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Eviction Affliction: Private security companies and demolitions in South Africa

Amid calls to stay home during the early weeks of the Covid-19 pandemic, Rodgers Mathebulo’s house was demolished, his belongings looted, and the small shack from which he sold fruit, sweets, and snacks flattened. Unfortunately, Mathebulo’s experience is not unique. In fact, he is just one of hundreds of people who were evicted over two days in April 2020 by a brutally efficient South African private security company: Red Ant Security Relocation and Eviction Services.

The Red Ants are the most infamous of several companies contracted by municipalities to demolish the homes of people who often have no choice but to illegally occupy land in informal settlements in South Africa. Acting with impunity, the Red Ants are a private sector proxy who shield local governments from facing accountability for unjustly and violently forcing evictions that frequently lack court orders. These informal settlements and the hiring of private companies to demolish them draw attention to broader issues of homelessness, lack of government accountability, and disregard for marginalized communities. Justice and accountability on these fronts are long overdue.

Home demolitions and forced removals are a vestige of South Africa’s apartheid past. For decades, the white supremacist regime uprooted and relocated millions of Black South Africans to rural, economically stagnant “homelands.” This segregation has left deep and lasting scars— resources, services, opportunities, and wealth remain mostly concentrated in what were white areas under apartheid. In South Africa today, evictions and demolitions persist even though the state no longer enforces apartheid-era policies. In January 2021, for example, the violent demolition of an informal community center near Cape Town made headlines. Similarly, mass evictions on these settlements were reported in 5 of 12 months last year.

Today, upwards of four million people live in South Africa’s informal settlements, which are common but illegal as they exist on state-owned land. Lakeview, the community near Johannesburg that Mathebulo called home, is one of thousands of such informal settlements. The mere existence of these settlements is telling of deeply entrenched issues in South African society, namely inequalities in land ownership and housing access. Despite nearly 27 years of land reform, 72 percent of agricultural land still belongs to white people (who make up a mere nine percent of South Africa’s population) while millions of Black South Africans remain landless. Under the South African Constitution, the state must ensure that all citizens are able to realize the right to housing. There exists a mixed record on this account. Impressively, the state has provided citizens with upwards of three million free houses since the end of apartheid. However, housing provisions are riddled with corruption and poor service delivery. Additionally, there is currently an estimated backlog of 2.3 million homes. For three days of eviction activities in 2019, the Red Ants charged the Johannesburg municipality R10.6 million ($720,000 USD). This is equivalent to the expenses for land and construction of 100 government-issued houses. When state resources are spent on destroying homes rather than building them in places where they are desperately needed, people are left with little alternative but to illegally occupy land until the Red Ants arrive to evict them.

The demolition of Rodgers Mathebulo’s community was illegal. According to the South African Bill of Rights, evictions are unlawful without a court order. The Red Ants claim that they always carry out evictions with the necessary legal permissions, but representatives from a provincial human rights commission maintain that a court order was glaringly absent. Furthermore, weeks before the demolitions, President Cyril Ramaphosa issued a ban on all evictions during the Covid-19 lockdown, meaning that even if the Red Ants had a court order, these evictions still would have been illegal. Finally, according to residents, the evictions were accompanied by looting and assault, brutality that is by no means justified by the illegality of living in an informal settlement.

Because of their immoral and illegal actions, the Red Ants face widespread denunciation. But the condemnation of the Red Ants by human rights groups and local communities alike has done little to curtail evictions or achieve justice. In 2019, the Red Ants’s right to operate was briefly suspended by a private security regulatory body after an especially violent spate of evictions in which community members were killed. After legal appeals, however, the suspension was lifted and the Red Ants were back in informal settlements, operating with the same impunity and violence. A Red Ants press release contends that “the persistent media attention is at times born out of a sheer misunderstanding and sensationalism of lawful evictions, which are part of the South African law, especially those happening in our townships and previously disadvantaged areas.” Additionally, they explain that they are committed to corporate social responsibility: They hand out food parcels to orphanages, child-headed households, and others in need. Behind this front, however, the company profits from its reputation for brutality. Paradoxically, the people who carry out the physical demolitions are themselves often from the kinds of communities they end up destroying.

Certainly, the Red Ants must be held accountable. At the same time, the real outrage for these abuses must be directed towards the government officials who order the demolitions, disregard the Constitution, fail in their duty to provide access to adequate housing, and endow upon a private company the blame for faults of its own. Unsurprisingly though, both the Red Ants and the South African government have yet to accept responsibility for this issue. In fact, Red Ants’s CEO Johan Bosch blames the press and argues that “our work is only evictions. We do the ones that nobody else wants to do—that is why we end up in the hot seat all the time.” Former Johannesburg mayor Herman Mashaba alleged that Red Ant demolitions in 2019 took place without authorization from the city, placing blame on the company alone. In the aftermath of the demolitions that rendered Mathebulo and his community homeless, current Johannesburg mayor Geoff Makhubo maintains that the fault lies with criminal syndicates who illegally invade land and sell plots to residents. He insists that the houses were unoccupied, claiming that “there were no evictions. We were doing a counter land invasion operation.”

The subcontracting of a private company to carry out brutal evictions against a vulnerable population raises troubling questions about the morality and legitimacy of the South African government. Mass evictions, especially those that are unlawful, undermine human dignity and achieve little. Meanwhile, their underlying causes, like land and housing inequalities, persist. Considering the historical context of demolitions, South Africa’s government needs to reckon with the way they treat the nation’s most vulnerable population. Until then, the state will continue to direct the Red Ants to flatten the homes of Rogers Mathebulo’s innocent counterparts.