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Author Matthew Wilhelm-Solomon sheds light on inner-city Joburg’s ‘dark’ buildings

Author Matthew Wilhelm-Solomon sheds light on inner-city Joburg’s ‘dark’ buildings
From left: Writer, Editor and Educator Matthew Wilhelm-Solomon. (Photo: Supplied) | Daily Maverick associate editor Ferial Haffajee. (Photo: Gallo Images / Destiny / Nick Boulton)

Many inner-city Johannesburg buildings are in a terrible state, but thousands of vulnerable immigrants have found refuge living in these ‘dark’ or ‘hijacked’ buildings. Author and academic Matthew Wilhelm-Solomon takes us on an epic journey inside some of these buildings and details the struggles of the ‘illegal occupiers’.

‘The book tells a history of the Johannesburg inner city’s ‘dark, hijacked buildings’ from the perspective of the unlawful occupiers,” said author and academic Matthew Wilhelm-Solomon at the virtual launch of his latest book, The Blinded City: Ten Years in Inner-City Johannesburg. 

“Why the use of terms such as ‘dark’, ‘hijacked’ and ‘illegal occupation’, because those are such labelling terms? What may be a better way of describing the buildings?” asked Daily Maverick’s Ferial Hafajee as she kicked off the launch. 

Wilhelm-Solomon replied: “Well, I used the term which is predominantly used by housing activists in Joburg, which is ‘unlawful occupation’. It is a more neutral term and in part of the story there are a lot of issues of derelict buildings that have been framed under this label of ‘hijacking’, which often implies a forced act.

“I am not denying there have been cases of hijacking of some of the buildings in the inner city of Joburg, but what I found is more predominant is that there are different stories to buildings. Sometimes there were once-rented buildings that fell into dereliction. We can’t categorise them all as one thing.”

Willhelm-Solomon said the book started as an article published in Mail & Guardian about a Doctors Without Borders survey which found that life for migrants, both South African and foreign, in Johannesburg’s inner city slum buildings was precarious, with overcrowding and a lack of electricity, water supply and sanitation. 

Wilhelm-Solomon stressed the necessity of attaching humanity to the residents of inner-city Johannesburg.

“I think the label of ‘hijacking’ becomes misleading because we are treating essentially what is an urban housing crisis as criminality … because the majority of occupiers are informal workers, unemployed, beggars, communities living with disabilities, who then have been labelled under the category of hijackers and have become targets of raids.  

“Without denying that there is criminality in some of these buildings, but the framing of the issues [as] criminality has been counterproductive to address what the real issue is: … an urban housing crisis.” 

Read in Daily Maverick: “Inside Joburg’s building of darkness, where migrants live in fear as Operation Dudula threats amplify” 

He went on to say: “I think part of the idea behind the title [The Blinded City] alludes to visually impaired characters in the book, but it’s also about the idea of partial sight that I think everybody, including myself, living in Johannesburg has: a perspective of this city which is partially closed off. In this book, I deal with different pathways and perspectives.

“Housing activists like myself are not in any way defending the unlawful takeover. What we are saying is we have to separate unlawful occupiers who are poor residents living in these spaces from hijackers who are profiting from these places. The issues of housing in the city intersect with migration, but that doesn’t mean … foreign nationals are the only occupiers.” 

He said the resolution to the urban housing crisis would be through urban regeneration which has social relationships of care so that people have a space to have familial relationships. DM

The Blinded City: Ten Years In Inner-City Johannesburg is available at the Daily Maverick Shop where Maverick Insiders can use their coupon for a 10% discount.


Comments - Please in order to comment.

  • Jill Gribble says:

    Missed the Webinar on Wednesday. So glad that I was able to watch it today. Thank you to Matthew Wilhelm-Solomon and Ferial Haffajee (my hero) for an extremely moving, humane and insight-provoking Webinar. How fortunate we are to have people like both of you working so hard to provide ordinary citizens with such necessary information and insights.

  • Nanette JOLLY says:

    I have tried to order a copy of this book. However the form does not have a space to mark that I am an insider, only an invitation to register as an insider; and when I tried to correct this and start again, there were two copies ordered on the form. I want to pre-order one copy, with the insider discount. Help!

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