Red Ants, feared eviction squad, suspended at last

Newtown shack dwellers welcome the suspension of the demolition service known as the Red Ants, but warn that other similar services must be investigated.

Fear is clearly visible on the faces of Lucia Khumalo, 45, and Portia Mkhwanazi, 44, residents of Bekezela shack settlement in Newtown, Johannesburg, when they speak of the security and eviction service known as the Red Ants.

“When we see someone with a red overall, we panic,” says Mkhwanazi, “If you stand outside and shout ‘Red Ants!’, you will see the panic, there will be pandemonium.”

In 2017, hundreds of residents from Bekezela were forced onto the streets after the Red Ants evicted them. Residents have often accused the Red Ants of theft and violence.

Though “the alleged callous demolitions of homes” in Alexandra was a catalyst in the suspension of the Red Ants by the Private Security Industry Regulatory Authority (Psira) earlier this month, for Moeketsi Monaheng of Right2Know, the company has a record of improper conduct in executing its duties.

10 July 2019: Portia Mkhwanazi in the doorway of her home in Bekezela. She says the Red Ants demanded that she give them her money so violently that she gave it to them out of fear.

Justice denied, justice delayed 

Though Psira – the body that regulates licensing and compliance of private security companies – reversed the suspension following the Red Ants’ appeal to Police Minister Bheki Cele, it still laid stringent conditions that allow the Red Ants to operate, however, under instructions from the security industry regulator, they cannot remove or demolish.

Progressive popular organisations and NGOs such as Abahlali baseMjondolo, Inner City Federation and Right2Know all welcomed Psira’s decision.

Singathi nje i-suspension is long overdue. Kufanele engabe kade bamiswa bakhishwa ngisho ohlwini completely. (We can just say the suspension is long overdue. They should have removed the Red Ants long ago completely),” said S’bu Zikode, Abahlali baseMjondolo’s president.

“So basically, it is justice denied … The whole thing can take this long until anyone can take action. Because obviously if Alex did not happen – they would still be operating even though we know of their history of improper conduct,” adds Monaheng.

“A lot of people have suffered under the violence and unlawful action of the Red Ants,” says Zikode, who explains people were traumatised, injured and killed in violence perpetrated by the Red Ants, including Samuel “Mzondi” Mabunda from Mozambique.

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Monaheng, who witnessed the incident and filmed it on his cellphone, says Mabunda was brutally assaulted by the Red Ants in 2017 in his salon in Ivory Park, east of Johannesburg. Mabunda died a few days later. The settlement was later renamed Mzondi Informal Settlement in his honour.  

Monaheng says Mabunda was not even part of the area being evicted. His salon was in a shack settlement nearby. 

“He was cut here [pointing to his abdomen] with a crowbar. You see a crowbar is like this,” he says, imitating the shape of a crowbar blade with two fingers. “They stabbed him near the hip – and pulled the crowbar. His intestines were in the open – it was bad. Then I thought … we can’t let this injustice to go on without challenge.”   

A criminal case was opened. When nothing came of it, Monaheng assisted the community to lodge a formal complaint with Psira. The outcome of that process is still outstanding. 

Monaheng says that in the course of the demolition and eviction, houses were demolished, possessions were stolen and essential documents were burned. In helping Mabunda’s family, Right2Know approached the Wits Law Clinic to assist with a civil case against the Red Ants, which is still ongoing.  

Evicted, robbed, frightened  

Bekezela is opposite Newtown Junction and next to the BMW and Ford dealerships on Carr Street behind the Market Theatre complex. It is home to mostly waste pickers. 

Khumalo says she was forced to shut down her thriving food business as she lost her cooking pots when the Red Ants raided. Two of her cell phones were forcefully taken from her by Red Ants personnel. 

Portia Mkhwanazi interjects, saying the Red Ants security personnel had demanded money on their arrival in her house. Because of the violent manner in which they handled her, she was very afraid and directed them to her money, which she kept hidden under her mattress. They took it. 

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“My daughter pleaded with them to leave some for her child’s nappies,” remembers Mkhwanazi, but she adds that they ignored her and took all of it. 

Similar to the situation in Mzondi shack settlement in 2017, the Red Ants set alight essential papers such as people’s identity documents. Mkhwanazi claims that her husband’s death certificate was burned by the Red Ants.   

“It was a party here in my house,” Khumalo remembers. “They ate food and drank alcohol. The majority of us … are self-employed. When they smashed our craft with crowbars and took our money, how were we expected to survive? Our things were thrown outside, many [people] were injured and ambulances refused to come,” she adds.

Since the eviction, Khumalo runs a business selling traditional headwear and pillows, which she makes from old mattresses. She works under extreme fear. As soon as she finishes one piece, she immediately sells it, thus minimising the risk of losing it all, again.

No alternatives

Bekezela is an old school building used not for educational purposes but occupied by people who want the state to renovate it.

Khumalo says the people of Bezekela would be grateful to live in such a structure if it is renovated as low-cost housing, but when the Red Ants evict, they do not offer alternative accommodation.  

“Do not throw us in the townships,” she pleads. “Because [then] our lives will be difficult. Most people won’t be able to afford to come to town.”

Khumalo and Mkhwanazi welcome Psira’s decision to suspend the Red Ants. “Ama-Red Ants awaphele angaphinde abuye. (Red Ants must disappear and never come back),” they say.  

10 July 2019: Bekezela used to be a school. Residents still live in fear after the Red Ants  violently evicted them and destroyed their belongings in 2017.

Red Ants are not alone

Zikode says the authorities must investigate “formations like the anti-land invasion unit in Durban and … the law enforcement in Cape Town – who are doing exactly what the Red Ants have been doing in Johannesburg”. 

Zikode said many lives have been lost in the hands of “so-called anti-land invasion unit – who have become hitman – izinkabi”. 

For Zikode, if there was to be an investigation on the unit, “I am sure they will discover even worse [violent incidents] than what they have found to have been conducted by the Red Ants. So, we call upon Psira to investigate the anti-land invasion unit.”

For Monaheng, Zikode’s wish might not be far-fetched. He says the deregistration of the Red Ants would set a precedent for other demolition organisations and companies. “Even with companies doing the same work and coming after the Red Ants – they will then have to follow a certain protocol before they do their work.” But this can only be decided on after the police minister has made a finding, following an opportunity to appeal for the Red Ants.

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Activists believe that the probing should not end with the security agencies that conduct themselves improperly.

“After dealing with these Red Ants – we must go after the officials who are authorising these Red Ants to go and demolish even without court or eviction orders,” says Monaheng, who says the Ivory Park incidents were not characterised by an eviction order, but that there were officials who authorised the police and the Red Ants to operate in the area. “We need to know who exactly these officials are,” says Monaheng.

Siyabonga Mahlangu of the Inner City Federation says the sheriff of the court must also be held accountable. 

You cannot talk to an eviction unit 

Zikode explains that the question the shack dwellers want to ask the Red Ants or any eviction unit, when they approach, is whether they have a court order to conduct an eviction. But they fear asking it because, “If you ask that question, you are actually launching a war. You will be attacked,” he says. 

“The first thing – they don’t want to know who you are and what you have come to do – they want to fight you. They say: ‘Heyi, heyi, awuvumelekile ukuza la’ (Hey, hey, you are not allowed to come here).” 

“At the very first encounter – already you are in conflict. By the time you speak to the sheriff, you are surrounded by men with guns, as if you are there to kill the sheriff. But you just want to get an understanding of what is happening and verify the court document – whether it is a correct court document,” says Mahlangu.

Zikode says: “The very existence of the Red Ants is an indication of the failure of our institutions, particularly the municipalities and political leadership, to be actually engaging with the communities. People do not need to be policed to do the right thing but they need genuine leadership that will engage them honestly and meaningfully on all issues, even those pertaining to land.” 

Land occupations, he adds, should be viewed as a question of justice. “Everyone knows land remains a crisis in South Africa, and it needs a political solution not a police or hitman solution.”

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