Red Ants cause havoc and heartbreak in Joburg suburb

Despite the government moratorium on evictions during the Covid-19 pandemic, local authorities continue to drive people from their homes, often helped by private companies.

Occupants evicted from a property on 21 Bompas Road, Dunkeld West, Johannesburg on 6 April say they were not warned beforehand. They were hoping at least to have a day in court to make their case against being evicted, they say, and were surprised when the Red Ants arrived to throw them out of the affluent neighbourhood. 

Many woke up to a grader razing the shacks some had called home for years. Johannesburg-based attorney Hannes Jordaan oversaw the evictions. Responding to emailed questions about the legality of the evictions, he replied, “A proper legal process was followed.” 

The evicted dwellers dispute this, pointing out that they were not given enough time or support from the City or non-governmental organisations to leave the premises. 

6 April 2021: A man tries to salvage some of his belongings after the Red Ants demolished his shack.

“These people, they didn’t give us notice to go away. We went to Randburg Court when they threatened us last year but they didn’t appear. [The] sheriff came here and they give us some papers from the High Court and say we must attend court on May 3 but these people came here with a truck last week but they didn’t go inside. They told me and another person that Tuesday we are coming back for you but we know we are supposed to go to court,” said Simon Mononyane. He says he has been at the property since 2006.

Jordaan insists, however, that the evictions were carried out within the law.

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“The order was served, the sheriff visited the property on a second occasion and spoke to people there advising of the process,” he said in response to queries. “The evicted people can approach the COJ’s [City of Johannesburg] relevant department for support, I believe that Social Services will also assist.”

Jordaan did not respond to a request to share a copy of the court order relied on to evict the people. He would not even name the property owner. In an earlier statement, he claimed to have “witnessed one of the occupants give the media a copy of the order”.

Thrown out ‘like dogs’

In a matter of hours, what remained of the occupants’ belongings was scattered on the pavements outside the property. 

An inspector from the City of Joburg at the scene who declined to identify himself said the City had been receiving complaints from neighbours ranging from noise to occupants living on the property with no water or sanitation. Most of the evictees, he said, were individuals making a living from picking waste in the city. 

“They are throwing us out like dogs. Even your dogs are better,” one of those evicted kept shouting from across the road as workers, guarded by armed men, erected a gate to deter the evictees from returning. 

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The infamous Red Ants who manned the operation were gone by 2pm and were replaced by two gun-toting security men and a team of guards clad in combat gear. From a distance, these security contractors issued orders to the welders putting up a gate. The helpless evictees simply looked on. 

Those evicted said the Red Ants broke into their shacks and destroyed documents and household items, including food and infants’ milk. Suddenly homeless, they placed what was left of their property, such as bedding, cooking pots and clothes, on the pavement area outside the property. 

As night approached, some of the evicted were seen loading their possessions on old supermarket trolleys while others tried to use the dismantled shack materials to set up shelters next to the roads. Others, like Anita White, 39, a mother of two, simply looked on. 

White says she has lived on the property for four years. This was after she failed to find a job. “I need some money to return to Durban because a friend’s place I hoped to stay in is already full and they can’t take me in,” she said.

Natasha Mabena, 32, has also been living on the property for four years. She is unemployed.

“When corona happened, I lost my job as a waitress. Now I have lost a place I called home. My child is with a friend but I don’t know what is going to happen because they expect me to pick the child later today. We were trying to survive by cooking for others in this community, selling cigarettes and other things. What can we do now?” she said.

No help in sight

Between 40 to 200 people lived on the property at any particular time according to various estimates. These included occupants’ friends who fell on hard times. They would drop in and stay for a while and leave when their situation improved. They all have nowhere to go now.

“I have been living here since 2001. I have a 14-year-old child which I had while living here. At first we used to pay rent here. After that person we used to pay rent to who was working for the owner of this house died, we stopped. From 2017, we haven’t been paying. They chased us from last year during corona but the police came and stopped them,” says Welemina Ikgole. 

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“I have family in Pretoria but I don’t even have money to go. I was living here with the children but they are at school now. Gogo is going to come with the baby now,” she said. 

For the entire day, no government official visited the group to enquire about their plight and offer support, the evicted people said. 

Patience Nuibe, 43, left Zimbabwe in 1994 and has been in South Africa since. Sitting atop a pile of her belongings with her less than one-year-old baby, she begs for money to buy “formula” [a powdered milk for infants] for her child. She says she has been on and off the plot for 15 years, leaving and coming back. 

6 April 2021: Patience Nuibe, 43, and her one-year-old child Lucy.

“My husband is in Mpumalanga. I was trying to call him but his phone is on voicemail, but yesterday it was ringing… He was saying he is coming back this week. I want to ask him to direct me to take the baby to the family in Mpumalanga. I have never been there. Everything is bad for me. I can’t even make fire to make food for the baby and I don’t have money,” she says. 

At the height of the pandemic, the government appealed to municipalities and private property owners to halt evictions but such requests have largely been ignored, even as impoverished and working-class people continue to bear the brunt of Covid-19. Like the 21 Bompas Road evictees, those thrown out are given no alternative sites to shelter.

6 April 2021: Some of the stranded evictees with their belongings on the roadside.
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