Sunday Times

SOUL OF A RED ANT

Pho­tog­ra­pher in­fil­trates the colony

- By TYMON SMITH

Pho­to­jour­nal­ist James Oat­way was taken aback ear­lier this month when his name was an­nounced as the win­ner of the Visa d’or Fea­ture cat­e­gory at the awards cer­e­mony that ends the Visa pour l’im­age fes­ti­val in the town of Per­pig­nan in France. Luck­ily he had a friend on hand to shake him into ac­tion, in the per­son of vet­eran pho­to­jour­nal­ist João Silva, who turned from his seat in front of Oat­way, slapped him on the leg and told him to go up and col­lect his prize. Oat­way smiles as he tells the story be­cause he’s looked up to Silva and his gen­er­a­tion of pho­tog­ra­phers “for a long, long time, and it was touch­ing that he was there. He was the first to con­grat­u­late me. I ended up giv­ing him a big hug and prob­a­bly cling­ing on for a bit too long, but it was a nice mo­ment.” Oat­way won the award for a port­fo­lio taken over the course of last year while he was embed­ded with the in­fa­mous Red Ants pri­vate se­cu­rity com­pany, which car­ries out evic­tions from build­ings and land across Jo­han­nes­burg on be­half of mu­nic­i­pal­i­ties and own­ers.

Win­ning the award was the cul­mi­na­tion of Oat­way’s eye-open­ing first visit to the fes­ti­val, where each night pho­to­jour­nal­ism from around the world is pro­jected onto screens in an­cient build­ings through­out the town, with thou­sands queu­ing to ap­pre­ci­ate the im­ages. He says au­di­ences who saw his work, an ex­am­i­na­tion of a phe­nom­e­non fa­mil­iar to post-apartheid South Africans, “were blown away. I don’t think they could com­pre­hend that some­thing like the Red Ants ac­tu­ally ex­ists.”

Oat­way’s in­ter­est in the Red Ants was sparked in 2003, when he first saw them in ac­tion shortly af­ter mov­ing to Jo­han­nes­burg to work as a newspaper pho­tog­ra­pher. He re­mem­bers be­ing quite shocked, think­ing: “Who are these guys? They’re so in­tim­i­dat­ing and scary.” While cov­er­ing an evic­tion in an in­for­mal set­tle­ment near Pre­to­ria in 2014, Oat­way had the op­por­tu­nity to ob­serve the Red Ants up close as they did their work in the com­pany of the po­lice. He thought then that “the cops were just get­ting them to do their dirty work. That’s when I wrote ‘Red Ants’ on my list. Most pho­tog­ra­phers have a list of projects they want to work on. That went on mine.”

‘I’d bet­ter get out there’

‘They trans­form when they put on their red over­alls and get their hel­mets and their shields and their crow­bars’

In 2016, af­ter leav­ing his job as pic­tures ed­i­tor at the Sun­day Times, Oat­way found him­self in the un­cer­tain world of free­lance. “I was sit­ting on my ass wait­ing for jobs to come in and they weren’t, so I thought I’d bet­ter get out there and start work­ing on some­thing. I thought, ‘Let me try the Red Ants story’.”

What struck him about the Red Ants was that, as an or­gan­i­sa­tion largely made up of ca­sual labour re­cruits, they were “poor South Africans who lived in the same kind of

com­mu­ni­ties as those they worked in. I thought that all the re­port­ing that had been done was quite su­per­fi­cial — a few lines about how they beat up some­one or stole some shit or got vi­o­lent — and I thought the best way would be to try an em­bed, al­most a mil­i­tary-style em­bed, be­cause I wanted to spend time with them and get to know them and find out what makes them tick.”

Af­ter a few months of arm-twist­ing, Oat­way was granted per­mis­sion by their man­ag­ing com­pany to record the Red Ants at work, but there was ini­tially re­sis­tance from those he fol­lowed, too. “There was def­i­nitely a feel­ing that they didn’t want me around. When they were do­ing evic­tions in the CBD, when I’d come into a room sud­denly ev­ery­one would stiffen up and act like naughty kids that had been caught smok­ing. Some of them do pil­fer and steal small things from the peo­ple they evict. To­wards the end though, they just ig­nored me.”

There were also some who feared that if their neigh­bours saw pho­tographs of them work­ing as Red Ants, they would face se­vere re­crim­i­na­tions and even death. Oat­way re­spected their wishes not to have their faces ap­pear in his frames.

‘Hand-to-hand com­bat’

As he be­gan to earn the trust of this pri­vate army en­gaged in low-level do­mes­tic war­fare, Oat­way be­gan to feel that the Red Ants were like a fam­ily. “I think you could prob­a­bly do some sort of an­thro­po­log­i­cal study and find a sim­i­lar psy­chol­ogy in the Red Ants to what you find in the Num­bers gangs in Cape Town and rebel armies in Africa. They are peo­ple who are dis­em­pow­ered by poverty and some of them you can see are for­mer con­victs and things like that, but some are just nor­mal, poor South Africans.”

As he watched hope­ful job­seek­ers gather in the early hours of the morn­ing at the farm where the com­pany is head­quar­tered, Oat­way cap­tured the trans­for­ma­tion of low­in­come re­cruits into mem­bers of an un­of­fi­cial kind of army. “They trans­form when they put on their red over­alls and get their hel­mets and their shields and their crow­bars,” he says. “When they come back, they take them off and dis­ap­pear back into the shacks where they live. As part of the Red Ants maybe they feel a bit more like they have some power over their fate.”

The is­sue of evic­tions and bat­tles be­tween mu­nic­i­pal­i­ties, landown­ers and il­le­gal res­i­dents is one that pulses with the ten­sions and angers that are part of the rag­ing de­bate about land. An evic­tion al­ways has the po­ten­tial for vi­o­lence and Oat­way wore a skate­board hel­met for every oper­a­tion he at­tended. “It can get very vi­o­lent on both sides,” he says. “Usu­ally the Red Ants’ be­hav­iour is based on the at­ti­tudes of the peo­ple they’re evict­ing. If you’re chilled then they’re chilled, but of­ten when they ar­rive peo­ple start throw­ing rocks and things at them and then im­me­di­ately they go from zero to 100.”

He de­scribes one oper­a­tion as re­sem­bling “a me­dieval bat­tle, Game of Thrones kind of stuff. The com­mu­nity be­ing evicted was armed with forks, ma­chetes and ham­mers and the Red Ants had their

Per­spex shields … They get close and it’s sort of hand-to-hand com­bat in a fight to the death.”

Oat­way’s col­lec­tion in­cludes pic­tures of the dead bod­ies of two res­i­dents af­ter a fight in which they were shot by Red Ants, and the fu­neral of a Red Ants mem­ber. This man, he was later told, was “shot by the com­mu­nity and wounded and then they came and fin­ished him off with screw­drivers and stabbed the shit out of him. They were pre­par­ing to set fire to his body when the Red Ants man­aged to re­pel them, but he was al­ready dead.”

His ex­pe­ri­ences were of­ten ter­ri­fy­ing, and sev­eral im­ages con­vey the ten­sion and vi­o­lence. The Red Ants act only when they have a court-or­dered evic­tion no­tice, but Oat­way feels that “us­ing that kind of vi­o­lence is a vi­o­la­tion of hu­man rights”. He firmly be­lieves that they shouldn’t ex­ist. “What kind of bizarre so­ci­ety do we live in where it’s OK to have a mili­tia lit­er­ally ter­ror­is­ing their own com­mu­ni­ties? And not just any South Africans — it’s the most poor and vul­ner­a­ble and women and chil­dren.”

But his im­ages also show mo­ments of em­pa­thy and com­pas­sion: a Red Ant try­ing to com­fort a child dur­ing an evic­tion, an­other help­ing an el­derly woman to safety, men from op­po­site sides shar­ing ci­garettes in the shadow of a pile of be­long­ings thrown out onto the street. It’s this mix of com­pelling im­agery from all sides that won Oat­way his award and which bol­sters his be­lief in what he does.

“My job is to show ev­ery­thing I see and try to paint as ac­cu­rate a por­trait as pos­si­ble. I tried to cre­ate a por­trait of the Red Ants and not pass my own judg­ments on them; to let you as the viewer make up your mind.

I’m only try­ing to show, if any­thing, how ex­treme the sit­u­a­tion is and pos­si­bly to point out how ab­surd it is that we have the Red Ants. Surely there’s a more civilised way?”

If view­ers take one thing away from the fruits of his year-long em­bed, Oat­way hopes it’s the re­al­i­sa­tion that “some­thing has to be done about the vi­o­lence. You can’t have peo­ple killed like this just be­cause they’re try­ing to build a bet­ter life for their fam­i­lies. The lead­ers need to step up and start fig­ur­ing out bet­ter ways to do things.”

The oper­a­tion was like ‘a me­dieval bat­tle … the com­mu­nity was armed with forks, ma­chetes, ham­mers’

I tried to cre­ate a por­trait of the Red Ants and not pass my own judg­ments on them; to let you as the viewer make up your mind

James Oat­way

 ??  ??
 ?? Pic­ture: © James Oat­way ?? WIN­TER IS COM­ING Red Ants evict res­i­dents and de­stroy an in­for­mal set­tle­ment near Pomona on Gaut­eng’s East Rand to­wards the mid­dle of last year.
Pic­ture: © James Oat­way WIN­TER IS COM­ING Red Ants evict res­i­dents and de­stroy an in­for­mal set­tle­ment near Pomona on Gaut­eng’s East Rand to­wards the mid­dle of last year.
 ?? Pic­tures: © James Oat­way ?? ARMS AND THE MAN Red Ants of­fi­cer Sikhum­buzo Dlamini car­ries two shocked chil­dren dur­ing an evic­tion in Bree Street, Jo­han­nes­burg, on June 23 last year.
Pic­tures: © James Oat­way ARMS AND THE MAN Red Ants of­fi­cer Sikhum­buzo Dlamini car­ries two shocked chil­dren dur­ing an evic­tion in Bree Street, Jo­han­nes­burg, on June 23 last year.
 ??  ?? RE­TAL­I­A­TION Red Ants file past the cof­fin of their col­league Kervin Arthur Woods, 46, in Jo­han­nes­burg. He was killed dur­ing an evic­tion near Le­na­sia. Dur­ing the evic­tion, com­mu­nity mem­bers opened fire on the Red Ants. Woods was shot and wounded, then stabbed mul­ti­ple times. His as­sailants were pre­par­ing to burn him when the Red Ants fi­nally dis­persed them.
RE­TAL­I­A­TION Red Ants file past the cof­fin of their col­league Kervin Arthur Woods, 46, in Jo­han­nes­burg. He was killed dur­ing an evic­tion near Le­na­sia. Dur­ing the evic­tion, com­mu­nity mem­bers opened fire on the Red Ants. Woods was shot and wounded, then stabbed mul­ti­ple times. His as­sailants were pre­par­ing to burn him when the Red Ants fi­nally dis­persed them.
 ??  ?? SOFTER SIDE Red Ant Wil­liam Mahlalela com­forts S’nehlanhla For­tu­nate Ma­joro, whose mom was evicted from Fat­tis Man­sions.
SOFTER SIDE Red Ant Wil­liam Mahlalela com­forts S’nehlanhla For­tu­nate Ma­joro, whose mom was evicted from Fat­tis Man­sions.
 ??  ?? BRACED Pre­par­ing to en­ter Fat­tis Man­sions in Jeppe Street in the Jo­han­nes­burg in­ner city on July 19 last year.
BRACED Pre­par­ing to en­ter Fat­tis Man­sions in Jeppe Street in the Jo­han­nes­burg in­ner city on July 19 last year.
 ??  ?? IN FLAMES A res­i­dent tries to sal­vage her pos­ses­sions af­ter a Red Ants oper­a­tion near Pomona on the East Rand on June 21 last year.
IN FLAMES A res­i­dent tries to sal­vage her pos­ses­sions af­ter a Red Ants oper­a­tion near Pomona on the East Rand on June 21 last year.

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