/ 30 October 2022

Opening eyes to Jozi’s inner city

Out of sight: Many of those who live in the ‘dark’ buildings in the Johannesburg city centre described in Matthew Wilhelm-Solomon’s book The Blinded City are blind. Photo: Luca Sola/AFP

Until I changed careers a couple of years ago, I ran a walking tour company in the Johannesburg inner city for more than a decade. 

Even though the business was successful, and I loved the city, I was also aware that, as a middle-class white woman, my view of the inner city was one of privilege. Once the sun set, or if I didn’t feel safe, I could make my way back to the suburbs. 

I was always conscious of the complexities of the inner city and its countless layers — knowing that despite the time I spent there and research I did, I would never fully understand it. After reading The Blinded City, I question how much I ever really understood at all.

Educator, writer and editor Matthew Wilhelm-Solomon’s The Blinded City — Ten Years in Inner-City Johannesburg is a work of narrative non-fiction. It focuses on the “hijacked” or “dark” buildings that are ubiquitous in downtown Joburg. It is an account of the evictions, legal battles, fire and death that surround them but, more than that, it tells the stories of the people who call these buildings home.

The book spans an exciting time in the City of Gold, the period between 2009 and 2019. Urban regeneration had begun and Joburg was starting to be seen as a “cool capital” — home to artists, artisanal markets and entrepreneurial spirit. Global publications such as The Wall Street Journal and New Yorker ran articles heralding this new dawn and the world took note. 

By contrast, Wilhelm-Solomon examines the very dark side of this shiny decade, focusing on the impact the changing city had on its poorer residents. His is the often heartbreaking account of forgotten people — a group of individuals, many of them blind and many, but not, all Zimbabwean. It is the story of people like Nomsa Dladla, who is fighting for a safe place for her and her granddaughter to live, and Caroline Chitupa, whose son Silvernos Matimba is murdered on the brutal streets of Jeppestown.

If you are impoverished and undocumented, you are either viewed as a problem — or not at all. Which is where the title of the book comes in. It’s both a reference to the blind residents who call the dark buildings home and the fact that many of us are blind to these social problems, choosing to hide behind our high suburban walls. 

Wilhelm-Solomon continually references other concepts of light and dark too. Dark buildings are “bad”,  while Maboneng, a well-known gentrified area’s name translates to “Place of Light”. Even the language we use around the city can be problematic.

Eyes wide shut

I have often pondered why there are so many visually impaired or blind Zimbabweans in Johannesburg. Who hasn’t passed them and their helpers as they try to scrape together some form of a living at traffic lights and wondered about it?

Some, like Dimagogo Takawira and Jetro Gonese, live in dark buildings, having fled the political and economic turmoil of their home country. Their blindness, an unlikely shield from xenophobic violence, has also granted them stay in cleared buildings or resulted in landmark legal cases.

No one’s first choice would be to illegally occupy and live in a building with scant safety or amenities. Nor would it be to live in the Central Methodist Church or sleep on the streets. Yet this is the reality that many Zimbabweans arriving in Johannesburg face. 

Back in Zimbabwe, they lived “normal” lives, some as teachers or musicians. To get here, they crossed the border illegally, facing crocodile-infested rivers and thieves, only to be met with violent xenophobia, harsh conditions, unemployment and deportation.

But the plight of South Africans is just as tragic. Many of the locals who Wilhelm-Solomon talks to are disappointed. After a lifetime of inequality, none of the promises of a post-apartheid life have been fulfilled.  

Their anger is evident as they drown their sorrows, blaming much of their misfortune on immigrants. This animosity means residents of dark buildings are unable to form a united front against clearances and there’s the constant threat of xenophobic violence.

On the other side of the battle are building developers, creating safe and clean “low-cost” housing for inner-city residents. Unfortunately, those inhabiting the dark buildings being bought by these developers can’t even afford low-cost housing or don’t have the identity documents needed to rent legally. 

I found myself constantly interrogating where I stand on this. Yes, low-cost developers play an important role in the city by creating jobs and reviving spaces but I could not get the plight of those left homeless, and on the streets, out of my mind. 

This is not the rich moving in and displacing the poor, rather it’s displacing the impoverished to house another group from a lower socioeconomic class. 

Then there is the Maboneng precinct — a more straightforward example of “gentrification”. Wilhelm-Solomon’s interactions with its owner, and the area in general, are fascinating. Denying involvement in “dark building clearances” and paying recyclers and pickers to move on from the area doesn’t exactly put them in the best light.

In the 10-year period, the author encounters several building clearances and legal battles. Each case raises complicated issues, including the rights of those illegally renting space and whether alternative accommodation should be provided for them, and if so, who should cover these costs: the government or development companies? 

It is also one thing to look at law in a court setting but there seems to be a huge disconnect between that and policing on the ground. 

It’s complicated

Wilhelm-Solomon drops the occasional hint about his own upbringing by a leftist-leaning mother, first in a commune and then in the inner city. This gives some context to his own relationship with the city but the book is about the people he meets —it’s not his story.  

Crucially, though, he does interrogate his role in the city as a white man and researcher. While its clear how close he becomes to the people he meets, he is careful not to perpetuate the idea of a white saviour complex.

He also questions his own emotions around Johannesburg. After all, how can you love a city that is so cruel? How can you love a place when you see the worst? It makes me wonder, is it hopeful naivety or pure stupidity that allows us to adore this harsh place? I say that, and yet glimmers of kindness still shine throughout the whole book in the form of friendship, sisterhood and family.

Saying Joburg is complicated is a tremendous understatement. This book only makes it more so. It’s worth reading just for Wilhelm-Solomons sensitive examination of people’s lives and the daily struggles they face. He has a simple and measured style of writing, making it an easy read, despite its heavy content.

After reading The Blind City, perhaps your own view of Joburg will change or, at the very least, you will open your eyes and look around at the heartbreak and struggle. And maybe we will all be just a little kinder to the blind man or mother at the busy intersection, asking for help and trying to survive on the harsh streets of Jozi.

The Blinded City by Matthew Wilhelm-Solomon is published by Pan Macmillan and costs R330.