“It’s strange to see the area so still and silent”: A walk around Elephant & Castle at dawn

The Elephant and Castle shopping centre, which is to be demolished.Credit: Getty

It’s 4am and it’s cool, dark and foggy. There’s hardly anyone on the streets of Elephant and Castle as I begin my dawn wander outside the wildly unattractive shopping centre.

Opened in 1965, it was the first covered shopping mall in Europe, and is today shabby and full of character. It’s home to Latin American cafés, Castle Tandoori – an Indian restaurant largely unchanged since the 1980s – £1-a-go massage chairs, and, until recently, Palace Bingo. The latter shut its doors in April, among the first of many closures to hit the shopping centre in upcoming months as its vendors prepares for imminent demolition.  

During the day, the centre is a lively stomping ground for many local pensioners from diverse backgrounds, predominantly African and Caribbean, and it’s strange to see the area surrounding the centre, usually buzzing with life, so still and silent. It strikes me how strange and sad it will be when it’s no longer there.  

Walworth, like most areas of London, is undergoing extensive change. I’m reminded of this every time I find myself in the area.  As I walk towards East Street, I survey the places that no longer exist: the Tibetan Buddhist Centre that was located in a former Victorian bathhouse, the Cuming Museum, which has remained closed since a fire in 2013, the Heygate Estate – now replaced by Elephant Park. 

I pass by the ArtWorks; an odd ill-placed pop-up of shipping containers housing restaurants, start-ups, and a small library frequented by locals. Just across the road, tucked at the end of Hampton Street behind the 43-storey Strata tower, which was in 2010 voted Britain’s Ugliest New Building, stands the United Reform Church. The church hosts a weekly community canteen run by charity Be Enriched. Locals, often vulnerable adults and rough sleepers, gather at the church to enjoy a free meal and chat about everything under the sun, from zombie apocalypses to the housing crisis and the gentrification of the area.  

An elderly man emerges from the fog; he’s wearing a top hat and hobbling along with his walking stick. Startled, I smile awkwardly and say good morning, he smiles back and nods. I wonder where he’s going at this time. I keep walking down the street, passing by East Street Market, one of London’s oldest, largest and busiest markets. There’s a blue plaque stuck to the building by the entrance marking the birthplace of Charlie Chaplin.

The market, which is notably featured in the opening credits of Only Fools and Horses, will come to life this afternoon, drawing in crowds of people. Its stalls sell everything from fruit and veg to suitcases, antiques, and underwear. You’ll often see the same characters frequenting the stalls, dressed in eccentric outfits and chatting to the sellers. At this time, a few empty stalls have been put out, shrouded in mist, a man stands beside them. I float by.


A greasy spoon on the high street is lit up, the shutters are half closed. There are plasters strewn across the pavement. I pass by shops and supermarkets, bus stops, beauty salons and pawn brokers. I reach the top of Liverpool Grove and glance up. St Peter’s Church, the first church designed by Sir John Soane, the architect behind the Bank of England, stands tall and looks slightly out of place in the area. During the blitz local people would seek shelter in its crypt, 30 people were killed when a bomb hit it. The crypt, recently restored, is now a community space and café. During the colder months it provides shelter to those sleeping rough.   

I keep walking down the High Street until I come to a junction, where I cross the road and wander into Burgess park. I walk up the steep wildflower mounds – relishing in finding a bit of countryside in London. Birds fly over my head; the flowers are beginning to bloom. From the hills, I look out at the Ayelesbury Estate and Divine Rescue Shelter (another soon-to be-gone soup kitchen) and the Shard. 

I walk pass the almshouses in Chumleigh Gardens, established by the Friendly Female Society, the sheltered housing was run by and for women, operating “by love, kindness, and absence of humbug”.  Hidden inside the gardens in the courtyard of the almshouse there’s multi-cultural garden, built to reflect the area’s diversity. In the Islamic Garden at the back there’s a sculpture depicting local hero Kieb Thomas, a community activist and teacher. The gardens, now closed, are a hidden gem providing peace and quiet in an otherwise noisy and heavily populated space.   

I continue through the park, pausing by the lake. Surrounding the much-used outdoor barbeques are piles of rubbish. A fox is trawling through it. A cleaner wearing high-vis is walking around, surveying the damage with an expression of disgust on his face; he takes photos of the litter. I climb the hill, and from its summit I take in the view; the tall glass buildings of Canary Wharf, and the local gems like New Peckham Mosque, a place of workshop frequented largely by the Turkish Cypriot community and housed inside a Grade 1 listed church. Finally, I take a seat on the grass and wait for the sun to rise.  

 
 
 
 

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.