Decoding dispossession: Eviction and urban regeneration in Johannesburg’s dark buildings

Wilhelm-Solomon, M. (2016) Decoding dispossession: Eviction and urban regeneration in Johannesburg’s dark buildings Singapore Journal of Tropical Geography [DOI: 10.1111/sjtg.12165]

In January 2012 the residents of an inner-city tenement building in Doornfontein, Johannesburg, were evicted on a court order. The building was situated in a post-industrial neighbourhood in which thousands of South Africans and foreign nationals, many blind or disabled, live in unlawfully occupied buildings without access to water, basic sanitation, electricity and waste management services. Such buildings are known in policy discourse as ‘bad buildings’, and informally as ‘dark buildings’, invoking both a sense of developmental failure and spiritual insecurity. In this paper I analyse how urban renewal policies created social divisions and alliances not only among the residents of Chambers, which were channelled along nationalist lines, but also between the able-bodied and disabled, and produced new social alliances. In particular, I document how a group of blind Zimbabweans experienced threats of violence and accusations of betrayal, as they were offered alternate accommodation by the evicting company because of their disability. I argue here that the pressures of private-sector housing developments intersected with the insecurities and divisions of inner-city social spaces and also fostered new alliances. Following the work of Deleuze and Guattari, I invoke the concept of ‘decoding dispossession’, proposing that ongoing evictions and dispossessions are characterized by simultaneous movements of ‘decoding and deterritorialization’ and ‘overcoding-reterritorialization’.

About Matthew Wilhelm-Solomon

Matthew Wilhelm-Solomon is an Associate Researcher on the Migration and Health Project Southern Africa, based at the African Centre for Migration & Society at the University of Witwatersrand (Wits).

Matthew holds a doctorate from the University of Oxford, which was ethnographic study of HIV/AIDS treatment programmes to displaced communities in northern Uganda. Over the past five years he has conducting research in inner-city Johannesburg on themes of migration, religion, health and housing. He is beginning new research looking at African migration to Brazil.

Matthew has published widely in different books and journals including Medical Anthropology, Critical African Studies and the African Cities Reader, and a number of newspapers and journalistic publications including the Mail & Guardian, Sunday Times, Chimurenga Chronic and the ConMag. He is the lead editor of the book 'Routes and Rites to the City: Mobility, Diversity and Religious Space in Johannesburg' to published by Palgrave-MacMilllan.