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Lost and Found in Johannesburg: A Memoir
Lost and Found in Johannesburg: A Memoir
Mark Gevisser
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2015
352 pp., 18.00

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Paul Grant

Apartheid’s Atlas

A memoir of Johannesburg.

It took Mark Gevisser nearly fifty years to find his way home in Johannesburg, and when he did it was as someone else's guest. He was visiting a childhood acquaintance named Hope. In the 1970s, his parents had employed Hope's mother as a domestic servant, but the young Gevisser knew nothing about Hope herself—what kind of person she was, what her dreams were, or who she became as an adult. This kind of privileged ignorance is possible anywhere in the world, but apartheid's domination of the human environment, public and private alike, had made any kind of interracial friendship that much harder.

Restoration and reconciliation, however, operate on a different timeline, and Gevisser was finally able to meet Hope at a genuine level: in her apartment in the township of Alexandra, among her grown children and neighbors, and at her table. If home could be found in a place like this, the worst dreams of apartheid's desperate defenders had indeed come true. "In all the indicators of social malaise," he writes, "from infant mortality to AIDS to homicide rates to xenophobia, Alexandra remains near the bottom of South Africa's charts." But Gevisser is far too sophisticated for humanistic platitudes across social divides. As one of South Africa's leading journalists, he is aware of what racial healing in Johannesburg might actually cost. And he knows that without this kind of healing, there is no chance that this unreal city might ever become a home to anyone.

Gevisser was dealing with more than one wound. He was actually only in town for a few days; his husband had recently taken a job in France, and Gevisser was headed back the next day. He had needed to give testimony at the trial of an accused assailant. Months earlier with two other white friends, Gevisser was a victim of a horrifying home invasion. It was about money, of course, but nothing in Johannesburg—not faith, not sexuality, not even geography itself—can be described without reference to race.

This is one of the oddest memoirs I have read in a long time. Gevisser is a gay, Jewish, South African of Holocaust-surviving Lithuanian lineage. He is also something of a geographer, fascinated by the impossibly contradictory city of Johannesburg. His memoir is both a personal and family story (including such questions as how Jews made their peace with apartheid) and a spatial history of South Africa's biggest city.

As a child, Gevisser obsessed over a Johannesburg road atlas, dispatching an imaginary courier around the city. By and by he discovered that there were entire neighborhoods you could not reach by car. This was apartheid's mark on a mega-city. The atlas was thus indispensable for moving across town, and his parents made a strict rule that the atlas was not to leave the car. "This meant that I would spend much of my childhood sitting in my father's Mercedes in the garage, making out my routes." Gevisser's suburban home was on page 75 of the atlas, but there was actually no way to drive the short distance to Alexandra on page 77. "Even now," he says, "I can recall my frustration at trying to get my courier to his destination in Alexandra." His neighborhood "simply ended at its eastern boundary, the Sandspruit stream, with no indication of how one might cross it."

It turns out that the atlas the young Gevisser so loved—and which his parents needed for navigation—was an elaborate fiction.

By the early 1980s South Africa was a lit fuse, and violating the city's ubiquitous walls had transitioned from a matter of youthful decadence (in which the teenaged Gevisser indulged from the safety of the suburbs) to a matter of national emergency. His parents sent him to the United States for university. Distance did not allow for greater vision. Rather, he imagined the emergency as solvable by simple politics (such as divestment). Only much later—back in Johannesburg and working as a journalist—did he realize how immense the problem really was, and how many barriers would need to be crossed. His career took him everywhere in Johannesburg and beyond, and gave him the chops to write with economy and pathos. In one moving passage, Gevisser visits his family's ancestral graves in a dilapidated inner-city cemetery. The grounds were plotted according to religion, with Dutch Reformed, Roman Catholic, and other sections marked off. The Jews, including Gevisser's people, were given a long, narrow strip covering the length of the cemetery—apparently shielding the dead Christians from the equally dead "Kaffirs," "Coolies," and "Mahomedans." But appearances deceived: wedged between "Kaffirs" and "Cape People" was a small section reserved for "Christian Kaffirs." This last one, Gevisser concludes, exposed "the fiction that it was about religion at all. It was, of course, about race."

Or rather, race was religion, which is why apartheid could not be legislated away alone. It would take changed hearts. A few years ago, V. S. Naipaul came to similar conclusions in a travelogue he called The Masque of Africa. "I had wanted," Naipaul said, "when I began this book, to stay away from politics and race, to look below those themes for the core of African belief. But … I felt stymied in South Africa and saw that here race was all in all; that race ran as deep as religion elsewhere." Naipaul was writing in conversation with Rian Malan, an Afrikaner journalist with roots in South Africa stretching back more than three hundred years. During the 1980s, while Gevisser was hanging out in New Haven, Malan had ventured into the mining barracks and townships and courtrooms to figure out what it might mean if apartheid ended. It was a terrifying outlook. Under Thabo Mbeki's inspiration from exile, activists had undertaken to "render South Africa ungovernable." Riots, strikes, and student protests advanced to the beat of menacing chants and drums.

Like Gevisser, Malan had always recognized the moral bankruptcy of the system. But family memories of suffering, fear, and hence acquiescence to the status quo told Malan that apartheid's laws and fences actually covered up chasms. The crux of the issue, Malan eventually concluded, was white (by which Malan mostly meant Afrikaner) fear of melting into Africa. The characteristic response was the laager—the circled-wagon fortification. Jealously enforced white zones in South Africa were the continuation of the laager, or what Malan called a "moonbase." There was no way forward, and no way back. Late apartheid was thus without hope, and the liberal middle had apparently evaporated. But the machinery of changed hearts was quietly humming, although neither Malan nor Gevisser saw it at the time.

Gevisser was then just earning his journalistic stripes. But he had real substance, and by the 2000s gained access to several top architects of the emergency and the change. In a first-rate biography of retired president Thabo Mbeki (published in 2009), Gevisser revealed the astonishing chess moves the exiled leader had been making while much of the world was thinking about Nelson Mandela. Mbeki had come to the same conclusion as Malan, that feel-good handshakes could not build a lasting peace. Unlike Malan, Mbeki saw a way: to connect, not with pleasant liberals, but with hardened Afrikaner militants. In a series of secret meetings over good food and drinks, Mbeki convinced these men that life together was possible. He "seduced" them, Gevisser observed. No one knew what the future would hold. But the walls were coming down regardless.

And so, several years later, Mark Gevisser found himself on Hope's balcony on a lazy evening, looking out at Alexandra. Nerves were high after yet another round of xenophobic violence, and Gevisser was still shaken by the home invasion a few months earlier: the protective walls of a fourth-story apartment had failed. But after a lifetime of puzzling over Johannesburg's walls and barriers, here he was, on page 77. Hope explained to him that the impossibility of moving between pages 75 and 77 was always wishful thinking on the part of the map-makers: after all, Hope's mother had made the commute by foot nearly every day, moving from Alexandra to the Gevisser home and back. It turns out that the atlas the young Gevisser so loved—and which his parents needed for navigation—was an elaborate fiction. Reliance on apartheid's atlas was the surest way to remain lost. And when Gevisser learned to receive hospitality in a threadbare home, he saw the future and the foundation for a lasting home in South Africa: to finally join what had always been there, hiding in plain sight.

Paul Grant is working on his PhD dissertation in history at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

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