Making meaning in Johannesburg

Matthew Wilhelm-Solomon

Documenting an urban housing crisis and how tens of thousands of informal workers and unemployed people struggle to reshape Johannesburg.

Photo by Keenan Constance on Unsplash

Interview by
Paul T. Clarke

During South Africa’s turbulent period of transition, Johannesburg’s inner city underwent a transformation nearly as dramatic as the country itself. As apartheid came apart, the country’s leading companies fled north, disinvesting just as migrants from across the country and the continent arrived in the city center in pursuit of a better life. Ever since the inner city has become a symbol of insecurity and urban decay. In recent decades, its residents have been subjected to evictions and police raids carried out in the name of “urban renewal.”

In his new The Blinded City: Ten years in inner city Johannesburg, writer, and educator Matthew Wilhelm-Solomon explores the consequences of these projects of urban renewal from the vantage point of those who live in the inner city’s “dark” or unlawfully occupied buildings. I spoke with Wilhelm-Solomon about the book’s origins, narrative nonfiction, South Africa’s urban housing crisis, and what the country’s housing movements can learn from their peers elsewhere in the Global South.


You spent an extraordinary amount of time researching for the book. Why did you feel it was important to write about the inner city?


I think it was obviously my personal connection with Joburg [Johannesburg]. I was born in Joburg. Growing up, I spent most of my life in suburbs proximate to the inner city. It has been an orienting point in my life. When I returned to Johannesburg from my doctoral research, I wrote a journalistic piece for the Mail & Guardian [a local weekly newspaper] on the inner city. The first building I visited, Chambers, was five minutes from my family home. It was not that I was unaware of the levels of destitution in Johannesburg, but very close to my home, this entirely different domain existed—a space of state abandonment and a space of complex history. That is what first drew me to it.

And that is where, from the outset, the complexities of a white writer writing about “dark spaces” and the colonial histories that come with that motif emerged. But what became very important is that those places, which were erased in the history of the city and the media narratives which framed unlawful occupations through the lens of criminality and “hijacked buildings,” were places of very complex social histories, histories of the post-apartheid era and beyond, not just histories of Johannesburg, but regional histories.

That became a lens to tell a kind of wider story, that was being erased in the political narrative—and not in an innocent way. These were spaces subject to very extreme violence by the state and by private security, subject to evictions, raids, criminal violence. If you just understand these spaces through a criminal lens, then you erase what is essentially an urban housing crisis and the lives of tens of thousands of informal workers and unemployed people, who are trying to make meaning in the city.

I never planned it as a 10-year project. But it took a long time to find the form to tell the story, but also the story kept unfolding. The more I made connections, the more I accessed different spaces, the more I delved. The interactions with those spaces became part of my life in the city. It altered the way I related to the city I had grown up in.


On the question of form, some of your training is in anthropology and you are currently based at the Anthropology Department at Wits University. But The Blinded City is not a traditional ethnography. Why choose narrative non-fiction?


There are a few reasons. I wanted a book that was read more widely in South Africa. I’ve done more theoretical work in journal articles and papers, but I found that within the academic circuit, the academic economy, my work was being read by a very small group in South Africa, Europe, or the US—mostly academics. I thought the work had significance to a wider public in South Africa. So, it was a political decision to be more narrative driven, more accessible.

The other reason was more personal. The actual form of narrative nonfiction is one that I find valuable. I wanted the book to be light on analysis and strong on storytelling to open up reflection, diverse interpretations rather than imposing a particular way of thinking on these issues, because the issues raised in the book are not simple. There are a whole lot of moral and political complexities. The advantage of a literary approach is to open up that space of interpretation and that space of debate.


Some of the more compelling parts of the book are when you question whether your presence as a white, middle-class South African is more of an intrusion than a comfort to residents facing loss. As you show, suburbanites have a great deal of complicity in creating the conditions in the inner city. But at the same time, the suburbs themselves are becoming less and less insulated from the forms of infrastructural abandonment that people in the inner city face. As we speak, the country is experiencing 12-hours of rolling blackouts every day. Do you see any potential lines of solidarity between those living in the inner city and those outside?


I think that there are spaces of solidarity. We saw that with COVID, for instance, where there were quite diverse coalitions—people from the suburbs, people from the inner city, property developers, and activists working together to ensure food supply to precarious residents and cross-border migrants. I think that the capacity for solidarity exists, but I am not naive about it. I don’t think it can exist when the structural conditions continually destroy it. Violent police raids continually destroy the capacity for solidarity. What basis do you have for solidarity if people are constantly being dispossessed and informal traders evicted? If you have this continuing violence and dispossession, how can you expect inner city populations to have any trust?

But yes, there is potential for solidarity. There are groups that are realizing that the urban regeneration policies have not been effective. They’ve not dealt with crime; they’ve not made the city secure for anybody. There is a strong cross-class desire for security. If there are socioeconomic interventions that make the lives of precarious populations more secure, then those interventions also make the city safer. My perspective has been if we invest in low-cost housing, if we make the lives of informal workers more secure, if you have skills training, all of that is a safety intervention—and potentially a lot more effective than this ineffective mode of policing. Decent affordable housing can also help make the city safer for women and others exposed to frequent violence.

But for that shift in vision to take place, it needs a lot of work. It will take quite complex alliances that are built over many, many years. But I don’t think it is impossible. Those types of alliances were built in Sao Paulo with the Workers Party government that did manage to improve social housing. But they need forms of collaboration, dialogue, and participatory work which are not easy. They are hard, they are conflictual. And that’s just the way it goes. There’s no magic solution.

And, you know, I don’t have that magic solution. I have ideas of what to do, it is not up to me to say, this is the perfect city. The key point of the book, if anything, is that those inner-city populations living in unlawful occupations and poor housing need to be engaged at a very serious level in shaping the city.


You detail how residents organize in response to eviction, working with organizations like SERI to launch legal battles against displacement. These struggles have produced some significant victories like the Blue Moonlight judgment, which you open the book with. But you also show how these legal battles are not always able to stop the harm unleashed by market-led projects of urban renewal. What would be a positive program for urban renewal? Do housing co-operatives like those in Latin America offer a viable model for South Africa?


I have a huge amount of respect for the legal NGOs that have been doing this work under extremely adverse conditions. But I don’t think you can just litigate continually. Litigation takes a long time, and these things happen very quickly. You need a basis of social solidarity and a shift in perspective.

And you’re completely right, one of the things that have not been considered—that is just off the table in Johannesburg—is appropriating buildings for the residents who are actually living there at the moment. Whenever you speak about it, people say, “No, it is technically impossible. It is politically impossible. People can’t manage the buildings.” But I do think that there’s a space for it. As I outline in the book, the current system is premised on temporary emergency accommodation, where there is an enormous backlog. There has to be some degree of in situ upgrading for existing occupations.

And there are various models for that. I have been living between South Africa and Brazil for several years. You have inner-city occupations in Sao Paulo that are collectively managed by the housing movements here. It can work, but it is not easy. But this idea that it can’t happen is just not true. Where they have been successful, they have been born out of many years of conscious and disciplined organizing by housing movements and an enabling [Workers Party-led] state. What I have seen in Brazil is a collaboration of engineers and architects with technical expertise to renovate buildings. Those types of experimentation have to happen, but there just hasn’t been the political will in South Africa.

In terms of a broader vision for a better city, there are a few things that are necessary. The expansion of low-cost housing is really critical. We need housing that is not just “affordable,” but that informal workers can actually access. We need the extension of shelters as well as the expansion of workplaces and markets where artisans and traders can actually work and have secure spaces.

All of this is becoming more critical with climate change. Johannesburg is in the midst of a climate crisis that goes unacknowledged. Many Zimbabweans can’t return home to drought-stricken rural areas, which is linked to anthropogenic climate change. We will have increased migration to the city, due to freak weather events like those in Beira, Mozambique. Migration from inside South Africa is significant and could well amplify with climate change. Any just energy transition must be conscious that migration is part of the life of the city, part of the culture of the city.


You have mentioned the lack of political will to push for these sorts of solutions. Towards the end of the book, you describe the formation of the Inner City Federation (ICF), a residents-led grassroots organization fighting eviction and state neglect. Similar organizations, most prominently Abahlali baseMjondolo, have become major players in places like Durban. Do you see the potential for these grassroots organizations like the ICF to play a role in municipal politics?


Yes, I think they have to play a role, along with other organizations in Johannesburg and elsewhere. Those organizations with networks in the city are extremely critical for setting up the platforms for that engagement. Nonetheless, they’re under severe strain, resource constraints; it is difficult to organize in these spaces. They’ve done pretty remarkable work under the conditions. But the ICF is still relatively young as an organization.  I think what’s really significant is the inchoate forms of alliances that are being built between Inner City Federation and organizations like Abahlali, Reclaim the City, Cissie Gool, Ndifuna Ukwazi. If I see hope for urban spaces, it is in strengthening those alliances so they must be taken seriously by municipal governments.

But right now, it is not even on the agenda in Johannesburg. The city executive government is in a complete mess, they’re too busy dealing with internal politics to have any vision whatsoever. When you have that kind of vacation of power, the danger comes with groups like Operation Dudula walking into that political space. These are groups that are operating on a clearly criminal level, carrying out illegal evictions as the Daily Maverick reported in December. It was an outright criminal take-over, the exact type of thing that city officials say they’re against. But what did the city do? Nothing. What did the police do? Absolutely nothing. There’s clear police complicity. How deep that complicity goes is yet to be investigated. It’s very troubling and frightening in my view.


You spoke about Brazilian housing movements. What do you think South Africans can learn from housing movements elsewhere in the Global South?


I’ll just speak about Brazil because it is the case that I am most familiar with. The organizational strategies in Brazil were built over many years, even decades, in the workers’ movement, in the land-based movements like MST (Landless Workers’ Movement), in inner- city housing movements like MSTC (Movimento Sem Teto do Centro, or Homeless Movement of the Center) and FLM (Frente de Luta por Moradia, the Frontline of the Struggle for Housing). What’s quite clear in Brazil is the emphasis on being militante—militant, though in a non-violent way. The movements are very disciplined, and sometimes they are almost bureaucratic in monitoring participation.  But I think you have to have a framework of rules. No cooperative can work without a framework of rules. Now, those rules themselves have to be established democratically, they have to be open and embodied. Brazilian social movements have a long history of using assemblies and forms of critical pedagogy to engage members. That is not to say the movements in Brazil are without problems. But, South Africans could learn from and adapt some of those strategies to build really strong housing co-operatives and movements, in particular building enduring alliances and the capacity not only to mobilize for rights, but also to collectively care for and manage urban spaces and occupations.

About the Interviewee

Matthew Wilhelm-Solomon is a lecturer in anthropology at the University of the Witwatersrand and a research associate of the Migration and Health Project Southern Africa.

About the Interviewer

Paul T. Clarke is a PhD candidate in African and African American Studies at Harvard University.

Further Reading

Homeless in the city

The periodic evictions of poor families in Nairobi follows in a long tradition in Kenya, dating to colonialism, to keep the city as a space for the elite.

Cape Town’s Inner Ugly

Patricia De Lille, one of South Africa’s most popular post-apartheid politicians, claims she tried to redress spatial apartheid in Cape Town, but the legacy of her seven year run as mayor is one of violent forced removals and a refusal to upgrade informal settlements.