Groundup: Bekezela residents accuse Red Ants of violence and theft

Photo: Lucia Khumalo in her room in the Bekezela informal settlement in Newtown which she says was trashed by the Red Ants when they evicted residents on Friday. Photo: Ihsaan Haffejee

“Everyone does something to try to make a living but we are pleading for people to assist us with food and warm clothing until we manage to get back on our feet,” By Ihsaan Haffejee for GROUNDUP.

First published on GroundUp

A lack of basic necessities, including food and medicine, is hampering the efforts of the Bekezela community as they attempt to rebuild their homes and lives after being evicted on Friday morning. The eviction was initiated by the Passenger Rail Agency of South Africa (Prasa) and executed by the Red Ant Security Relocation and Eviction Services (Red Ants). A high court order was subsequently obtained allowing the residents to return but the damage had already been done. 

Bekezela is an informal settlement in Newtown, Johannesburg.

The manner in which the eviction was conducted has led to the damage and displacement of the community as well as almost all the possessions of those living there. When GroundUp visited the community at the weekend some residents were still sifting through the piles of clothing on the street, looking for items to salvage.

Itumeleng Malatsi, a long-time resident, said that on Friday night most of the community was forced to spend the night out in the open as their rooms were trashed and their beds were out on the street. “We just made a big fire to keep warm and everyone just stood around. We tried to find some sheltered space for the women and children but most people did not even sleep. It was a very difficult situation,” said Malatsi.

Like most of the residents in the community, Malatsi makes a living by collecting recyclable material, but had been saving money and bought electronic equipment with the hope of starting a radio station to service the Bekezela community. During the eviction all of his equipment was taken. “The Red Ants took everything. They just loaded it onto a truck and drove it away. We’re not sure where they went and why the police did nothing to stop this from happening.”

Philile Sithebe is struggling to walk after her ordeal on Friday. Her right leg is hurt and she returned from the hospital with it in a cast after she was struck with a crowbar. She displayed bruises on her back, neck and face and her left eye is still bloodshot after being hit. “The men just came into my room and hit me, telling me to leave everything and get out. Then one told me to take off my panties but I said no and tried to run away, but they beat me more,” said Sithebe. She said her injuries and the difficulty experienced in moving freely will severely impact her ability to make a living until she recovers. According to community leader Nhlanhla Khumalo, 16 people were taken to hospital with severe injuries sustained during the eviction.

Photo: Philile Sithebe was injured during Friday’s eviction. Photo: Ihsaan Haffejee.

Community leaders such as Lucia Khumalo are trying to pool together the food that they are managing to source from the small donations they have received. She has spent the weekend cooking and distributing simple meals as most people’s groceries were either destroyed or taken during the eviction. “My main concern is for the children living here. They are the most vulnerable. Once they are fed I am happy and if we have any left over we distribute it to the adults,” said Khumalo. She showed GroundUp a register of all the people living in the community, which showed that there were 28 children residing in Bekezela.

Khumalo, who hand-weaves traditional African style hats and sells them on Joburg’s streets, has also had her ability to earn a living curtailed. She says her stock of hats was damaged when five men entered her room and trashed everything. “We are not beggars living here in Bekezela. Everyone does something to try to make a living for themselves but at this moment we are pleading for people to please assist us with some food and warm clothing just until we manage to get back on our feet.”

Thando Hlatshwayo, a young resident who is part of the committee trying to help the community, raised the issue of residents who are on chronic medication and have either lost their medication or their clinic cards during the eviction. “We are not sure what is going to happen to these people as this medication needs to be taken daily and some have lost months’ worth of supply,” he said.

Photo: Sonto Buyampo stands in her room with all her belongings on the floor. She says she hasn’t had a chance to check what is missing as she is busy helping with obtaining food and cooking it for the community. Photo: Ihsaan Haffejee.

Residents are also appealing for legal advice and assistance on how they can protect themselves from experiencing this type of violent eviction and what they can do about the damage and loss of property experienced on Friday.

On the land next to Bekezela, international car manufacturers Ford and BMW are building new dealerships and service centres. Directly opposite the community is a new mall, which was opened a couple of years back. While cooking the evening meal for the community’s children, Lucia Khumalo said: “They don’t view us as people with families trying to make a living. They just want us out. I think they feel as if our presence is devaluing their properties.”

Main photo: Lucia Khumalo prepares supper for the community with some of the donations which they have received. Photo: Ihsaan Haffejee.

When questioned by Radio 702 talk show host Eusebius Mckaiser on allegations of misconduct, Red Ants CEO Johan Bosch called the residents’ accusations “a load of nonsense”. When questioned further he refused to continue the interview and put the phone down. GroundUp is awaiting further comment from Bosch. DM

Photo: Lucia Khumalo in her room in the Bekezela informal settlement in Newtown which she says was trashed by the Red Ants when they evicted residents on Friday. Photo: Ihsaan Haffejee