There's a guy in the German embassy trying to travel on every London bus route before he leaves town

Don't worry, he's done these two. Image: Getty.

What would you do, if you found yourself posted to strange cities for years at a time? How would you get to know them? How would you explore?

You could visit all the famous bits, but that probably wouldn’t take you very long. You could work your way through the various cultural treasures listed in the guidebooks, and thus get a view of the city unrecognisable to anyone who actually lived there.

Or, then again, you could travel on every bus route in the city's transport network, in rough numerical order. That's also a thing you could do.

It is, as it happens, a thing that the head of press at the German Embassy in London has been doing since he got here four years ago. “I've just got to number 155, and there are 499 in all, Dr Norman Walter tells me when I phone up to ask him about this hobby of his. “I've also done a few others, like the 452, which run near where I live. But I'm not sure I'll make it before I get back,” he adds, with the wry understatement of someone who is quite sure that he won't.

And then, just in case you thought we were dealing with an amateur here, he starts enthusing about route 465, which runs from Kingston to Dorking, “the farthest point you can get on your Oyster card”.

Route 465: the queen of Surrey.

CityMetric has love in its heart for anyone who enjoys a good bit of urban transport geekery, and Dr Walter very kindly took a few minutes out from a Brexit-packed schedule to talk buses. Here’s an edited transcript of our conversation.

Jonn Elledge: So, er: why do you spend your time doing this?

Norman Walter: It's an idiosyncrasy, I guess. Some people collect stamps; for me, it's this. My wife thinks it's completely crazy, but she's been married to me long enough that she's used to it.

I did in several cities where I was posted before, but in London it's simply unique. I love to go up to the upper deck, just to go through the streets and “be there, you know. I did the underground first – but as the name says, you don't see that much. Buses are the best way to discover the city.


JE: Which other cities have you explored by bus?

NW: I did some in Belgrade, but that was 30 years ago. I did Bucharest, but didn't get very far. I did Vilnius – and in Moscow, I did a fifth or so of all the bus lines.

But in London it's actually a real pleasure to do it – the upper deck's a real incentive, it gives you the feel of the city.

JE: How does London's bus network compare to those of other cities? It has more routes to cover, right?

Certainly that's the case, though Moscow has more underground lines. But the [London] bus lines are quite well organised, I would say. You mostly have at least two or three bus routes which run parallel for a while and then diverge, like the 19 and the 38. So if you just have a short trip, you can take either one of them, and you have a bus every three or four minutes.

JE: It must be getting harder though – most of the suburban routes don't run that frequently.

NW: Yes, I was rather quick in the first 100 or so, but the farther out I go the longer it takes. When I took the 468 to Croydon, I took the tram and then the underground back, so it can take several hours.

Normally I have to get up rather early, so on a Saturday morning I'd do two or three – but I've been rather lazy the last couple of weeks.

JE: I heard you'd had some difficulty locating route 5.

NW: Yes, it took me at least a year to make sure there is no number 5. There's a night bus, but-

JE: But there is a route 5 – Canning Town to Romford. It's the suburban route with the lowest number.

NW: That's amazing! There's an N5 that goes up to High Barnet, so I looked for a number 5 around Holloway, but I couldn't find one, so I assumed it didn't exist.

Route 5: nowhere near Holloway, or route N5 come to that.

JE: Do you have a favourite route?

I like the buses which come every three minutes – the one I really like is the number 38. It runs near our embassy [in Belgravia], and when I go to Piccadilly I can always catch one of them. It's also one of the Boris buses, which has a conductor and where the rear door is open – I like that very much.

Route 38: simply the best.

 

When I first saw the 38, I noticed that it normally goes to Hackney Central, but some go on to Clapton Pond. So I thought, there can't be a pond there, can there? So I went to check, and I found out that there was! It's still a sweet memory.

JE: When do you finish your posting?

Probably next year, I've around 300 more days. I'm glad the foreign office gave me an extension – certainly, the only reason they did that is to help me complete the bus lines.

JE: And will you keep exploring by bus wherever you end up next?

I'd love to, but it always depends – I might end up in a small town in Africa, where there aren't too many buses and it's too hot.

Or there's a risk I'll get called back to HQ in Berlin. But perhaps I could start there, too – they only moved the capital to Berlin 15 years ago.

Jonn Elledge is the editor of CityMetric. He is on Twitter, far too much, as @jonnelledge

Want more of this stuff? Follow CityMetric on Twitter or Facebook.

Bus maps courtesy of TfL.

 
 
 
 

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.