Metros pay millions to 'Red Ants'

Red Ants evicting the residents of Castel Blyney near Hillbrow, Johannesburg, on a cold Monday morning. (Oupa Nkosi, M&G)

Red Ants evicting the residents of Castel Blyney near Hillbrow, Johannesburg, on a cold Monday morning. (Oupa Nkosi, M&G)

Even as the winter season tightens its grip, security companies are making big money out of evictions, which are often violent and unlawful.

Of the three Gauteng metros, only Tshwane has its own “land invasion unit” to tackle unlawful land occupations. The City of Johannesburg and Ekurhuleni use private companies, with Johannesburg spending R20-million over the past three years, according to documents on the city’s website.

Jo’burg said it had not used the Red Ant Security Service since 2010. But a June 2015 document of monthly contracts shows the city’s Citizen Relationship and Urban Management Unit awarded contracts to seven firms over the three years.

Ekurhuleni did not respond to a request for information. According to its adjustment budget requests made in the 2016-2017 financial year in November, it forked out an unbudgeted R22-million for “monitoring and patrolling” land being invaded between September and November last year. Another R23-million was needed for the same purpose, according to the budget request. The companies were not identified.

Stuart Wilson of the Socio-Economic Rights Institute of South Africa (Seri) said holding security companies to account was made harder by the fact that, nowadays, it was not just the Red Ant Security Service that sported red overalls for evictions.

“It is now a cultural phenomenon. If you want to do an eviction, you will often just dress people in red overalls and they will be called the ‘Red Ants’. But there is no specific company that has a trademark over the use of red overalls. For example, Wozani Security [which is now Red Ant Security Services] will tell you that they never executed an eviction without a sheriff present.

“When people talk of the ‘Red Ants’, they are not just talking about Wozani Security [Red Ant] but any security firm that dresses in red,” he said.

It was difficult to address the issue because “Red Ants” had “an ubiquitous image”.

Last month, the Ekurhuleni metro awarded the Red Ants a contract to handle “evictions and relocations”, according to the metro’s website, in a document listing tenders awarded in May. The company will also conduct patrols “to counter land invasions and relocations, disaster manage (shelter, blankets and food parcels), including matters related to 22 Nov 2016 until 30 June 2018 or until a new bid is awarded”. The value of this contract is not mentioned.

The security companies are raking in money but playing fast and loose with the law, say two nongovernmental organisations, Lawyers for Human Rights (LHR) and the Socio-Economic Rights Institute of South Africa.

Two recent forced evictions, in Ivory Park and Newtown, are just examples, they say. On May 22, in Ivory Park, east of Johannesburg, a person died and others were severely injured. Residents said there was no sheriff of the court present and no court order was produced for the eviction.

The Red Ants are accused of brutality and theft during an eviction in Newtown, Johannesburg, on June 2. The Passenger Rail Agency of South Africa, owners of the land from which the Newtown residents were evicted, relied on a July 2015 court order – which was valid for 30 days. In that case, it was the City of Johannesburg that intervened, and it was granted a court interdict, which stopped the Red Ants from evicting residents.

When asked whether there was a court order for the Ivory Park eviction, Ekurhuleni metro police spokesperson Wilfred Kgasago said officers acted “as per instructions” on the land invasion. “Consequently, the question of an eviction order or court orders is not our competency,” he said.

In both cases, residents were allegedly not adequately notified or offered alternative accommodation. Non-profit advocacy organisation Right2Know this week said it had lodged a complaint with the Independent Police Investigative Directorate regarding the Ivory Park matter.

In 2014, the Gauteng department of human settlements and the Red Ants signed a memorandum of understanding. In it, both parties agreed to ensure that evictions were conducted in a “dignified and humane” manner.

Department spokesperson Mogomotsi Mogodiri said that before every eviction, the department was invited by the police to an eviction plenary meeting.

“The court order is verified by the court before ejectment. The department’s role during execution of the court order is monitoring that the process happens in a humane way,” he said.

In the memorandum of understanding, it was agreed that affected residents would be given 48 hours to leave the premises and be offered alternative accommodation.

He said the Ivory Park and Newtown evictions were “not communicated” to the department.

The LHR’s Louise du Plessis and Seri’s Stuart Wilson highlighted the role to be played by the sheriff.

“A sheriff must be present when the eviction takes place and, because they can’t be alone when the order is executed, they contract the Red Ants,” Du Plessis said.

“Blame the Red Ants but one must look at the role of the sheriff here. He is the person in charge of the eviction for the day. There are the sheriff’s board and the sheriff’s counsel but we [are] all just too slow to complain about this,” she said.

“These people [Red Ants] are not even trained to deal with conflict,” she added.

Wilson reiterated this, saying: “The law requires that a sheriff executes that order by supervising the appropriate action. The court orders eviction but it is the sheriff of the court that supervises it. If a sheriff of the court is not present during an eviction then that eviction is illegal. A sheriff has to be present,” he said.

Charmaine Mabuza, the chairperson of the South African Board for Sheriffs, said her organisation was aware of the problems caused by evictions and was “actively engaging sheriffs in respect of their role when executing these orders”.

Over the past three years, she said, the authority had run educational campaigns focusing on evictions. She emphasised, however, that although sheriffs are appointed by the justice minister, they work independently; they do not work for the department “nor do they work for the SA Board for Sheriffs”.

A 2015 South African Human Rights Commission report on access to housing was scathing about the conduct of the Red Ants during evictions. The report found that excessive force was used by inadequately trained guards.

“There should be engagements with the community,” Du Plessis said. “Talk to the people about the move, make sure everyone is on board. But it is not clearly not happening.”

The Red Ant Security Service had not responded to requests for comment at the time of publication.

The Private Security Industry Regulatory Authority last week said allegations about Red Ants had been investigated. The company was charged and penalised by the authority, it said.

The authority’s acting senior manager for enforcement and compliance, Jan Sambo, said he was unable to divulge details of charges and penalties meted out to the company.

A further complicating matter was the regulation of the demolition and eviction services, which the authority said was not bound by the legislation applicable to the private security industry because “they are not rendering a security service”.

But, Wilson said, the biggest problem remained the number of evictions made without court orders. “The Constitution says no one can be evicted from their home without an order of the court made after considering all the relevant circumstances.

“Whether people are wearing red overalls or not is not the problem, the problem is people being evicted without court orders.”

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