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The City Otherwise: The Deferred Emergency of Occupation in Inner-City Johannesburg

By Matthew Wilhelm-Solomon

Cite As:
Wilhelm-Solomon, Matthew. 2020. “The City Otherwise: The Deferred Emergency of Occupation in Inner-City Johannesburg.” Cultural Anthropology 35, no. 3: 404–434.


This article draws on ethnographic fieldwork conducted in Johannesburg between 2011 and 2019 in inner-city unlawful occupations and temporary emergency accommodation sites. These are often referred to as “hijacked buildings,” “bad buildings,” or “dark buildings.” However, they are also spaces of refuge, intimacy, and sociality for tens of thousands of South Africans and foreign nationals excluded from formal rental markets and often displaced by the drive for urban regeneration. This essay mobilizes two concepts to characterize these spaces. The first is the notion of the “city otherwise,” engaging Elizabeth Povinelli’s concept of “spaces of otherwise.” The residents of these occupations endure in spaces of emergence and potentiality. Furthermore, I argue that they exist in a juridical condition that I characterize as “the deferred emergency.” This condition entails the indefinite deferral of an emergency, framed around both the juridical and the infrastructural form of “temporary emergency accommodation” for the evicted.


Johannesburg; urban occupation; the otherwise; eviction; assemblage theory; emergency accommodation