30/11/2016 18:42 SAST | Updated 30/11/2016 18:50 SAST

The Red Ants Had The Gauteng Human Settlements Department Stripped Because Debt

How does it feel, Paul Mashatile?

Cornell Tukiri / Getty Images
The Gauteng human settlements department has been stripped bare in a court spat with the Red Ants. Here, a member of the Red Ants directs subordinates as they hurl household items belonging to residents of the Williston Building onto the street in Hillbrow, Johannesburg, on 12 August 2015.

Gauteng Human Settlements MEC Paul Mashatile was applying on Wednesday for the urgent reversal of an attachment order that stripped his department's offices of furniture and equipment because of R220m it owes the Red Ants.

Staff were left in empty offices, without even chairs to sit on, and were unable to work.

"We are at the court as I speak to challenge the attachment order," spokesperson Keith Khoza said, after the tables were turned on the department by Red Ants Security Relocation and Eviction Services, the company contracted to do its evictions.

Khoza explained that there was a dispute over some invoices which had already been paid.

In terms of their contract, any dispute between the two parties is meant to go to mediation, before it goes to court.

Khoza said that, after the department indicated that it was disputing some of the amounts owed, the Red Ants applied to have the matter heard in court.

The department duly filed papers defending itself, and was waiting for a court date, Khoza said.

But before they got the court date, the Red Ants had applied for, and on October 21 were granted, an attachment order.

"We were dumbfounded as well because it was not consistent with what we had agreed," said Khoza.

'Operations ground to a halt'

This left the department in the embarrassing position of watching all of its office equipment being carted off, as per the attachment order, on Tuesday.

"Operations ground to a halt," said Khoza.

"They took computers, furniture that people sit on - effectively there is nothing that we can do in the department until we reverse the order.''

The department was not disputing that it owed Red Ants money, but it could not afford to pay them at present because it had had to clear land invasions that had not been budgeted for.

"When people started invading all our properties, we just reacted to the situation. We spoke to Treasury, and Treasury viewed the matter favourably, but it was not finalised."

The Red Ants controversially clear illegally occupied buildings and land. Their name is derived from the red overalls they wear when they descend on properties in a convoy of trucks.

Mashatile wants the attachment reversed so that the department and the company can agree to a payment settlement.

Comment from the Red Ants was not immediately available.