Between January and December 2017, I accompanied the Red Ants on many operations around Johannesburg and Pretoria, and as far as eMalahleni.
I mostly travelled with them, sometimes in the back of a truck. I was struck to learn that many of these men were from communities similar to those on which they inflicted so much pain, people who were also victims of impoverishment and spatial exclusion.
On one occasion, I watched as the Red Ants evicted one of their own from a building in the Johannesburg CBD. When they don those infamous red overalls, they momentarily escape the indignity of impoverishment and suddenly feel part of something. They feel empowered. It would seem that R100, a set of red overalls, a crowbar and a plate of pap and stew is all it takes to turn these men into soldiers.
It’s -5°C. The sun hasn’t risen yet. A battalion of several hundred men stand in military formation, a heavy cloud of steam and smoke hanging just above them.
Cigarettes and spliffs are passed down the line as the men sing a dirge while they wait to be issued with their crowbars. The Red Ants are about to be deployed on an operation.
As the sun begins to rise, the men start piling into trucks. I jump into the back of one of them and struggle to find a place to sit. A convoy of trucks leaves the Red Ants’ headquarters in Eikenhof, south of Johannesburg, and heads north towards the city.
Inside the truck, the mood intensifies as we approach the city. The trucks park outside John Vorster Square waiting for their police escort. The Red Ants execute legal, court-ordered evictions. Although they are often accompanied by the police they are frequently accused of breaking the law.
Police sirens lead the convoy into town. The men are working themselves into a frenzy, some knocking their crowbars against the sides of the truck.
As the Red Ants charge into a ‘hijacked’ building in Bree Street, it is unclear who ‘the enemy’ is.
A door on the ground floor is kicked open but the men stop in their tracks when they find the red uniform of one of their own. “I told him that he should move,” a Red Ant tells me. “Now look! But we’ll keep his things safe at least.”
In another filthy building, the Red Ants congregate in a dark courtyard and await their instructions.
A resident takes the opportunity to empty a bucket of dirty water down on the Red Ants. Not a good move. Enraged, a few men storm up the stairs to find the culprit.
Red Ant William Mahlalela is charmed by an infant, S’nehlanhla Fortunate Majoro. He plays with her as her mother searches for her belongings in a pile next to the road. The baby doesn’t want to leave his arms.
Some residents move up to the roof of the building and try to pass whatever belongings they can across to neighbours on the roof of the building next door.
Another man ties all his clothes up in a bedsheet and throws the bundle four storeys down to his wife waiting below.
Catherine Mathebula can’t handle the trauma and breaks down. Her son, Kenny, leads her out in tears. A row of Red Ants observes quietly. Catherine and her son manage to find a place to stay in the building next door, but are evicted again three weeks later.
Some weeks later, I witness a sombre scene in Soweto. A canopy has been erected across a narrow street. Under the canopy and inside a chipboard coffin lies the body of Red Ant Kervin Arthur Woods.
Woods, 46, was shot and wounded during an operation against a land occupation in Lenasia, south of Johannesburg. When he fell down, the community finished him off with knives and screwdrivers. The mob was preparing to set him ablaze, when the Red Ants pushed them back and retrieved the dying man.
Only a handful of family members attend Woods’s funeral. His aunt can be heard crying softly from time to time. His comrades, clad in their trademark red overalls, are there in numbers. Several hundred Red Ants squeeze under the canopy. They take turns standing guard at his coffin and saluting.
They give Woods a rousing send-off, singing and dancing as the grave is covered. Some fire their guns into the air.
A few weeks later, it’s the Red Ants’ turn to inflict casualties. Community members have occupied a piece of private land in Univille, not far from Lenasia. Many shacks have already been erected, with more structures demarcated with bricks and string.
The Red Ants move in to demolish the shacks, but community members, armed with spades, pick axe handles, screwdrivers and pangas, fight back.
A medieval battle unfolds. The Red Ants have helmets and plastic shields for protection; community members use zinc sheeting.
Rocks rain down as battling opponents sometimes come within metres of one another, each equally intent on killing the other.
Skirmishes take place for several hours until the demolition is called off and the Red Ants leave triumphantly in their trucks.
Two community members lay dead. One has been shot dead and another, Isaac Mofali, a father of four, has had his skull smashed in, allegedly by a crowbar.
The Red Ants officially deny any involvement in the men’s deaths. That afternoon, the community picks up where it left off and reoccupies the privately owned land. It is now a growing shack settlement.
At about 5pm one Wednesday evening in July, people stuck in traffic on Jeppe Street in central Johannesburg are greeted by a bizarre sight: 650 Red Ants emerge dancing and singing from an underground parking garage.
The Red Ants have just successfully evicted the residents of Fatti’s Mansions. They are jubilant, their work is over. The battle has been won. Many wear their spoils – pilfered clothing and other items from the evicted – under their overalls.
Furniture, mattresses, pot plants, TVs, toys, books and clothes have been piled up in the road. Squabbles break out as petty thieves grab small items and run away.
The sun begins to set. From across the road, a group of about 50 people sit forlornly and watch. Without alternative accommodation, they will spend three days living on the street. Exhausted, the Red Ants pile back into the trucks and head back to their headquarters.
In the dark, they strip off their red overalls and their thuggish attitude. In the shadows, they return to their shacks, their families and their struggles.