28 Nov 2017
The politics of presence and the right to the city
Cases from Berlin and Johannesburg

Speakers : Alexander Vasudevan and Matthew Wilhelm-Solomon
Moderator : Jeroen Stevens
Location : Auditorium STUK, Naamsestraat 96, Leuven


Alexander Vasudevan, Associate Professor in Human Geography university of oxford
Between the Archive and the Concept: Provincialising the History of Urban Squatting.
In this paper, I explore the challenges in documenting the history of urban squatting.  The paper builds on research conducted with squatters, tenant groups and other housing activists across Europe. It examines, in particular, the understudied role that migrants have played in the recent history of squatting. To do so, the paper advocates an intersectional urbanism that connects the question of housing precarity to a wider set of debates surrounding the nature and geography of urban theory. Drawing on these currents of scholarship, the paper re-examines the recent history of squatting in Europe through a lens that combines postcolonial urban scholarship with a commitment to marking the situated histories of these practices. It seeks to re-trace the vast protean archive of precarious living undertaken by squatters. This is a project, it argues, that recognises ‘colonial’ presence in places we might otherwise overlook not to mention the complex traffickings between sites in the global North and the global South. Ultimately, the paper draws attention to the practices of care, endurance and inhabitation and the various attachments and alliances that have emerged in respond to the uncertainty and fragility of precarious living and which point, in turn, to a different understanding of the city as form and process.


Matthew Wilhelm-Solomon (Wits, SA), researcher and writing fellow at ACMS,  University of the Witwatersrand

The City Otherwise: The Deferred Emergency of Urban Regeneration

This lecture draws on ethnographic field-work conducted in inner-city building occupations in Johannesburg between 2011 and 2017.  These buildings are often referred to as “hijacked buildings” or “bad buildings” by politicians and policy-makers, and frequently as “dark buildings” by residents of the inner-city.  In these representations, these appropriated spaces are characterized as sites of criminality, disorder, hazard and misfortune. However, they are also spaces of refuge, intimacy, and sociality for thousands living of both South Africans and foreign-nationals in the inner-city who are excluded from formal rental markets and often displaced by the drive for urban regeneration.
This paper mobilises Elizabeth Povinelli’s notion of “the otherwise” to characterize these spaces. I argue that the figure of the “otherwise” provides a vision of these occupations that disturbs both the utopian and dystopian imaginaries of them. These forms of dwelling and inhabitation conforms neither to the visceral fears and polemics of those, like the present mayor, who seek to rid the city of them through ongoing evictions; nor to activist notions of communities fighting for the right to the city. Rather these occupations exist both within and without contemporary juridical, market and political logics, their residents surviving through constant tactics of vacillating presence and invisibility, and enduring in spaces of potentiality.

The residents of these occupations sometimes manage to avoid eviction through appeal to Constitutional protections against homelessness, and to enter formal juridical processes to receive emergency accommodation, but remain without access to formal housing and frequently have to evade eviction, arrest, and deportation.  I argue that they operate not in a “state of exception”, but rather what I term “the deferred emergency”, a condition of legal indeterminacy characterized by tenuous protections without any defined temporal horizon for a permanent right to the city.  In such a context I argue that accumulation by dispossession operates not as a commodification of an urban commons, but rather as a process of depotentialisation, or a foreclosure of the city otherwise.


Alex Vasudevan is Associate Professor at the School of Geography and the Environment at University of Oxford. His research interests combine cultural and historical geography and urban studies with a commitment to experimental artistic practices and grassroots social activism. Alex's work explores, in particular, the city as a site of political contestation drawing on a range of methods (archival, ethnographic and participatory). He is the author of The Autonomous City: A History of Urban Squatting (London: Verso, 2017), Metropolitan Preoccupations: The Spatial Politics of Squatting in Berlin(Oxford: Wiley-Blackwell, 2015) and co-editor of Geographies of Forced Evictions: Dispossession, Violence, Insecurity (London: Palgrave). He has written for the Guardian, openDemocracy and New Left Project. Alex is currently a member of the Environment and Planning D: Society & Space collective.

Matthew Wilhelm-Solomon is a lecturer in the Department of Anthropology at theUniversity of the Witwatersrand, South Africa, and an associate researcher of the Migration and Health Project Southern Africa (   His recent ethnographic work since 2011 has been a long-term ethnographic study of unlawfully occupied buildings, evictions, urban insecurity and religion in Johannesburg, the city of his birth and residence. He completed a doctorate in Development Studies from the University of Oxford in 2011 which was an ethnographic study of HIV/AIDStreatment programmes in Northern Uganda. He was a post-doctoral recipient of the Volkswagen Foundation Knowledge for Tomorrow - Cooperative ResearchProjects in Sub-Saharan Africa Programme in collaboration with the FreieUniversität Berlin, Institute of Social and Cultural Anthropology.

He is a contributing co-editor of the following volumes: Writing Invisibility: Conversations on the Hidden City (ACMS, Mail& Guardian, 2013), Routes & Rites to the City: Mobility, Diversity and Religious Space in Johannesburg (PalgraveMacMillan, 2016), Vital Instability:Ontological Insecurity and African Urbanisms (Critical African Studies,2017), and Affective Trajectories:Religion and Emotion in African Cityscapes (Duke University Press,forthcoming) and has published in numerous journals including the African cities Reader, African Studies, Current Anthropology and Medical Anthropology.He has also published features and op-eds in South African media and is presently completing a narrative monograph entitled The Blinded City about occupations in inner-city Johannesburg.

Fassi, D.; Wilhelm-Solomon, M.; Segatti, A. (2017). Asylum as a Form of Life. Current Anthropology Volume 58, Number 2.

Wilhelm-Solomon, M. (2016) Decoding dispossession: Eviction and urban-regeneration in Johannesburg’s dark building. Singapore Journal of Tropical Geography 37 (2016) 378–395.

Wilhelm-Solomom, Matthew .Dispossessed VigilsMourning and Regeneration in Inner-City Johannesburg .AFRICAN CITIES READER. Available at:

Matthew Wilhelm-Solomon, Peter Kankonde Bukasa & Lorena Núñez (2017)Vital instability: ontological insecurity and African urbanisms, Critical African Studies, 9:2, 141-151,DOI: 10.1080/21681392.2017.1341082

Matthew Wilhelm-Solomon (2017) The ruinous vitalism of the urban form: ontological orientations in inner-city Johannesburg, Critical African Studies, 9:2, 174-191, DOI:10.1080/21681392.2017.1337520

Vasudevan, A. (2015) The Autonomous City: Towards a Critical Geography of Occupation. Progress in Human Geography, 39(3): 316-337.

Vasudevan, A. (2015) The Makeshift City: Towards a Global Geography of Squatting. Progress in Human Geography, 39(3): 338-359.

DEBATES 2017/2018
17 Oct 2017
Cases from India and Ethiopia
31 Oct 2017
Cases from Brazil and West-Africa
14 Nov 2017
Cases from India and Senegal
28 Nov 2017
Cases from Berlin and Johannesburg
12 Dec 2017
Cases from Liberia and South-Africa