Becoming and Being in Johannesburg: a City of Immigrants


Reviewed by Sheldon G. Weeks

Mark Gevisser is a South African, white, journalist and writer, of Jewish and Lithuanian heritage, who was born in November 1964, and grew up in Johannesburg. From an early age he developed a love of maps and occupied his free time playing a private game of "dispatcher," or how you deliver goods from A to Z. In the beginning his "bibles" were Holmden’s Registry of Johannesburg’s avenues and lanes and later the Street Guide to Witwatersrand. He would eventually learn how inadequate these were.

Gevisser was a privileged child of an advantaged community in a divided nation, where the separations of the past and apartheid were not recorded in maps and guides. Absent were black communities, Sophiatown and Alexandra, even most of the southwest townships or SOWETO, and this void was repeated across the country, as where Africans, so-called Coloureds and those of Indian origin lived was usually not included in these maps.

Gevisser’s life trajectory was shaped partly by a family that could afford to send him to the best private schools. Admitted to the University of Cape Town, he was able to transfer to the United States, spending most of the 1980s there, studying at Yale University, and then earning a master’s degree in journalism, after which he lived and worked in New York City. He returned to South Africa in 1990 when the dramatic changes leading to independence in 1994 had already begun. He worked for the nation’s leading liberal paper, The Mail and Guardian, and wrote a number of eminent books, including Portraits of Power: Profiles in a Changing South Africa (1996) and A Legacy of Liberation: Thabo Mbeki and the Future of the South African Dream (2009). He also wrote the screenplay for The Man who Drove with Mandela.

Lost and Found in Johannesburg is labelled a memoir, but in reality it is only part that and part a series of vignettes based on fascinating investigative and highly personal journalism. The state of being lost and found is only an aspect of Gevisser’s story. His town was Hillbrow and he grew up near The Fort. I would title this book "Becoming and Being in Johannesburg: a City of Immigrants." In his own terms he is not guilty of cartophilia or pathological nostalgia. It took him years, as he grew up, to discover the rest of Africa and then to realize, that "if I was ‘South African,’ I must be ‘African’ too. It struck me with the force of revelation."

The memoir is the first part, where Gevisser explores his roots, his family origins and the network of his relatives who migrated to South Africa. His grandfather and two great uncles arrived in Natal over 110 years ago. Their small business trading in "bottles, bones, boxes and bags" was developed into a commercial empire.

He comments, "I have been collecting for the past two decades photographs and maps. [They] offer some route into an emotional truth, about what it means, to me, to be a South African, and about how my particular South African identity has been formed within the shadow of how I was defined--by family, by society, by the state."

A subtext scattered through these pages concerns Mark’s route as a dispatcher to a destination where he found he was gay, found partners who shared his personal preferences, his secret participation in activities that were then illegal, that gave him a personal insight into the way apartheid defined non-whites as illegals when they strayed from the confines imposed upon them, and the hardship they experienced. A possible "Fringe Country, where there is no colour bar," fascinated him. This was a place that also included mixed swimming pools, like those maintained by the Fisher family and described in the late Nadine Gordimer’s Noble prize-wining novel Burger’s Daughter.

As a teenager he worked in bookshops where he could learn about Psychopathia Sexualis, and in the basement lose his virginity. His time in the United States was liberating and gave him new insights. Back in South Africa he finally found a partner, whom he has been with for over 20 years, but whose privacy is sustained--he is not named. They bought their first home together in 1994. They eventually were able to marry under the new South African laws.

The investigative journalism is found in this volume where Gevisser has new experiences and interviews people, all in ways intended to augment the power of this book. The difficulty in this approach is it is not clear who he conceives as his audience, who he is writing for, and in the end what his merger of the past and the present actually has accomplished. This does not distract from the human interest contained in its pages and their authority.

Gevisser includes his explorations of migration to "Jo’burg" and its impact, the development of an underground underworld, the importance of places like Spyglass Hill, Edenvale, the forests and rivers of the city, the mine dumps that made Gauteng the place of gold, the links between homophobia, xenophobia and racism, and the dramatic changes in inner the city over the last twenty years.

He also has chapters derived from extensive times spent and interviews with different black South Africans: a homosexual couple who are now grandparents, a lesbian Sangoma, the director of the Wilds, and many others including Hope Molefe who lived in violation of apartheid at his parents’ home for five years to be able to go to school--and he didn’t even know about her.

As his parents’ generation died off, concerning his own evolution, Gevisser comments, "It came to me, that I was not just burying the twentieth century through which my father had lived--apartheid, communism, the struggle, Mandela, the flush of democracy--but my own long life as a child. I was forty-five years old."

Mark Gevisser (2014) "Lost and Found in Johannesburg: A Memoir". New York: Farrar. Strauss and Giroux, 329 pages, including a multitude of maps and black and white photographs, bibliography and photo credits, but no index, $27.


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