For centuries, London has been the work capital of the world

Brick Lane in London’s East End, 2008. Image: Getty.

In Migrant City: A New History of London, Panikos Panayi explores the role immigration has played in the capital's development. In this extract, he looks at the role the city's economy had in attracting migrants.

The freedoms of London, especially in contrast to European cities, acted as a key factor in attracting all manner of refugees to the metropolis: the exiles escaping the French Revolution in the 1790s,3 German revolutionaries in the Victorian period, governments in exile during the Second World War, those fleeing persecution in the Cold War, and the global crisis which followed the end of this conflict from the end of the 1990s – even though, by this time, British refugee policy limited and controlled those who could enter and settle in London.

However, this book has revealed London as the work capital of Britain and Europe and, for much of the past two hundred years, the world. The numerous personal accounts quoted essentially tell the story of foreigners moving to London in search of employment, as that remains the main motivation for migration for the vast majority of those who have settled in the metropolis. Once again, the economic significance of London, its size and the scale of the economy have all combined together to bring in people from all over the world working in all manner of occupations throughout the social scale and, increasingly, throughout the entire geographical area covered by the metropolis.

One of the unique factors about this city lies in its ability to attract people throughout the economic and social scale. The idea of London acting as a magnet for cheap labour offers just one explanation as to why this metropolis has proved such an important global magnet. Clearly, most of those who have entered the city seeking employment have worked in low-end manual and service-sector jobs since the 18th century, as the example of the long history of the Irish in the London building trade demonstrates. However, numerous other social groups have settled in the city. Few other international urban centres could claim the range and scale of global elites.

The importance of London as an international financial centre from the 18th century has proved fundamental, a status which European Jews helped to cement from the Napoleonic period onwards and which attracted bankers from other parts of Europe over the following century. The proportion of foreign bankers may have remained stable or declined during the course of the 20th centurym but the ‘Big Bang’ in financial services at the end of that century gave the City of London a new lease of life and power comparable with its Victorian and Edwardian status. This in turn helped to create a new service sector to provide for the needs of the growing international bourgeoisie with a key centre in the City, whether, for example, as cleaners or restaurant staff.

But these elites have also included individuals who moved to London directly as a consequence of the opportunities which the presence of British and international bankers provided. The arrival of classical musicians from the early 18th century occurred because of the employment opportunities which no other city could offer, because none had such a developed middle and upper middle class, both foreign and domestic born. The presence of a large bourgeoisie offered all types of job openings from those working in classical music to those who founded the restaurant trade as waiters, cooks and owners. 

Musicians and waiters filled a skills gap. Trained in occupations which had emerged on the European continent, they transferred their abilities to the European city where the greatest economic opportunities existed. As we have seen, during the course of the 20th century London also attracted a new group of musicians from Black America and the West Indies in particular, who imported jazz but also helped to develop musical forms such as ska and reggae.

Similarly, the presence of a dozen football teams in London meant that it had become well positioned to develop some of the most globalised football teams in the world whether in terms of ownership or from the point of view of the playing staff. Arsenal and Chelsea in particular illustrate this process.

But between Nathan Mayer Rothschild, as a banking elite, and Didier Drogba, as a sporting superstar, the Irish builders from the 18th century onwards and the South Asian women preparing aeroplane food in West London in the second half of the 20th century, come numerous others. They have settled in London and established all types of small businesses, from the Jewish and Irish street-peddlers interviewed by Henry Mayhew, many of whom existed on tiny profit margins (if any), to the plethora of migrant shopkeepers and restaurant owners residing in the capital in the second half of the 20th century.

The size of the London economy therefore offers the key explanation as to why people from all over the globe have settled to work in such a wide range of occupations throughout the social scale. While the international importance of the London economy determines its size, this globality is also reflected in the range of occupations which foreigners undertake within the city. But the central point to re-emphasise here is the position of London as work capital. Those who have settled in the metropolis have usually devoted their lives to work, the reason they moved.

The Irish navvies who have settled in the capital since the 18th century did so for the purpose of labouring in London’s streets, a pattern which continued into the second half of the 20th century. The life of Donall MacAmlaigh, one of hundreds of thousands of Irishmen working in the London building trade over centuries, offers just one example of the centrality of employment for manual workers who surrendered their rural existence for a supposedly better life, even though the reality of employment proved different. Many of MacAmlaigh’s post-war single male contemporaries worked long hours and spent much of their leisure time simply drinking, although other Irishmen and women established a better equilibrium in their lives.

Meanwhile, higher up the social scale, the life of the Turkish Cypriot immigrant Asil Nadir offers an example of another individual whose London life essentially revolved around work, on this occasion through the establishment of an international business empire, which, however, crashed in the 1990s. Clyde Best’s life revolved around football, an artist much like the classical music performers who migrated to London in pursuit of their artistic goals. Idolised by West Ham fans in the early 1970s, his career would fizzle out in the second half of that decade when he moved to the United States.

These examples demonstrate that the London economy has, for centuries, had an insatiable appetite for labour. Until the 20thcentury those who settled in the capital were primarily English people who would often pay with their lives in their search for employment because of the insanitary conditions existing there. The examples of the Irish drinkers and the failed businessmen such as Asil Nadir demonstrate that the London economy eats up and spits out people on all parts of the social scale. Working hard, the purpose of moving to the capital, does not guarantee success or social mobility. African cleaners who take on several jobs at once to make ends meet seem to have little prospect of achieving social mobility because of both racism and the fact that they cannot earn and save enough money to purchase a house.

Migrant City: A New History of London is published in hardback on 25 February.

In South Africa's cities, evictions are happening despite a national ban

An aerial view shows a destroyed house in Lawley, south of Johannesburg, on April 20, 2020. The city has been demolishing informal structures on vacant land despite a moratorium on evictions. (Marco Longari/AFP via Getty Images)

On the morning of 15 July, a South African High Court judge ruled that the city of Cape Town’s Anti-Land Invasion Unit had illegally evicted a man when it destroyed the shack where he was living.

That afternoon, the Anti-Land Invasion Unit was out again, removing shacks in another informal settlement.

Evictions were banned in South Africa for nine weeks, after the national government placed the country under a strict Covid-19 lockdown in late March. At present, eviction orders are automatically suspended until the country moves to a lower “alert level” and can only be carried out with a special order from a judge.

Yet major cities including Cape Town, Johannesburg and eThekwini (created through the merger of Durban with several surrounding communities), have continued to use municipal law enforcement agencies and private security companies to remove people from informal housing. In many cases those operations have been conducted without a court order – something required under regular South African law.

Around 900 people were evicted from three informal settlements in eThekwini during the eviction ban, according to the Church Land Programme, a local NGO. Its director, Graham Philpott, says it’s also aware of evictions in other informal settlements.

While evictions aren’t a “new experience” in these communities, the NGO released a report on lockdown evictions because they were “so explicitly illegal”. “There was a moratorium in place,” Philpott says, “and the local municipality acted quite flagrantly against it. There’s no confusion, there’s no doubt whatsoever, it is illegal. But it is part of a trend where the eThekwini municipality has acted illegally in evicting the poor from informal settlements.”

Evictions also took place in Cape Town and Johannesburg during so-called “hard lockdown” according to local activists. In eThekwini and other municipalities, the evictions have continued despite restrictions. In Cape Town, authorities pulled a naked man, Bulelani Qholani, from his shack. That incident, which was captured on video, drew condemnation from the national government and four members of the Anti-Land Invasion unit were suspended. 

The cities say they’re fighting “land invasions” – illegal occupations without permission from the land owner.

“Land invasions derail housing and service projects, lead to the pollution of waterways, severely prejudice deserving housing beneficiaries and cause property owners to lose their investments over night,” Cape Town’s executive mayor, Dan Plato said in a statement. (Plato has also claimed that Qholani did not live in the shack he was pulled from and that he disrobed when municipal authorities arrived.)

South African municipalities often claim that the shacks they destroy are unoccupied. 

If they were occupied, says Msawakhe Mayisela, a spokesman for the eThekwini municipality, the city would get a court order before conducting an eviction. “Everything we’re doing is within the ambit of the law,” Mayisela says. But “rogue elements” are taking advantage of Covid-19, he added.

“We fully understand that people are desperately in need of land, but the number of people that are flocking to the cities is too much, the city won’t be able to provide housing or accommodation for everyone overnight,” he says. 

While eThekwini claims to be a caring city, local activists say the evictions show otherwise.

In one case, 29 women were evicted from shacks during the hard lockdown. With nowhere to go, they slept in an open field and were arrested by the South African Police Service for violating the lockdown, Philpott says.

“These evictions are dehumanizing people whose dignity is already compromised in many ways,” says S’bu Zikode, the president of Abahlali baseMjondolo, a community organization whose Zulu name translates to “the people of the shacks”. 

“It has reminded us that we are the people that do not count in our society.”

Municipal law enforcement and private security contractors hired by cities regularly fire rubber bullets, or even live ammunition, at residents during evictions. Some 18 Abahlali baseMjondolo activists have been killed since the organization was founded in 2005, Zikode says, most by the eThekwini Land Invasion Unit and Metro Police.

(Mayisela says that if city employees have broken the law, Abahlali baseMjondolo can file a complaint with the police. “There is no conclusive evidence to the effect that our members have killed them,”  he says.)

Other Abahlali baseMjondolo activists have been killed by what Zikode calls “izinkabi,” hitmen hired by politicians. Two eThekwini city councillors were sentenced to life in prison 2016 after they organized the killing of Thuli Ndlovu, an Abahlali baseMjondolo organizer. A member of the Land Invasion Unit who is currently facing a charge of attempted murder after severely injuring a person during an eviction remains on the job, Zikode says.

South Africa’s 1996 constitution is intended to protect the public from arbitrary state violence and guarantees a right to housing, as well as due process in evictions. But for Zikode, the South African constitution is a “beautiful document on a shelf”.

“For the working class and the poor, it’s still difficult to have access to court. You’ve got to have money to get to court,” he says. 

The actions by municipal law enforcement are breaking down social trust, says Buhle Booi, a member of the Khayelitsha Community Action Network, a community group in the largest township in Cape Town.

“There’s a lack of police resources and those very few police resources that they have, they use to destroy people’s homes, to destroy people’s peace, rather than fighting crime, real criminal elements that we see in our society,” Booi says.

For him, it’s a continuation of the practices of the colonial and apartheid governments, pushing poor people, most of whom are Black, to the periphery of cities.

Around one-fifth of South Africa’s urban population live in shacks or informal dwellings, according to a 2018 report by SERI. Many more live in substandard housing. City governments maintain that the shacks destroyed during anti-land invasion operations are unfinished and unoccupied. But Edward Molopi, a research and advocacy officer at SERI, says that this claim is an attempt to escape their legal obligations to get a court order and to find alternative accommodation for affected people. 

The roots of the current eviction crisis go back to apartheid, which barred non-white people from living in cities. Between the 1940s and 1970s, tens of thousands of people were forcibly relocated from neighbourhoods like Johannesburg’s Sophiatown and Cape Town’s District Six to remote townships.

In the 26 years following the end of apartheid, deepening economic inequality and rampant unemployment have limited access to formal housing for millions of South Africans. Government housing programs have mostly focused on building small stand-alone homes, often on the peripheries of cities far from jobs and amenities.

While these well-intentioned projects have built millions of homes, they’ve failed to keep up with demand, says Marie Huchzermeyer, a professor at the Centre for Urbanism & Built Environment Studies at the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg. Government-funded housing projects “will never on it’s own be enough,” she says. “It has to be accompanied by land release.”

Government policies call for the “upgrading” of informal settlements and the formalization of residents’ occupation. But “there are still very, very, very few projects” of that nature in South Africa, Huchzermeyer says. “Even if it’s an informal settlement that’s been around for 20 years, there still seems to be a political wish to punish people for having done that.” The government wants people to go through the formal process of being given a house, she says – and for them to be thankful to the government for providing it.

At the municipal level, change will require “real leadership around informal settlement upgrading and around ensuring that land is available for people to occupy,” she says. 

Despite the end of enforced racial segregation, spacial apartheid remains a factor in South Africa. There are few mixed-income neighbourhoods. Those who can afford to often live behind walls in sprawling low-density suburbs, while the poor live in overcrowded slums and apartment buildings.

The creation of the apartheid city “didn't happen by chance,” says Amira Osman, a professor of architecture at the Tshwane University of Technology. “It was a deliberate, structured approach to the design of the city. We need a deliberate, structured approach that will undo that.”

Since last fall, Johannesburg’s Inclusionary Housing Policy has required developments of 20 or more units to set aside 30% of those units for low-income housing.

The policy, which faced significant opposition from private developers, won’t lead to dramatic change, says Sarah Charlton, a professor at the Centre for Urbanism and Built Environment Studies, but it is “an important and significant step.”

Zikode isn’t optimistic that change will come for shack dwellers, however.

“People in the high positions of authority pretend that everything is normal,” he says. “They pretend that everyone is treated justly, they pretend that everyone has homes with running water, that everyone has a piece of land – and hide the truth and the lies of our democracy.”

Jacob Serebrin is a freelance journalist currently based in Johannesburg. Follow him on Twitter.