SOUL OF A RED ANT
Photographer infiltrates the colony
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.
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