“There had been an ‘incident’”: On losing your home in a fire

Oh, god. Image: Benjamin Mercer.

When, in December of last year, a drunk Brazilian girl cycled into my houseboat and fell in the canal, I got to play hero. I was getting ready for bed when I heard a bang, then a splash. Neither of these sounds are unusual to those of us who live on London’s canals, but I thought I’d better take a look.

And there she was, being helped out of the water by a well-dressed German. I took charge, and brought her aboard, lighting a fire, brewing a coffee, filling a hot water bottle and sourcing an ill-fitting change of clothes. Later I walked her back to her place of work, then had to leave abruptly when her boyfriend, who suspected malfeasance on my part, arrived unexpectedly.

The next day I rescued her bicycle from the canal and returned it, and some time afterwards was rewarded by a package containing flowers, exotic teas, cheeses and crackers, and suchlike.

Now it’s my turn to be the victim, and in turn make heroes of others. Whilst at work on the evening of Saturday 9 April, I received a text from one of London’s excellent canal rangers. There’d been “an incident”, he said. I called him, and was told my boat had caught fire. I had in mind some damaging but relatively minor thing.

Not so. At the time of writing, my boat – my home – rests at the bottom of the canal. I was sent a picture of the blaze – no small thing, this fire. Vikings could not have wished for better.

Everything is gone. The boat is gutted. All I own is ash. Priam could at least watch Troy burn and think, “Had I done otherwise, then perhaps…” I was stranded miles away, knowing not the time, never mind the cause, of my home’s destruction.

I am indebted, as I will always be, to my dearest friend, for getting me through the next hours. We had been due to sail to Canning Town on Monday. Last time we sailed with wine in hand, Wagner’s Tannhauser Overture and Ride of the Valkyries blaring from our speakers. (“Among the more cultured perambulations a denizen of Mile End is likely to make,” as he put it.)

From the best of times to the worst of times: he found me slumped on the floor, a bit of a wreck; though I retained sufficiently English understatedness to begin by saying, “Monday’s off.”

He has seen me through other disasters and is seeing me through this one. Odd though it might be thought, considering what I’ve just lost, my most immediate regret is how difficult it is to know me.

What remains. Image: Benjamin Mercer.

It is hard to find the words to describe this experience, perhaps – probably – because I’ve not yet come to terms with it. Others might have lost more. You don’t live on a boat if you desire convenience. Except where alcohol is concerned, I am by nature frugal. Small homes – and my boat certainly qualifies as such – demand small belongings.

I owned little, yet just about everything I did own is lost. Clothes can be replaced, of course. So too can books, though not completely: many of mine were difficult to purchase, and a good deal contained annotations. Aldous Huxley possessed a vast library, and many of his books were annotated. He didn’t live long after they were lost to a fire.

And many of mine were given to me by those I hold most dear. These are the hardest of losses; along with my notebooks, one of which contained my history as an (aspiring) poet, and one or two more the beginnings of novels. Some of this was backed up, but the digital depository is inevitably incomplete, and what is gone is more poignant for its loss.

The words ‘purgation’ and ‘purgatory’ share a root, yet I find I am living by their now-separate definitions. The loss of a past life is in many sense a purifying experience; the boat was not what it might have been, and the prospect of a new one, or of bringing something new out of the ashes, is itself the prospect of possibility. (My friend suggests I name the next incarnation ‘The Phoenix’, which is obvious but apt.) The poems and the novels can take on a new life.

But the unfortunate business of bureaucracy and the real has me stranded in purgatory, a seemingly eternal wait. Nothing is known of the cause of the fire. The insurance has not been, and is not guaranteed to be, paid out.

As yet, the only sure consequences of my inferno are ecological and economic. The subsequent oil spill has alarmed environmentalists, and also forced the closure of Limehouse Marina’s commercial lock, at the cost of many thousands of pounds of business. I have inadvertently done more damage to capitalism than the most fervent Momentum supporter. (This is not my fault: The Canal & River Trust was too slow to set out booms.)

But my new status as victim has brought forth innumerable Heroes. Besides my friends, I am indebted now to more people than I can name; people, indeed, who I could not name, they being strangers to me. Our lack of acquaintance makes their kindness more remarkable.

Members of the London Boards Facebook group have provided me enormous solace and consolation. I had always been dimly aware of the tight-knit community I had joined when I first set foot aboard my boat, The Highlander, but the loyalty of that community still took me by surprise.

Widespread dissatisfaction with the Canal & River Trust tightens the bonds between the community’s members, and those bonds produce dissatisfaction in turn. Boaters know how the waterways should be run and generally think they’d be best at running them. By and large they are right, and the campaign to renationalise the waterways is not without merit.

Consequently they – we – rally around when a fellow boater is beset by tragedy. Philip Pullman’s depiction of the Gyptians in Northern Lights is far from fantasy. Thus, when they learned of my inferno (and it was through one of them that I first learnt of it), I was beset by offers, from total strangers, of accommodation, moral support, help with salvage, and everything else besides. (“Puppy cuddles” included, I think.)

One or two were more concerned about the local swans, and I have some sympathy. But the rest have been unfailing in their support, and I lack the words to sufficiently express my gratitude to them.

Auden rightly scorned “The strength of collective man.” There is an empty tyranny about it, which is why vague talk of ‘The Big Society’ is everywhere and always vacuous. Its stated ambition, that we should all look out and stand up for each other, is of course a good one, but it too often means its opposite: the state, which has done so much to destroy society, now stepping back from the consequences it has wrought.

This is why kindness is so often so extraordinary: it is not ‘The Big Society’ but little communities which embody the ideal.

Which is how, though my home is now a wreck and all my belongings lost, I still have a home and I still belong; thanks to those, principally of the London Boaters, who have availed me. 


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.