Warsaw is rebuilding itself – but its foundations remain unstable

The Zlota 44 tower (2dL) and the Palace of Culture and Science (R), Poland's tallest building, in 2014. Image: Getty.

“Warsaw is being sliced up like a cake,” one resident told me bluntly, when I asked her what she made of the plethora of developments teeming across the city’s landscape. “We are in a mess.”

You wouldn’t necessarily think this was the case: to the unassuming tourist, Warsaw is undoubtedly blossoming. The impact from years of backbreaking oppression – first from the Nazis, who razed 85 per cent of the city to the ground, and then from the Communists – has all but disappeared, with a richer, more modern look cultivated in its place. Warsaw will soon be home to the tallest building in the EU, the Varso tower, and many other ground-breaking developments simmer away in offices and infrastructure departments.

Hidden beneath the surface, however, there’s a more complex picture, and residents are apprehensive about the city’s future. Swathed in the ice-blue of the countless skyscrapers which pepper its lukewarm skies, the rickety nature of Warsaw’s modernisation is a parasite which feeds liberally on the progress of development. And this has been disregarded by those in power to such an extent that it now encompasses issues from all fields of city life. The frantic desire for Warsaw to move as far away as possible from its downtrodden 20th century past has now exploded into internal quibbles, developmental nightmares, and slapdash construction, all sullied ever further with the overarching concern of Warsaw’s citizens, who feel that they are not being listened to.

The debates in Polish politics can be found in microcosm in the development of its capital, with strains between the governing Law & Justice (PiS) party and opposition Civic Platform (PO) bringing spats onto the very streets. PO is the mayor of Warsaw’s party – and, by a small majority, the dominant force in the city council. But tensions with PiS in the city have been exacerbated with the reprivatisation affair, a cataclysmic concern that has been rumbling on since the end of the war.

The Bierut Decree of 1945 transferred all of Warsaw’s property and land into state ownership to expedite its reconstruction; owners were promised being that their property would one day be returned, if they so desired. But individuals’ claims have been repeatedly unfulfilled, and the system has been marred with scandals and PO implicated in dubious dealings – prompting increased activity by PiS in city management. With local elections later this year, all is still up for debate.


The reprivatisation issue is still a shady one to Poles – but what this means for Warsaw’s development is far more concerning. Land has become a burden, and developers fear spectres of age-old claims to property; a fear manifested in a culture of uncertainty, with allegations of developer corruption bandied around by Warsaw’s residents. Though a recent development strategy for the city took into account thousands of citizens’ views, many told me they were anxious about the city’s heritage, claiming weak laws for protection of history threaten the last vestiges of its past.

Journalist and resident Ronald Smit told me that “the few characteristic buildings Warsaw had left are being demolished at high speed”. This is an issue which has, in fact, ravaged the area since 1945, when swathes of the city centre, some undamaged by war, were demolished for the erection of the Palace of Culture and Science.

Another bone of contention is public space. The focus on construction has eclipsed wider, more social matters, with one citizen telling me that “the way things are going every street is going to resemble the Grzybowska corridor,” a vastly overdeveloped area of Warsaw. Tacked on to the concerns about a lack of city planning, there is worry that constructors are failing to consider the parts of the city left when new builds are created.

One development which attempted to actively combat these tensions is the recently built Warsaw Spire. Jeroen van der Toolen, managing director for central Europe with developer Ghelamco, told me that the company’s mission had been “to bring this part of the city back to life... It was crucial for us that it would contribute to increasing the quality of life and work in the city.”

He believes the city’s development can coexist with its history, claiming that the area is more “metropolitan” as a result. And Warsaw has, of course, always striven for rejuvenation, a process which has earnt it the name ‘the Phoenix City’. As resident Phil Goss told me,

“When I came to Poland in January 1991, the Warsaw Metro was still, quite literally, just a hole in the ground... The country just wasn’t ready for business. In the intervening 27 years we’ve seen many changes... Warsaw was rebuilt as a city for the future... That future is now.”

And certainly, despite deep-rooted complications, the city is trying its best – with successes particularly seen on the level of transport. Michał Grobelny, a spokesperson with the Warsaw Public Transport authority, explained that the public transport network is expanding annually. Construction of M2, a new east-west metro line, is ongoing.

But the development has been hit with a complication found across most projects modernising the city: that of archeological discoveries. Grobelny told me that construction workers had “transported 450 pieces of ammunition from the site, including over 100 artillery shells. The construction of the subway was therefore suspended for a total of 16 times.”

It is certainly true that remnants of the past eventually find their way to those ice-blues surface of Warsaw’s development. For residents, politicians and constructors, the history of the city remains of paramount importance to its future: Phil Goss claims that “it will take a lot more than new buildings to make Warsaw lose its identity, its history, its past.”

But if Warsaw cannot negotiate its relationship to its past successfully, then its future may always be under threat.

 
 
 
 

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.