“I think they’re pretty”: Inside the strangely heart-warming world of pylon fandom

Some boring Scottish pylons. Image: Getty.

If I asked you what brings people together on a global scale, I’m sure a few things would come to mind. Probably some activist causes: feminism, gun control, climate change. Maybe it’s something cultural: Gilmore Girls, BoJack Horseman, the Fab Five.

Regardless of what you thought of, I could guarantee that it wasn’t the electrified, steel lattice towers that are commonly known around the world as pylons. From what many people would see as an eyesore or even a metal monstrosity, an international community is being built on the backs of these ubiquitous structures.

The internet is, of course, rife with industrial and transport themed fan groups, from trainspotting to busspotting to ones devoted to power plants and machinery. The vast majority of these groups are intrinsically linked by geography, however. Many of them are regionally focused; far fewer have managed to grow to a national scale.

This is where pylon fandom is different. In one of its most popular fan groups, the Pylon Appreciation Society (boasting nearly 3,000 members), you rarely see two posts one after another coming from the same country, let alone the same region.

After speaking to nearly twenty of those three thousand members, it became clear that the demographic diversity is part of what makes the group, and pylon fandom generally, so widely appealing.

A screenshot of the Facebook group.

One person I spoke to was Mark, a 47 year old hydraulic engineer from Canterbury, who travels all around Britain observing pylons despite only becoming a proper fan about three years ago. “I’m fascinated by the different types and set-ups,” he told me, “and it’s good to see what others post, especially from around the world.”

Ceri, a Welsh-born train signaler living in Peterborough, echoed this sentiment. “There’s a vast array of designs, not just in this country, but all over the world,” she explained. “Seeing these structures in amazing and challenging environments is, for me, one of the best parts of joining the group.”

Although there is definitely a strong UK base in this particular group, as many British and non-British members pointed out, the posters remain diverse. Chris, a 67 year-old living in New Zealand, told me that he loved the vast range of nationalities in the group, whilst throwing a little shade at the UK (where he had previously lived and where his pylon obsession began).

“I'm relieved the group is diverse,” he exasperatedly said. “The photos from the Brits tend to be a bit dull and boring… The ones from outside Britain are usually more interesting; more interesting structures taken with a bit more attention to detail.”

With the more international posts, he noted, you got to see beyond the average pylons that you pass on the motorways. By way of example, he cited an image that was posted in the group earlier that day of a Japanese pylon nestling amongst springtime cherry blossom trees.

Not only do the posters range from east Asia to the American Midwest: they cover all ages, too, from women in their early teens to members nearing triple digits. Ella, a 15 year old from Lincoln, is one of the younger members of the group. She has been a pylon fan for the last four months, largely due to time spent studying national grid and power stations for her physics class.

“I found pylons very interesting and started taking pictures [of them] when I saw them. I think they’re pretty,” she told me.

At the other end of the spectrum are members like Diane, a 70 year old Leicestershire local, who only recently joined the group. She told me of her joy at finding a community of pylon fans having been one herself for her entire life.

Many members remarked that they didn’t have many real life friends who were pylon fans in their home countries, so the group was a godsend that made them feel less alone in their hobby. One of these people was Tim, a 32 year old American born and raised in Michigan. He’s a self-described “lifelong infrastructure and pylon fan” and lives directly next to a pylon utility corridor.

“Here in the States, if you mention that you like power lines or pylons, people in general will think you are pretty crazy, weird, possibly threatening, or otherwise nerdy,” he told me. He explained that he studied international relations at university and has visited Europe several times – so having a group of people from all of the world who also shared his interest was, as he put it, “badass”.

“It’s nice to see that they are other people out there who look at the same things I do in the same way, that I'm not just one weirdo who likes power poles LOL,” a fellow member, Olga from Cuba, agreed.

When I asked why they thought pylons created this universal feeling, everyone said almost the same thing: the communal human reliance on pylons to deliver the electricity that we need. Many of the group members credited this epiphany as the reason they joined the group and what spurred them to become a committed pylon fan.

Some French pylons.

“I think the demographic is so wide,” Zander, from West Yorkshire, explained, “because pylons are there [to help] everyone. People from all ages and places can appreciate them.”

However, this may not seem like enough of a basis to garner such a wide, active, and captive audience. Many of the members, even those who had come to pylon fandom later in life, had been members of the Pylon Appreciation Society for coming onto five years; people who had been around from the beginning, even as the group morphed and changed. Although there’s likely not one simple answer, this fandom has one thing that many fan groups, especially those hosted on social media, don’t have: a positive, encouraging, and friendly atmosphere.

“It is lovely to see everyone [being] so welcoming to new members,” Ella told me. “Everyone comments nice things on each other’s photography.”

“What I love about this group is the common purpose.” Alan, a 35 year old Aberdonian originally from Perth, explained. “It's the sense of belonging that goes with finding a group of like-minded individuals that have the confidence to be out about their niche interest.”

“I think these groups help people to feel more comfortable about doing this,” he added. “And, in doing so, happier in themselves.”

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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.