On one thing, Daniel Hannan is right: Great Britain is not a small island on any measure

The largest islands on earth. Gotta catch ’em all! Image: Wikimedia Commons.

“Eurocrats, keep telling me that Britain is a ‘small island’” Daniel Hannan tweeted the other day. “In what sense? We’re the fifth biggest economy in the world, the fourth military power and a UN Security Council member. If we’re ‘small’, what are the big islands? Sumatra? Borneo?”

This was a characteristically ill-considered and, frankly, stupid tweet from the Conservative MEP, and not a little annoying, since he’d done so much to bugger up the island in question. For one thing, “Britain” isn’t any of the things he listed: he’s mixing up the United Kingdon of Great Britain & Northern Ireland (which is a nation state, an economy, a military power and so on) with Great Britain (which is an island, of some size or another, and not called, simply, “Britain”). For another, given Hannan’s history of, let us say, existing at something of an angle to actual, real reality, I’m not entirely convinced that Eurocrats keep telling him any such thing.

And then there’s this rather good point from the escaped Labour advisor Tom Hamilton:

On one point, though, Hannan is completely correct: Great Britain, as we must assume that he means, is not a small island. It is, national myth-making aside, one of the biggest islands on the planet.

Here’s a list of the world’s largest islands:

1. Greenland (part of the Danish realm) – 2,130,800km2 Greenland (part of the Danish realm)

2. New Guinea (Indonesia/Papua New Guinea) – 785,753km2

3. Borneo (Indonesia/Malaysia/Brunei) – 748,168km2    

4. Madagascar – 587,041km2  

5. Baffin Island (Canada) – 507,451km2

6. Sumatra (Indonesia) – 443,066km2

7. Honshu (Japan) – 225,800km2

8. Victoria Island (Canada) – 217,291km2

9. Great Britain (UK) – 209,331km2

10. Ellesmere Island (Canada) – 196,236km2

The largest island on the planet is generally considered to be Greenland. (Most observers assume that that mainland Australia, four times Greenland’s size, counts as a continent.) It’s about ten times Great Britain’s size – which, when you put it like that, does indeed makes the latter seem relatively small.

Thing is, though, there are so many islands on the planet that it’s pretty much impossible to come up with a definitive figure. Do we count every isolated rock in the sea? Every man-made island in every lake in every municipal park? Greece claims to have 6,000 islands, but Sweden claims more than 225,000, which suggests to me they’re using rather different definitions. Where do you draw the line?

At any rate: even if we restrict ourselves to islands bigger than Greater London – 1,569km2; a fairly arbitrary measure for “a decent sized-place” – there are 247 of the things. Okay, Great Britain may be smaller than Greenland. But whichever way you cut it, being the ninth biggest island on the entire planet makes it a pretty significant lump of land.

On, and there are only four continental landmasses, so that makes (Great) Britain the 13th biggest landmass on the planet, too.

By population, it ranks even higher. Here are the 10 biggest islands in terms of approximate number of people living on them:

1. Java (Indonesia) – 141m

2. Honshū (Japan) – 104m

3. Great Britain (UK) – 64m

4. Luzon (Philippines) – 61m

5. Sumatra (Indonesia) – 50m

6. Madagascar – 26m

7. Mindanao (Philippines) – 25m

8. Taiwan – 23m

9. Borneo (Indonesia) – 21m

10. Sri Lanka – 21m

Great Britain is the third most populous island on the planet. And this is actually even more impressive than it sounds because, although there are four continental landmasses, one of them, mainland Australia, has a population of 24.5m, somewhere under half Great Britain’s, while Antarctica is home to almost nobody at all.

And so, the five most populated landmasses in the world are as follows:

1. Afro-Eurasia – 6bn

2. North & South America – 1bn

3. Java – 141m

4. Honshū – 104m

5. Great Britain – 64m

Okay, there’s quite a steep descent between the first and fifth place on that ranking. But nonetheless: Great Britain is the fifth most populated landmass on the planet.

Last one and then I’ll stop. I can’t find estimates for GDP of every landmass on the planet – too hard to work out the GDP of that island in the lake in Harrow Lodge Park, I assume – but I went through the most populous ones, and where figures weren’t available worked out very rough estimates based on population size.

Here’s my ranking of the world’s landmasses by the size of their economy. The figures are approximate; the rankings, I feel confident are not:

1. Afro-Eurasia – around $50trn

2. North & South America – around $25trn

3. Honshū – just under $5trn

4. Great Britain – just over $2trn

...at which point it gets difficult. Originally I had Taiwan here (somewhere around $500bn). But readers have pointed out that Taiwan has a smaller GDP than Australia ($1.3trn), and possibly Java, Manhattan and Long Island, too. So I’m going to stop at the top four.

So, on one level, Daniel Hannan was right. Great Britain is the world’s 9th largest island and 13th largest landmass; it ranks 5th when we count landmasses by population, and 4th when we count them by GDP. It is not a small place.

Nonetheless, I’m calling bullshit on his tweet for two reasons. Firstly, my suspicion is that the idea that Britain is a small, unimportant island comes from Britain itself. It’s oddly self-flattering: by emphasising our smallness, we magnify our achievements. “We’re the fifth most populated landmass on the planet, of course we’re a significant player in global affairs,” is not a message calculated to stir the heart.


The other reason I think his entire message is nonsense is that, however you measure Britain’s size – its landmass, its population, its GDP – it is a lot smaller than the combined might of the remaining 27 members of the European Union. Britain is a relatively big island. That doesn’t mean it can’t get crushed.

Jonn Elledge is the editor of CityMetric. He is on Twitter as @jonnelledge and on Facebook as JonnElledgeWrites

 
 
 
 

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.