Red Ant Security Relocation & Eviction Services, or the 'Red Ants' in short, is a private security company in Johannesburg, South Africa, whose employees have become notorious for using excessive force in conducting their operations. They are recognisable by their trademark red overalls and helmets and are hired by private property owners - often city councils - to enforce eviction orders. Armed with shields and crowbars, up to 600 Red Ants can be deployed on a single, military-style operation. These evictions are the frontline of a low-intensity conflict between property owners and poor people struggling to gain access to urban economies. In a country where land, housing and dispossession are emotional and politically charged issues, the Red Ants operate in a grey zone created by the state's inability to meet the demand for housing and enforce the rule of law. The Red Ants specialise in clearing people out of condemned and dangerous apartment blocks, often referred to as 'hijacked buildings', in the centre of Johannesburg. The end of Apartheid led to an easing of restrictive residential laws which brought thousands of poor, rural migrants into the towns in search of work. With white residents fleeing to gated communities in the suburbs, the depopulated city centres were quickly colonised by poor squatters. Many of the inner-city buildings became dens of criminals and drug addicts but also home to desperate families who had nowhere else to go.
As in many other global cities, Johannesburg's city centre is once again becoming fashionable with astute entrepreneurs spotting opportunities in regenerating run-down urban properties and bringing restaurants, bars and businesses into what were no-go areas. This has led to tension between the owners of disused buildings and the people living in them who are being promised relocation to far-flung, impractical and low-cost housing projects.
The battle for urban living space is mirrored outside the cities as well with groups of people invading private land and building shacks in informal settlements. Here, South Africa's 'land issue' pits political parties from different ends of the political spectrum against each other. With a long history of white settlement dating back centuries, many large commercial farms in the country are still owned by white, Afrikaans families who have passed properties down the generations. To those on the right, these farms are the rightful property of their owners who see a coordinated strategy to force them off their land by violent means.
Yet the vast majority of South Africans are poor and black with little or no access to land and the economy. Left wing politicians assert that whites are living on stolen land which ought to be given back to its original inhabitants. Some of the more radical left wing parties encourage people to invade private land and 'reclaim' it for themselves. Land remains a very emotive issue in post-Apartheid South Africa.
The Red Ants have been accused of sexual assault, theft and murder in the course of their clearance operations which tend to involve violent clashes between squatters and the Ants. Deaths and injuries tend to occur on both sides yet ironically, most of the Red Ants are drawn from the ranks of the poorest and least empowered members of society who hail from the same communities where they end up causing great pain and suffering.
James Oatway gained unprecedented access to the clearance operations conducted by the Red Ants and paints a detailed and unflinching portrait of the hated squads who are symptomatic of the many social problems and the great inequality still plaguing South Africa over 20 years after the end of Apartheid.