“I think the thing that I love most about airports is the feeling of being slightly out of time”

An Aer Lingus flight in the skies above Dublin. Image: Getty.

‘Prodigal, what were your wanderings about?

The smoke of homecoming, the smoke of departure.’

 -Derek Walcott

I think the thing that I love most about airports is the feeling, always, of being stuck slightly out of time. I don’t mean “stuck” in the sense of time standing still, or in the world outside ceasing to be relevant. Rather, airports have always seemed just that bit outdated to me – with their linoleum floors and photochromic windows, their retractable barriers and airline-branded luggage tags. Everything feels so manual, so interactive; and in a world now so increasingly enamoured of filtered technologies and digital communication, it can sometimes be a relief to experience life without context. To celebrate “The Airport” in all its homogenous glory.

Case in point: as I write this I’m surrounded by the sort of 1980’s decadence that wouldn’t go amiss in an episode of ‘Dynasty’: Estée Lauder perfume stands, Johnny Walker gift boxes, Ralph Lauren summer yacht-wear, giant bars of Toblerone. Whilst at the other end of the departure lounge – and from a source seeming at once to emanate from everywhere and nowhere – a selection of 1950’s jazz is being pumped toward a queue of boarders who are squabbling about bag-size and finishing their drinks. There’s a Starbucks nearby and an airport bar called ‘The Kissing Gate’. The bar is filled with men of a certain age who seem perpetually slumped over brass rails and tables, over chipboard counters veneered in faux-mahogany and teak, and off to their left a group of teenagers are pooling their change and playing on fruit machines.

Out on the runway looks like it could be from a projected reel of Casablanca, if not for the baggage handlers in colourful fluorescent jackets or the Easyjet logo emblazoned on an otherwise monochrome background. From inside I can almost hear the cynical noir-ish patter of the hostesses disembarking the Ryanair craft nearest the window – cracking wise with “Mac” as he unspools a nozzle from the BP lorry, or laughing about the passenger who ordered the ham-and-cheese “poonannie”.

It’s hard to pinpoint exactly where this sense of airport romanticism comes from. Even the ballache of going through security appeals to my sense of preparedness over everyone; where I’ll have my boots removed and my belt unbuckled, my laptop taken out of its bag and my phone transferred to the inside pocket of my jacket so that I don’t have to linger once I’m handed my plastic tray. Everyone else looks miserable and beleaguered. I feel like George Clooney in Up in the Air: “All the things you probably hate about travelling – the recycled air, the artificial lighting, the juice dispensers and cheap sushi – are warm reminders that I’m home.”

Perhaps it has something to do with the sense of communal loneliness that one experiences in an airport. Everywhere I look people are consumed by where they’ve come from or where they’re going to, and this leaves them looking as though they might not actually be here at all; sulking over pints or coffee cups, rifling through bags in a bid to feel active, browsing through bestsellers in the perma-bright WH Smith.

Back in my Liverpool flat, I’d never allow myself to feel this sort of loneliness lest it consume me. I never become excited for too long about the dispatches received from home because, unless I’m actually going home, they feel wasteful and sad; stark reminders that the majority of those I know and love are there, whilst I’m stuck here working shit jobs and struggling to pay the rent.

You can see some of that in the faces of other people in the airport and it can be comforting, I think, to experience this kind of loneliness together. The people here are like temporary ghosts in a well-designed purgatory. We exchange knowing glances and nods of the head, sometimes even exchanging pleasantries about how much penance we have left before our flight: Are you going back home? Will you bring some of that good weather back with you?

Because that’s ultimately what sustains our elation. The already familiar feeling – though we’re still only ten-deep from the attendant at the desk checking ID – that we’ll be home soon relaxing, or spending money in an exotic climate with a chilled bottle of Wolfblas and a pot of mussels for the table. Each flight seems new, a fresh start, and as I finger the spine on my own well-worn Irish passport – preparing it to open the second I reach the flight desk – I already feel like I’ve touched down on terra firma. I already know what I’m going to have for dinner.

*****

Back when I was younger and on a plane, I used to imagine myself stepping outside and off the wing so that I could get down to the clouds and walk on top of them like icy tundra. There were more shapes, it seemed, to be made above the clouds than below them – icebergs, weather stations, distant ships, research outposts – and for someone like me with a dreamy interest in the unexplored, I liked to think of myself as a Marco Polo figure traversing these airy landscapes and coming to rest only when I’d reached the far horizon. At times like these the sun would sink low in the sky until it had turned a smooth orange, the plane would tilt to one side so that the interior filled with ambient light, and often I’d be armed with an A5 legal pad so that I could document what I imagined was going on outside.

Not much has changed in this regard. Even if I’m only doing the half-hour commute from Liverpool to Dublin, there’s a delight in floating above the clouds and knowing that for the next short while I’ll be in suspended animation – with plastic beakers and flavourless gins, microwaveable paninis and vacuum-packed tubes of Pringles.

These are the things about a flight that elicit a kind of peacefulness in me. It’s almost as if being above everybody, in the literal sense, can reveal new vantages from which I can view my life objectively, and these small comforts – delivered to my tray table to make me forget that I’m thousands of feet off the ground – are the mechanisms by which I can achieve this objectivity without being spooked by the surrealness of flying.

Because flying enacts a sort of rebirth every time we experience it. There’s something about being on a plane and mentally staving off the inevitability of disaster that can make a person focussed and sometimes even relaxed.

*****

Of course, there are times when flying – and in particular, flight preparation – can be extremely frustrating. If you’ve ever had a flight cancelled for example, or been stuck in an airport for more than, say, seven hours, you’ll know that the surrounding combination of bland kitsch, overpriced food and distant chattering over the intercom can become infuriating.

Within the space of a month I had to negotiate two of these sorts of flying experiences to two different destinations within the British Isles. The first was a flight from Manchester to Shannon in the West of Ireland, which – having never experienced the joy of having to find my way through Manchester Airport’s labyrinthine structure before – I found to be an absolute nightmare.

First was the issue of getting my dog to the minder’s house at 7:30 in the morning with no car. Then getting the bus into Liverpool city centre with enough time to make the 9:00 National Express to Manchester Airport. Then the arrival there and negotiating not one, not two, but three terminals before I found my way to Security where there was a massive line snaking back towards Check-In.

It was a phenomenally hot day and there was no air in the terminal, and with dozens of bodies lurching back and forth in an effort to get to the front, all I could smell was the sickly-sweet combination of hundreds of people in preparation for flight: sunblock, cider, stale cigarette smoke, B.O., a whisper of soap, a half-eaten sandwich that somebody left in their bag.

Dublin Airport. Image: Getty.

Then there were the staff, who looked bored and uninterested, herding us along and making wry barely audible comments about their slow, uncooperative charges. Tuts, swearing, the sound of a toddler screaming, stressed parents using their double-buggies as battering rams to get through to Fast-Check, old people, couples kissing, deflated looking stag parties perspiring through their matching polo shirts. It was almost as if everyone here was a deliberate prop sent to aggravate my frustration.

If hell was eternal, then this queue felt like the closest approximation of it. No amount of preparedness or romanticism in that scenario could’ve made me forgive George Clooney’s lie in Up in the Air. This wasn’t easy, this was having every item of luggage that I’d brought swabbed because I’d forgotten to remove a half-drunk bottle of Lucozade from my bag. This was having to remove my shoes and being dried out from that Bacon Double Cheese that I’d eaten on the bus.

The second bad experience came about two weeks after the first. I’d been at home in Ireland catching up with my brother – who also lives abroad – and was due to fly back to Liverpool after a weekend of family activity. I was still hungover as I dragged myself onto the bus from Newry to Aldergrove, checked in through security, buy myself a copy of The Irish News, then wait for another hour until my flight to Liverpool was called.

So I waited. And waited. And waited. Until ten minutes had finally passed since my original boarding time, and I got up to check the board again and I saw what nobody ever expects to see during such times. That big red blip in a sea of pixelated green. My 16:30 flight from Belfast International to Liverpool had been cancelled because of “staff shortages”, and I now had to spend another five hours in the airport before Easyjet could arrange for me to get on another flight.

*****

Now it’s July, and I’m touching down again on the tarmac at Dublin airport – flying home, as I often do, to fill my camel-hump with its monthly dose of TLC from my family and friends. Where I’m from in Newry is about halfway between Belfast and Dublin, and depending on the affordability of each flight, my flying home to either is often interchangeable.

It’s evening – which is my favourite time to fly – and I can almost feel the wheels of the plane being deployed beneath me; the aircraft drawing closer to the ground, and our movement toward the runway, the terminal, the hangar, Arrivals. There is now a palpable change of mood in the air and certain pockets of the craft have broken out into laughter.

Call it collective relief, call it renewed optimism, call it coming home. Whatever it is about landing here things just feel different, and for the hundred or so other Irish voices surrounding me on the plane, there is a lightness and joviality among us which feels akin to a pressure cooker’s lid being lifted off.

All being well, in roughly fifteen minutes I’ll step off the plane into an unusually icy July evening in Dublin. It’ll come as a relief to feel the recirculated air, the fart-smell and B.O. get blown away by the cold. I’ll take a moment for the flashing red lights on the air-traffic-control tower, breathe in the diesel and salt-water saturated air, deploy the handle on the wheelie bag that I’ve borrowed from my girlfriend, and make my way to Arrivals where my dad will be waiting to greet me with a hug.

We’ll take an interminably long time trying to figure out where he’s parked, then we’ll pay for our time at short-stay and leave, possibly stopping for a McFlurry at the drive-in McDonald’s across from the airport Radisson, possibly waiting until we get to an Apple Green on the M1 going home. All of this will feel like the warm settling in of a good dream, and all of the home comforts I receive over the next few days will be bookended by periods spent lingering at the airport.

When I wake from this dream again it’ll be days later and I’ll be back to where I started. When I come back to reality I’ll be back here at the airport.

 
 
 
 

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.