The photos depict the eviction in 2007 of hundreds of residents from Monis Mansions, a block of flats in central Johannesburg. They focus on both the plight of the residents and the nature of the Red Ants – the popular name given to the security company employees carrying out the eviction; this name is inspired by their bright red uniforms and riot control gear, accompanied by their unthinking robot-like behaviour.
Allied to the vivid colouration and sharp subject matter of the photos are 14 poems and short prose pieces focussing on homelessness and the inevitable brutality of forced eviction, particularly when the city authorities do not provide alternative accommodation for those being evicted. The poets include Pietermaritzburg-based Ingrid Andersen, two members of the Botsotso Jester poetry collective (Ike Mboneni Muila and Allan Kolski Horwitz), Uhuru wa ga Phalafala, Kai Lossgot, Goodenough Mashego, Elvis Maleka and Onaka Mhlaba.
The exhibition thus highlights a major inner-city problem – how to deal with buildings which have been abandoned by their owners (or whose owners have lost control and are therefore unable to or unwilling to carry out maintenance whilst taking legal steps to restore payment of rent) and then enter a spiral of inadequate maintenance, over-crowding and unsafe and unsanitary conditions, often becoming magnets for criminal activities. This net of conflicting interests continues to dog us: high rentals / poor service levels / rent strikes / overcrowding / landlords abandonment of buildings / opportunists hijacking of buildings and refusal to maintain basic services / local government failure to enforce by-laws so that buildings become unsafe and unsanitary: all these factors contribute to evictions which further compound the problems because no alternative accommodation is provided to the families who find themselves out in the street.
The project, by highlighting the above issues in a non-propagandistic and sensitive manner, hopes to contribute to the debate on finding solutions to homelessness, inner city crowding and the current ineffective government responses.
As such, the exhibition will be accompanied by symposia on these topics involving a wide range of stake holders – inner-city residents, government officials and NGO’s involved in housing and landlord associations.
In addition, there will be poetry and music performances featuring the poets represented in the exhibition and others whose writing touches on these issues.
A further aspect will be workshops for photographers interested in exploring the tensions between commercial photo-journalism, socially-committed photo-journalism and photography as an art form. Such workshops will be led by Moshe Sekete and Kabelo Mofokeng but include other local KZN photographers as co-panelists and facilitators.
Botsotso is a grouping of poets, writers and artists who wish to both create art as well as to generate the means for its public communication and appreciation. They speak particularly of art that is of and about the varied cultures and life experiences of people in South Africa – as expressed in all our many languages.
The Red Ants body of work was developed in partnership with the Goethe-Institut South Africa, and first showed at GoetheOnMain project space in Johannesburg.