/ 2 June 2017

Red Ants evict residents from Prasa-owned land in Newtown

The Red Ants pile up residents' belongings.
The Red Ants pile up residents' belongings.

Red Ants have evicted at least 100 people from land under a bridge in Newtown that is currently owned by the Passenger Rail Agency of South Africa (Prasa).

Residents’ belongings were piled up along Carr Street, where the eviction took place, after being dragged out of houses by members of the Red Ants. The occupiers say they were given no prior warning about the evictions. A court order from the Johannesburg high court, dating back to July 14 2015, was used to administer the evictions. The court order is valid for 30 years.

“They didn’t tell us anything,” said Nadileka Tshofela, who has lived in the settlement since she was 16 years old.

According to South African law, residents must receive a warning or notice before they are evicted. The sheriff told the Mail & Guardian that there was a warning issued to residents.

Tshofela’s family is in Cape Town, and in Johannesburg she has no alternative place to stay besides her home in the Bekezela community. From Carr Street, a central road running through Newtown, Bekezelela is almost invisible. But, driving up a narrow road beneath the bridge, small concrete houses with shacks in-between provide shelter to residents.

The walls are splashed with graffiti and street art. One scribble just before the entrance to the community simply reads: “Welcome 2 Bekezela”.

The houses are organised into different blocks marked by letters of the alphabet. There are porta-porta toilets nearby which are labelled separately for men and women.

But after the evictions, disorganisation is everywhere.

The Red Ants came at around 8am on Friday morning. They were accompanied by Johannesburg Metro Police Department officers and the sheriff. The exact number of residents living on the property is unclear, but so far residents and police say there are at least 300 – 480 occupiers.

Rubber bullet casings were scattered on the ground outside the houses. According to the sheriff, residents were willing to leave but two people – Phillimon Hlongwane, a former resident and current chairperson of the United Democratic Community and Youth Civic Movement, and Nhlanhla Khumalo – provoked residents to become violent and rubber bullets were fired.

Hlongwane showed the Mail & Guardian documents where legal representation for residents, Zuko Madikane, requested that the high court provide the current status of the matter on October 17 2016. They received a response from the court on January 27 2017, which said that the matter is not on “the court roll for any date”.

While the Johannesburg high court supplied a court order to execute the eviction after the residents and Prasa came to an agreement, it was on condition that the City of Johannesburg provides temporary accommodation to “all deserving unlawful occupiers”. The City was due to file a report to the court on the temporary accommodation, when it will be made available, the steps it has taken to engage with occupiers, and “an undertaking to make that accommodation available”.

The report would have to be filed for Friday’s eviction to be lawful. New residents who occupied land in Bekezelela after the court gave the order to execute the eviction in 2015 can also return to Bekezelela as they were not party to the initial agreement with Prasa.

Today, however, residents said they have nowhere to go.

“I am an employee at Prasa. I live here because there is shelter,” said Bantu Dada.

The residents barricaded a section of the road just off Carr Street shortly after being evicted. A rock battle ensued, with residents pelting Red Ants. The Red Ants threw rocks back.

The residents have accused the Red Ants of stealing their cellphones and patting them down for other possessions. One occupier, who sang and danced near the barricade after the fire had fizzled out, said the Red Ants had threatened sexual assault.

“They come inside in the yard and they tell us, ‘take your things out’. If you are a woman, they say ‘take the panty down, we want to fuck you’,” said Hlahla Sithole.

Some residents say they will return to their houses, while others said they would try to find whatever they could.

Tshofela managed to pack a bag with her child’s clothing before she was forced to leave. Her child was at creche when the evictions took place. As the Red Ants finished emptying out the properties, some residents drifted to the pile of belongings on the street, searching for anything that’s theirs.

The way forward has yet to be decided, but Hlongwane said that there may be court action to follow especially if it is established that the eviction is illegal.