The children watched from the second floor windows of the industrial building as the Red Ants unloaded from pickup trucks and cars with tinted windows. They wore red jumpsuits with motorcycle helmets, soldiers with crowbars and rifles packing rubber bullets. Perhaps most dangerous of all, was the permission granted from the local police department to use all of it against the Carr Street residents. Some of them knew this was coming.
Since early 2008, the private owner of their building had set his mind’s eye on a shopping mall that would tower over the nearby tracks and invite the curiosity of visitors for the 2010 FIFA World Cup. At the time, the City of Johannesburg was invested in plans of its own to fast-track gentrification for what it called an inner City regeneration strategy. Like most cases of civil restoration, the terms were leaned against the cracking frame of citizens from a powerless class. In 2009, that frame finally broke and the previous residents were left to collect their lives from the rubble. But not without help from the Red Ants.
The Red Ants, members of a private security firm hired by the sheriff of the local court, are renowned for their brutal eviction style, forcing residents out of their homes without notice, throwing their belongings from the upper windows and into the street. Judge Neels Claassen brought the hammer down in August and by the 15th of November 2009, the Carr Street residents were to move into a “refurbished” City-owned building on Noord Street. So, in 2009, the Red Ants arrived to show the Carr Street residents to their new home. On the front of the building, the rusted metal letters read “MOTH.”
Judge Claassen ruled that this building would accommodate the residents for 12 months. But they were expected to participate in the City’s job skills programme, find employment and a suitable place to live. In the meantime, the property developer (Chestnut Hill Investments) was to provide 1.5 million for the cost of accommodations and to implement the job skills programme that residents desperately needed. But the money never came. Six years later, the former Carr Street residents are still occupying the dilapidated MOTH building. “They don’t have any papers or anything, so it’s hard for them to get work.” Says Fredrik Lerneryd, who started photographing the conditions of the MOTH building in January 2015. “Some of them work under the table, cleaning taxis. One lady in the building is selling cigarettes, beer and food, so she gets cash. But most people, I would say 80%, are unemployed.”
Many of the residents hail from war-torn nations, most notably Zimbabwe, where political crisis erupted in 2008 resulting in mass state-sponsored violence and human rights violations. They fled to South Africa to seek a better life, and without papers, most ended up in living situations akin to the MOTH building.
“One part of the basement section is right underneath the toilets and the pipes are broken, so you can see toilet water running down the wall. It’s horrible.” Says Lerneryd. “And at the same time, there’s so many people living and they only have curtains as walls. So it’s just a constant noise of voices and people trying to play music louder than their neighbours.”
According to Lerneryd, the MOTH building is currently home to about 400 residents. The “accommodations” in the building include four or five strictly cold water showers, four stories of make-shift “rooms” separated by hanging cloth, and a basement prone to flooding and mold. The weekends are a four-day event in the MOTH building, though most of the men drink everyday. On the weekends, they drink hard. Many outsiders who don’t currently live in the building come on the weekends, too. The result is a rotting house party where the stink of beer and cigarettes form clouds above the makeshift living rooms of families caught in crossfire. And if you lean your nose into the hanging fabric walls you might detect the lingering stench of Nyaope, a mixture of heroin and amphetamines that the men smoke to numb themselves from their condition. “It’s hard for the kids.” Says Lerneryd.
It doesn’t take an expert to guess at the future of a building supported by citizens without working permits or the dignity of warm showers, proper toilets or locking doors. In 2014, a fire on the upper floor confirmed the position of the City. Lerneryd’s best guess was that the fire was started when someone passed out with a lit cigarette, igniting an entire floor of cloth-separated homes and incinerating the belongings of the floor’s 20-some odd residents and killing one. Smoke tarred the lungs of many others. Some reports claim that nearly 300 residents were to be relocated to the City’s Linatex facility in Doornfontein, after the devastation of the fire. But like most of the situation, the truth is buried beneath years of unreturned emails, unanswered calls and a general lack of documentation. As Lerneryd tells me, “The people from the government have only been there one time after the fire and they don’t do anything. They just go there, and take a stroll around a building and say they’re going to look into it, and they don’t.”
And though a number of lawyers from the Socio-Economic Rights Institute (SERI) have spent the past six years trying to defend the rights of the MOTH building residents, “They haven’t even gotten a reply or email from the government for 6 years,” says Lerneryd. So, as the children of the MOTH building continue to grow, so does the lump of dust shuffled under the rug of the City’s regeneration programme. It has become little more than an eyesore for the City’s growing middle-class to sidestep on their morning and evening commute. So, as the sun lowers behind the high balcony of the MOTH building, perhaps one can catch a glimpse of the cars passing under the blue and red and purple lights emanating from the Nelson Mandela Bridge connecting Newtown to lower Braamfontein. For them, on the balcony, the evening is a time for skipping rope and singing songs. It would be difficult to detect sadness in the melody that leaves their lips:
“The cockroach is in my house, the cockroach is in my house!”
But the song is not intended in irony, or a product of distress, but as the manifestation of endurance.