South Africa

Trainspotter – Ennerdale edition

Where Lockdown meets Crackdown – government action is a velvet glove slipped onto an iron fist

Residents of Lakeview informal settlement gesticulate at the JMPD and Red Ants as they leave the area, after demolishing hundreds of unlawfully erected homes during the Covid-19 Lockdown on 21 April 2020. (Photo: Diana Neille)

I witnessed Red Ants work a man over with a crowbar. An elderly man was shot point-blank in the neck by the cops, the rubber bullet lodging in the flesh above his collar. Red Ants destroyed another man’s house, took his phone, his stove, his furniture. They showed him no paperwork. There was no explanation. Why would they need to explain anything, anyway?

On a stretch of asphalt leading to a koppie darkened by afternoon cloud, four JMPD officers fire rubber bullets into a useless patch of veld. The fusillade lands a safe distance from a gaggle of stone-throwing young men, whose missiles terminate in the same desultory DMZ. This ancient South African ritual is consecrated by a Nyala roaring into a peri-urban settlement on the fringes of Ennerdale, southern Johannesburg. After the stone throwers have scattered, the remaining cops bark jokes from the loudhailer mounted to a water cannon.

On this side of the highway: Lakeview. (The lake is more of a pond, and there is no view.) On that side: Kokotela. (Meaning “hammering”, of which there is none.) In the middle, a miserable barricade of palm fronds and smouldering tyres, resulting in a long, tired traffic jam of armoured vehicles.

For almost a decade, the municipal and provincial authorities have been at war with the communities in these settlements, who stand accused of illegally occupying government land. The conflict recently turned violent: last Thursday, without any legal justification and without the appropriate eviction notices, the notorious Red Ants paramilitary forces ripped down an estimated 400 structures, some of them brick and mortar. As is so often the case, they were backed up by JMPD officers, and there were unconfirmed reports of the SANDF lurking in the shadows, as if this was a coup of some forgotten Latin American swampland. (The JMPD did not respond to repeated entreaties for comment.)

According to John Komane, the local Economic Freedom Fighters branch coordinator, this orgy of demolition left at least 500 people homeless.

Weirdly, the evictions occurred during a global pandemic for which sheltering in place appears to be the best way to slow transmission – this according to the World Health Organisation, our own health ministry, and several WhatsApp groups administered by shouty aunts. And so it’s tempting to dismiss the whole episode as a perverse screw-up – a case of mistaken bulldozing.

But across South Africa, there are reports of the authorities smashing individuals or communities into submission, functioning examples of Naomi Klein’s “shock doctrine” theory, in which aspiring authoritarians use a crisis to force-feed populations a gruel of brutal, warp-speed change.

Indeed, according to Farouk Jardine, head of the Ennerdale Stakeholders Association, there appears to have been a deliberate attempt to employ the lockdown to punish a misbehaving community:

“They are harassing us for many years, but why evict now?” asked Jardine, a sad-eyed lefty wearing a Che Guevara ball-cap and dad jeans. “Back in 2014, we asked people in this place to come out to register for housing. We registered over 7,000 people in need.”

He barely blinked as pump-action shotguns popped off in the background. “The municipal and provincial authorities kept on promising that they were going to build houses. They didn’t. We said to people, we are no longer going to go into the street and burn tyres. We’re going to occupy.”

Make no mistake, the land here was by no means occupied legally — no money was exchanged, no deeds were given, and nor was there a deal negotiated with the Department of Human Settlements (although residents claim that there were attempts made to reach a mutually satisfactory outcome). And so, in August 2018, the municipal government took the association to court, only to withdraw the case on 27 February 2019. The provincial government followed suit, withdrawing their own case early in 2020.

The community burned through legal fees and never got the chance to defend its actions before a judge.

“We kept going back to court, and the government never had new facts,” Jardine said. “They withdrew the case again. And then last Thursday they came to evict, but they had absolutely no court order.”

The Red Ants prepare to pull out of Lakeview informal settlement near Ennerdale after demolishing hundreds of illegal shacks and houses on April 17 and 21, 2020, during the Covid-19 lockdown. (Photo: Diana Neille)

Jardine’s association has been tied to selling shacks on the land in exchange for what he insists are used for the mounting legal fees. In this tangled moral mess, he believes that the government has forfeited its rights to the land on which the shacks are built, and he insists that the Constitution backs him up. He cited Section 26 of the pesky document:

No one may be evicted from their home, or have their home demolished, without an order of court made after considering all the relevant circumstances. No legislation may permit arbitrary evictions.

Hmm. But then in swaggers section 11CA of the national disaster regulations, which forms the legal bedrock to the lockdown:

No person may be evicted from their place of residence, regardless of whether it is a formal or informal residence or a farm dwelling, for the duration of the lockdown.

That settles that.

“The City abandoned the case,” spat Jardine. “The province abandoned the case. They don’t want to defend it. This is now our land.”

Secure in Comfort

President Cyril Ramaphosa’s latest official press photo depicts the great man with his fingers extended in front of him, tips touching in a delicate diamond formation – perhaps a cheeky reference to our limitless mineral wealth? – while he stares pensively into the upper lefthand corner of the frame. He is focusing on … what exactly?

Invisible 5G microwaves? An episode of Date My Family? Gwede Mantashe eating an illegal pie?

On Tuesday night, Day 27 of the New Normal, Ramaphosa introduced from a teleprompter a staggering package of remedies – R500-billion or so – that formulate the most significant act of crisis-statism ever committed on African soil. Success against the spread of Covid-19 (which government officials insist on anthropomorphising, but which remains insentient and doesn’t care whether or not we “win the war” against it) has come at the expense of the South African economy, which long before the crisis was a punchline without a joke.

In order to address this, Ramaphosa and his economic policy technocrats designed lifejackets for the country’s poorest citizens, along with other measures that, if actually implemented, will address real problems like food security and starvation. Earlier in the week, Ramaphosa released a statement that appeared to acknowledge the societal deficits imposed by the lockdown: “There can be no greater injustice than a society where some live in comfort and plenty, while others struggle at the margins to survive with little or nothing at all. Yes, these are the residual effects of a fractured and unequal past. But they are also a symptom of a fundamental failing in our post-apartheid society. The nationwide lockdown in response to the coronavirus has gravely exacerbated a long-standing problem.”

So call the stimulus package the velvet glove. It will be slipped onto an iron fist. While sentimental patriots abound in these dark days, it’s worth reminding those who insist on unmitigated praise of the following: in an attempt to grapple with Covid-19, Ramaphosa has unleashed the ANC’s worst impulses. South Africa is now a police state.

Unlike previous South African police states, it operates with the tacit consent of the majority. That consent is conditional, but the nature of a police state is not – it tamps down personal freedoms in service of authority, sometimes coercively, more often harshly. When a national emergency is not an open-ended endeavour, running a police state is much easier than governing within the strictures of a vibrant democracy. The answer to every issue of governance resides in the national disaster regulations, which often (illegally) override bothersome crap like freedom of choice, freedom of movement and freedom to crash a taxi full of people into a concrete pinion during the Easter rush.

Allowing securocrats to set the terms of the lockdown was an immensely immoral act of misgovernance, and it will compromise Ramaphosa’s legacy. Under the cover of a crisis, he has pulled off what Jacob Zuma could only have dreamed of: a country run by ministerial whim.

It’s not really working out so well. If you’re an older South African suffering from the usual lifestyle-related infirmities, and you have the means to shelter in relative comfort, Health Minister Zwele Mkhize (along with his health bureaucracy) is your own personal Jesus. Yes, you are poorer than you were three weeks ago, and you’ll get much poorer still. But you’re unlikely to be interred in a mass grave within view of New York City, a fate borne by dozens in the world’s centre of human incompetence just last week.

But a lockdown in Lakeview or Kokotela is an absurdity even when the government isn’t bulldozing homes into the dust. When there appears to be a deliberate intention to remap the national psycho-geography into a mixture of Vorster’s apartheid, an Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez Tweet and a church basement Alcoholic’s Anonymous meeting? Then a dangerous schizophrenia begins to emerge.

Cele on the Top

A Red Ant fires off a last round of rubber bullets at residents of Lakeview informal settlement near Ennerdale. An estimated 200 illegal shacks and houses were demolished on April 21, 2020, during the Covid-19 lockdown. (Photo: Diana Neille)

Farouk Jardine barely registers the Nyala disappearing into the muddy streets of Lakeview, siren whooping. Its departure is followed by the arrival of a black BMW 3-series, which pulls up to a clearing on the side of the road. There I find a middle-aged woman named Ivy Mashole, standing mournfully on a pile of bricks, her features obscured by a sun hat.

Not so long ago, this space was occupied by her house. Last Thursday, she sped towards Ennerdale from her brother’s home some distance away, having heard rumours that the Red Ants were encroaching on her plot. “This was a complete house, I was supposed to move in after corona,” she told me. “They say during corona we must keep our distance, and I respect their laws. I’m a single mother with four kids. I’m working as security. Now, my house is destroyed, and no one wants to take accountability.”

Mashole asked for an eviction notice. None was proffered. She tried to block the path of the bulldozer. The cops pushed her aside. Then they flattened her home. Now, we discuss her future standing in a mess of meaningless rubble.

What’s special about this story is that there is nothing special about this story. It’s happening across South Africa, in communities governed by the ANC, and in communities governed by the official opposition (as was related last week in these pages by Pauli van Wyk).

Who is managing this shock doctrine? (Or who is to thank for it, if you believe in this sort of thing.) As noted, South Africa is now run by ministerial decree. But outside a few obvious exceptions, and understanding that the technocrats currently have the upper hand in macro-policy-making, Cyril Ramaphosa’s second Cabinet is one of the sorrier gatherings of useless fools ever to walk South African soil, perhaps only bested by Jacob Zuma’s cabinets.

Probably enough has been said about Police Minister Bheki Cele, whose alcohol and cigarette bans appear to be mysteriously benefitting organised criminal syndicates. But the viciousness he appears to tolerate from the SAPS trickles down to everyday policing across the country. In Ennerdale, several days after Mashole’s house was flattened, I witnessed Red Ants work a man over with a crowbar after finding him outside of the yard of his shack. An elderly man was shot point-blank in the neck, the rubber bullet lodging above his collar. (He was subsequently arrested for the privilege. According to Jardine, he’s now taking up much-needed Covid-19 bed-space at Chris Hani Baragwanath Hospital.)

So it goes, all the way across the line. Let’s pick a truly asshole-ish decree at random: the government has banned the export of locally produced alcohol products, a regulation that will destroy the Western Cape wine industry – an act of wilful evil perpetrated against a province governed by the opposition.

That last little shiv in the back of a dead economy comes courtesy of Trade and Industry Minister Ebrahim Patel, a man whose lack of real world awareness is directly inverse to his immense self-belief. He was responsible for banning prepared food before prepared food was actually banned – his pal down the hall, Minister of Cooperative Governance and Traditional Affairs, Nkosazana Dlamini Zuma, has now gazetted the amendment, making it official. And yet hot prepared food remains a lifeline for many families who a) don’t have the means to cook at home (AKA many people in informal settlements) or b) work in an essential service, and are too busy saving lives to roast a fucking chicken.

Patel’s (inadvertent?) cruelty is part of a larger programme of inflicting insane hardship on a country that has had its fill of it, and there is no stimulus package big enough to counter it. There’s Tourism Minister Mmamoloko Kubayi-Ngubane, who believes that relief to small businesses should be based on the race of the business’s owners, ignoring for the moment the fact that most tourism workers in this country are black, and need their white employers to keep paying them. Transformation uber alles: the ills of an unfair economy will be borne on the backs of black employees so that Kubayi-Ngubane keeps her RET credentials in good standing.

There’s Finance Minister Tito Mboweni, the Scrooge McDuck of African neoliberalism, who wasn’t willing to allow paltry benefits to children to trickle through before the Easter long weekend, and has now temporally seen the sense to write a few big cheques.

More to the point, there’s Human Settlements’ Minister, the epically ambitious Lindiwe Sisulu, who was warned that informal settlements would be a flashpoint of misery long before she made sure that they’d become so. In a press briefing prior to the lockdown, she employed testicle-shrivelling Orwellian triple-speak like “decanting” and “de-densifying” to describe how her department would forcibly remove people from congested communities. She provided no details on how these policies would be enacted, and civil society activists and journalists warned her that the process would be ghastly. As we’ve come to expect from her, she’s deemed the current spate of evictions and demolitions illegal, even though they were effectively enacted by her department. 

The ANC fantasises about the “capable development state”, but it cannot be anything other than fantasy if it is to be realised through the ANC itself. The emergency regulations currently in place are like the Bible: infinitely open to interpretation, and largely immune to Earthly oversight.

“May God bless South Africa, and protect her people,” said, after bequeathing the nation with his multibillion-rand largesse.

Yes, but from whom?


Day 27 of the New Normal. Fanned out across the hidden hills of Lakeview: a Hellscape.

At least 1,000 Red Ants are scattered along the koppies, chasing residents in throngs. The pops of rifle shots echo through the settlement, and here and there lie the remains of a shack – corrugated iron sheets, wood framing, the odd brick. This is how people live in this country.

Red Ants arrived in the morning by the busload – hundreds and hundreds of men armed with bars, bats and guns, enough firepower to take down Jason Statham. From Rogers Joseph Mathebulo they took everything. His phone. His stove. His furniture. He ran a mini tuckshop in the area – you know, the informal sector the government is supposed to be supporting. They showed him no paperwork. There was no explanation. Nor was there an explanation for why the shack alongside him was left standing. He also claims that they took R1,800 from his pocket. There was no sheriff present to preside over this interaction.

Let the foot soldiers pillage – the age-old economy of war.

The Red Ants are a perfectly South African phenomenon – poor black people paid to terrorise poor black people by a shadowy organisation of no known provenance, beneficiaries of the government’s monopoly of violence.

Regardless: 175 shacks gone, hundreds more homeless, totally illegal under the terms of the emergency regulations. It makes no sense unless viewed through any other lens than the government’s dark authoritarian id.

And so there’s finally some hammering in Lakeview. It’s just that we’re building in reverse, backwards, towards a hyper-controlled police state in which the real disease is the people – shock doctrine with a basic income grant. DM


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