannot catch fish in this part of the Vaal, so we were quite taken aback to find boats hauling fish in.”
An investigation was conducted by the biodiversity investigations division of the Gauteng department of agriculture and rural development. In its findings, it said the fishing operation had permits up until 2019.
It also found 27 fish on the site, which had been stored in a freezer. These were part of the permitted catch of largemouth bass, common carp, bighead Asian carp and grass carp. The unit said no more fish had been caught because the cold winter water made fishing difficult.
The enforcement officials said their hands were tied because of the permits. “The enforcement directorate cannot stop the project if the permits for the activity are in place.”
Save forwarded this response to the provincial water department.
Records of the back and forth shows a great deal of consternation about the fishing.
Regional water affairs sent queries to national water affairs. An official from the latter responded by saying that not only was fishing in the area not authorised, it was also a breach of other water legislation.
The official said a water use licence was required because “a pier had been built and fishing has started, which is diverting water resources”.
Any group who diverts water has to apply for a licence. The Red Ants had not. The official suggested that a directive be issued to stop the fishing.
Locals told the M&G that fishing continued. In June 2015, Save approached Nigel Adams, then head of the Blue Scorpions, water affairs’ investigative unit.
He confirmed that the fishing was illegal. It took another six months for a directive to be issued. The complainants were only told of this late last month and fishing finally stopped. But the flotsam of the operation remains. Red shipping crates, used to house workers during operations, still stand on the parched yellow earth along the Vaal Dam’s shrinking shoreline. The 55m blue jetty is still bobbing up and down on the dam’s surface. Ensuring that this is removed falls into the jurisdiction of the municipality.
National government has enforced the law, but Midvaal is still lagging in fixing the headache.
Red Ants sting in all sorts of places
The Red Ant Security Relocation and Eviction Services was established in 1998 as a private company.
Its website says: “The formation of the Red Ants came about through the realisation that the security, construction and agricultural industries locally are predominantly owned by large multinational companies.”
Sensing a gap in the market, the company says that, “with local flair”, it will grow into these markets by providing “excellent service and relevant product offerings”.
These seem to include any task that requires manpower.
The red overalls of its workforce first burst into the public sphere when it started evicting people from blocks of flats in central Johannesburg.
Since the early 2000s, the company has secured security and eviction contracts with municipalities throughout South Africa.
Following the awarding of a three-year security tender to the company by Mogale City in 2013, the city’s spokesperson, Nkosana Zali, said the Red Ants provide services that “vary from guarding strategic installations when there is need, to situations of protest, land invasions and clean-up programmes post-protests”.
Speaking to the Mail & Guardian last year, Johan Bosch, its managing director, said most of his clients are private companies and “almost every” municipality in the country.
Its other operations range from Red Farm, where it grows vegetables, to civil engineering and water and sanitation delivery.
It says it has also started “reviving” the Krugersdorp Game Reserve.