Opening a blind city's eyes to inner-city humanity

Matthew Wilhelm-Solomon has spent the past 10 years documenting those who have been dehumanised and criminalised in Johannesburg

17 August 2022 - 14:58
By Mila de Villiers

I first entered one of Johannesburg's dark buildings in November 2010 and it was there that this book's life began.

The premise of author and academic Matthew Wilhelm-Solomon's latest offering, The Blinded City: Ten Years in Inner-City Johannesburg, is encapsulated in this single sentence. 

What started with an article Wilhelm-Solomon wrote on a Medicine Sans Frontiers' survey of the City of Gold's "dark" buildings' level of sanitation for The Mail & Guardian in 2010 evolved into an accessible, illuminating, gritty and conscientious monograph told through the lens of (to paraphrase Athol Fugard) the people who live there. 

"It was striking to me because the first building was a few minutes from my family home," Joburg-born Wilhelm-Solomon tells me.

"I visited the hostels in the south of the city so I had some familiarity with low-income housing, but this was the first time I entered that space. It was pretty shocking to me to find that level of dereliction within the inner city," he says.

Wilhelm-Solomon adopted a personal approach to writing about the inhabitants of these buildings by interviewing people over a decade.

"It wasn't planned as a 10-year project", he adds with a slight grin.

From urban regeneration to renouncing militarised raids and accentuating the necessity of attaching humanity to the residents of inner-city Johannesburg, Wilhelm-Solomon's book chronicles poverty, injustice, loss, love and — ultimately — hope for a just, perceptive and empathetic future.  

The March 2012 MSF cleaning campaign with residents of an unlawfully occupied building.
Image: Courtesy of Matthew Wilhelm-Solomon The March 2012 MSF cleaning campaign with residents of an unlawfully occupied building.

Of dictionaries and dichotomies 

I ask the social anthropologist if he had any working titles in mind ("I went through a few, but I can't remember offhand ... ") and if the final one alludes to the references of lightness and darkness which permeate the pages of The Blinded City, as observed by the following:

Adjacent to the table of contents, Wilhelm-Solomon includes The New Shorter Oxford English Dictionary's definition of "blind":

OE [f. BLIND a. or v.] A blind person.

This description is followed by extracts pertaining to figurative/metaphysical definitions of blindness: 

"The focus in this story is not on physical blindness or sight, but on ways of seeing and knowing ... The story is a metaphor for another kind of blindness — that which comes from preconceptions, prejudices and assumptions about what constitutes reality, a blindness of which all humans are guilty.’ — Francis Nyamnjoh, Blinded by Sight: Divining the Future of Anthropology

"Sometimes a period of blindness opens us to visions we have never seen before.’" — Siri Hustvedt, introduction to Teju Cole’s photographic work Blind Spot

"I think part of the idea behind the title alludes to visually impaired characters in the book, but 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," he says. 

"The idea of the book itself is exploring some of those ways in which we, particularly the characters who shared their stories with me, experience the city in different ways. That also links to the theme of light and darkness."

Wilhelm-Solomon comments on the colonial remnants attached to Africa and SA "being characterised in spaces of darkness", which results in a "binary between light and dark that continues to permeate these kinds of visions of the city".

He makes specific mention of Maboneng, which translates to "the place of light", and unlawful occupations being called "dark" buildings.

"The idea is not to reinforce those categories, but to look at how they continue to shape the city in which certain spaces have been deemed illegitimate outside the domain of the city where others are considered spaces of inclusion."

He furthers that the book's focus on "dark" is also to look at the meaning and local histories attached to the spaces and those inhabiting them.

Wilhelm-Solomon's attentiveness to preserving the dignity of the inhabitants of inner-city Joburg is evident in his verbal and written disposition. 

"I wanted to take a more human perspective to explore the themes of visibility and invisibility," he says of the personal accounts and experiences featured throughout the book.

His employment of pseudonyms, as stipulated by the interviewees who preferred to remain anonymous, is near-analogous to the preservation of their dignity: "It depended on whether people wanted to use their names or not. Most of the stories are of individuals who I've got to know over a couple of years," he says.

The self-selected pseudonyms aside, there's one alias in particular (à la the author himself) which piqued my interested: one "Willem Strijdom", the cruel and rapacious area manager for affordable housing and retail space company Afhco.

Is Strijdom a white Afrikaner, I venture? Wilhelm-Solomon's hesitancy to answer is tangible, before he responds with a diplomatic: "I think, with the pseudonyms, I had to choose names that resonate with their actual name". 

Vatso, Strijdom.

A lens by any other name

I admit to Wilhelm-Solomon I hadn't happened upon the term "dark" building before reading The Blinded City, with "hijacked" being the term I'd become accustomed to.

Which does the author prefer?

"Neither," comes the straightforward response. 

Wilhelm-Solomon opines that "unlawful occupation" should enter the lexicon because it's a "more neutral" term: "I think 'hijacked' building has become quite widely used, but is often misleading." 

He furthers he doesn't deny those cases exist ("There are clearly cases of syndicates or criminal groups taking over buildings and ... title deed fraud. I've documented them where I come across them"), reiterating that "in many other cases" this isn't so.

"I've had cases where buildings were once legally rented and then fell into dereliction or service is cut.

"There are spaces where there aren't criminal gangs operating and I think what the core of the issue is — and what I try to explain — is that essentially what we have is an urban housing crisis."

"The criminality, where it appears (and it's not in all of the buildings), emerges as a result of an urban housing crisis. The lens of hijacking can be very misleading because you often criminalise those populations rather than treating the occupants as legitimate residents of the city."

The interior of the unlawfully occupied building known as The Station.
Image: Courtesy of Matthew Wilhelm-Solomon The interior of the unlawfully occupied building known as The Station.

I feel slightly less ignoramus-esque when Wilhelm-Solomon mentions that "dark" building is a term he too first came across while researching his book.

In his chapter on the unlawful eviction of the inhabitants of 7 Saratoga Avenue, Doornfontein, he writes: 

The building had become one of the city’s infamous ‘dark buildings’, or an ‘mnyamandawo’ in city slang and grammatically informal isiZulu. The term became widely and variably used by inner-city residents to describe unlawfully occupied and slum buildings in the inner city. It referred both to the lack of electricity, and for many it also had resonances of secrecy and misfortune.

He elaborates: "Mnyamandawo" isn't a formal name for a "dark" place, but it's a very idiosyncratic formulation of the term I've often heard people use in the city." 

It's a term conversely used in a derogatory sense to identify the buildings: "It's very mixed, the way the word is used."

Joburg: Connection, dispossession, regeneration

The paradoxical nature of Johannesburg's socioeconomic disparity is one I'm interested in Wilhelm-Solomon commenting on.

His "very strong attachment to the city" aside, he acknowledges "it's not easy to face that type of destitution and levels of inequality". He underlines the violence he witnessed in the city, expounding on "middle-class blindness to violence in the city". 

"I tried to document the precarious living conditions: it's continued and very extreme violence."

He lists dispossession for undocumented migrants, deportation and groups targeted in indiscriminate police raids as examples of inhumanity he's witnessed over the decade of his research on inner-city Johannesburg.

Witnessing the aftermath of the eviction of Chambers in January 2012 also catalysed, for me, an unravelling of a vision of the city I loved, Wilhelm-Solomon writes of affiliating the violence of Johannesburg with the city of his memories.

"I have a strong attachment to Joburg," he reiterates in near-reverie. "I think there's a lot of vitality in the city, a lot of music ... "

"The city was really founded on quite radical violence and dispossession, and continues to be," he abruptly continues. "It was not like I was unaware of those histories, but witnessing a forced eviction was very powerful and stuck with me."

Wilhelm-Solomon describes the violence as "brutal": "The police just came and threw away the mattresses. The paradox of that type of violence, to see that violence and write about it ... It left a lasting impression and I tried to convey that in the book. 

"That's not say I don't take an absolutely negative perspective. I try to take their perspective. The people at cost of urban regeneration have no access to the benefits," he says. 

"Ultimately, I don't think there's a model of private-sector regeneration that is known to cater for groups. Ultimately it becomes the role of state and civil society."

Speaking of regeneration ...

"We often think of urban regeneration in terms of supply for infrastructure. I don't think urban regeneration is only about housing," Wilhelm-Solomon says of the following extract: 

[Decent housing and protection] are a point at which the labour and love of urban regeneration begins.

"Housing is really pitiful and I think there's an urban housing crisis, but many of the stories are about loss, about mourning, about trauma. There's been a huge amount of death over the past two decades from Aids, from violence. There's a huge amount of collective trauma.

"We need an idea of urban regeneration which has social relationships of care, of intimacy; that people have a space to grieve, to mourn, to have familial relationships.

"Compassion and empathy are lost when you think of [forced removals] as '1,000 people evicted'," Wilhelm-Solomon says of the necessity to reframe our thoughts regarding our fellow citizens' humanity.

"Think of it as 'people with history', 'people with social networks'," he continues. "Evictions break them apart."

If we were to react with empathy and understanding instead of matter-of-fact numbers (which ultimately erase the humanity of the residents of inner-city Joburg), the city will adopt "a different kind of rhythm and create a space for a caring notion of urban regeneration", he says. 

Love — "the kind of intimate loves of families, the feminist theory of political love and politics of care" — should furthermore be adopted by South Africans in light of humanising people in dehumanising spaces.

"I think there's a real need for politics of care in SA," he adds. 

A "really recurrent" and "surprising" issue Wilhelm-Solomon repeatedly came across during his research was people's stories of being haunted after the loss of a friend or family member: "Those who died of Aids, those killed in fires. I write about them and it's not for me to say whether or not the ghosts existed.

"For me, they form particular types of social memories. When people speak about a collective trauma of violence, those stories become a form of history in a way; a form of how that memory of trauma is carried."

Academic and author: bridging the genre gap

I commend Wilhelm-Solomon on the book's accessibility (lest we forget the academic within). 

He graciously accepts this observation, conceding that "academic articles are not widely read. I wanted the work to have access to a wider audience and to find the stories which I thought tell a bigger story of Johannesburg, but through the lenses of the people I've been interviewing.

"Of course, I had to a leave out a lot", he chuckles. "I couldn't cover the totality of the research for my book."

He reiterates the importance of separating academic writing ("academics should find ways to communicate their work which isn't just for a small audience"), describing the mode of narrative writing as "very important".

Would he describe The Blinded City as a work of narrative non-fiction?

"Yeah, I think it's the closest to the title of the book," he nods, attributing it's genre divergence to non-fiction "which focuses on a single story. [The stories in my book] are interwoven, different stories."

Caroline Chitupa and her son Silvernos Matimba in May 2014.
Image: Courtesy of Matthew Wilhelm-Solomon Caroline Chitupa and her son Silvernos Matimba in May 2014.

Trust, compassion, injustice

Gaining access to and building a level of trust with those he interviewed for book "took time".

Wilhelm-Solomon pertinently mentions his whiteness (and that of a white male), stating: "[I]n some cases there was suspicion and hostility, and I understand that," in response to the following encounter at an unlawfully occupied building known as The Station:

Two men sat on plastic chairs beside the wall, drinking umqombothi, a local beer fermented from maize and sorghum. They chuckled at my presence. As I had only recently started research at The Station, my presence was still a novelty; laughter was preferable to hostile suspicion, which I’d encountered at times elsewhere.

"That's something I had to negotiate slowly over time to build those relationships of trust."

Wilhelm-Solomon illustrates the process of gaining trust and respecting time by referring to the unsolved murder of a young Zimbabwean man, Silvernos, recounted in the chapter Killed for a beer.

Had they targeted Silvernos for the beer he had gone to buy? Was it an intentional assassination? Was it a case of mistaken identity? The questions circulated with no answers

Wilhelm-Solomon says he had to "write about [the murder] very sensitively. I've known the family before, but didn't really do any interviews with his mother Caroline until quite some time after the murder. When she was ready to speak." 

"I don't think the police ever seriously investigated the case," he continues, ascribing their indifference to Silvernos being Zimbabwean. 

Wilhelm-Solomon compares xenophobic bias to the innate bias attached to Johannesburg's city centre, owing to "an erasure" of similar cases which are often not covered by the media. "If you criminalise spaces in their entirety then the crime against people in those spaces isn't explored and it isn't conceived as legitimate," he asserts.

"Often residents of unlawful occupations might have to form an alliance with criminal groups to survive because there's no police protection," he says.

"What I explored also is the idea of these very militarised raids against these buildings as a solution. It isn't," he stresses. "It very rarely results in prosecutions and they [militarised raids] don't provide any protection to residents in the building.

"Often they might find some drugs or arms or arrest some undocumented migrants, but as a policing strategy it is extraordinarily ineffective."

And if he were to offer a solution of sorts?

"Meaningful engagement with the communities is really important to deal with criminality in the city." Wilhelm-Solomon says residents experience the police as a threat "in many cases", emphasising gender-based violence (GBV): "Many women in these spaces are not protected."

This proclamation ties in with the chapter Petticoat Government, a title used by a group of women who became vigilante leaders in unlawfully occupied buildings. 

"It was a kind of derogatory title which they reclaimed," Wilhelm-Solomon explains. "It's used as a joke in the title, but the chapter shows it becomes quite a tragic situation. Ultimately, they aren't able to protect themselves against sexual violence.

"A phenomena I saw quite often was that relationships with criminals is a form of protection, whether they're sexual relationships or convivial relationships," he continues, a bleak reminder of failure on behalf of our law enforcement to offer protection to these vulnerable women, as well as their violent approaches in "decriminalising" "criminalised" spaces.  

Wilhelm-Solomon's animosity towards militarised raids is evident as he reiterates how they "provide a nice spectacle for the media", but "do very little in terms of real, meaningful engagement with residents of the buildings", opining that a perception shift is necessary to decriminalise the unjustly criminalised: 

"This perception is that they're criminals, but [actually] they're victims of criminals and want to work against the gangs, and work against unlawful rentals. They often don't have the channels to do that.

"Hopefully it can contribute to a kind of conversation around urban regeneration, around evictions, around raids," Wilhelm-Solomon says of The Blinded City. "To engage with the residents of unlawful occupations as legitimate residents of the city; residents who should have a voice.

"That's the impact I would like this book to have."

Lalela, Mzansi.