‘Lost and Found in Johannesburg: a Memoir‘ by South African journalist and political writer Mark Gevisser is one of the most engrossing and exciting books I have read about my home town, Johannesburg.
It is a vivid memoir of growing up in Johannesburg as a white, Jewish, gay man during the very darkest days of apartheid.
The memoir begins with Gevisser’s remembrance of his childhood in Sandton, one of Johannesburg’s elite northern suburbs and his obsession with maps.
Sitting in his father’s Mercedes Benz, he would play a game called ‘dispatcher’ where he would randomly look up someone in the Johannesburg phone directory and then using the Holmden’s Street Map of Greater Johannesburg, the map book of the time, navigate an imaginary courier to their address.
On one occasion, he tries to navigate to Alexandra, the impoverished, densely populated black township neighbouring Sandton and finds that using the Holmden “there was simply no way through”:
Even now, I can recall my frustration at trying to get my courier to his destination in Alexandra: there was no way of steering him from page 77 across into page 75. Sandton simply ended at its eastern boundary, the Sandspruit stream, with no indication of how one might cross it, or even that page 75 was just on the other side.
This illogical and deliberate attempt by the map makers to separate white Johannesburg from its enslaved black population becomes the starting point for Gevisser to explore the artificial boundaries, restrictions and cruelties created by apartheid – and also how they were broken down.
One of the great pleasures of reading Lost and Found in Johannesburg is Gevisser’s inclusion of dozens of fascinating photographs, some from family albums, but also images of a lesser known side of Johannesburg (for people like me anyway, who had such sheltered childhoods).
A photo that stands out strongly is that taken in the 1960s of the suburban backyard swimming pool of Bram Fisher, the Afrikaner lawyer who would represent Nelson Mandela at his Treason Trial.
In it, we see a group of kids, both black and white “splashing about the pool, as one does in the suburbs on a summer’s afternoon”. This was of course during a time when the races were strictly segregated and yet Fischer and other liberal types flagrantly flouted these rules. Gevisser writes:
Through this poignant idealism, [Bram Fischer] seemed to be trying to reconcile being a white pool-owning South African with the egalitarian ideology to which he had given his life.
Other images depict that familiar, yet never-quite-understood relationship between white people and their black domestic workers. Gevisser includes a photo of himself as a boy in the arms of a black lady who stares back serenely as white children play around her. In another, taken on his parent’s wedding day, he describes the black man in the photograph, the chauffeur who stands to attention, only his cap and uniform visible among the celebrations.
These pictures depict the everyday divisions between master and servant we accepted as children, but hardly thought to question.
Who were these black people who took care of us as children, drove us around town and cooked our meals? What were their lives like? In his memoir, Gevisser seeks answers.
Reading the book and studying the photographs, I remember well, the pungent smells of meat and mieliepap and the exotic aromas of balms and lotions that came from the rooms of our own domestic workers across the yard when I would visit occasionaly.
It’s one of many vivid memories Gevisser’s memoir stirred up.
Indeed, I spent much of the book, enveloped in a warm, but painful feeling of deep nostalgia, a credit to the quality of Gevisser’s prose, which flows mostly effortlessly throughout the book mixing memoir with history and geography and storytelling with journalism.
But, Gevisser also describes places I never knew existed like the eerie underground archives at the Johannesburg Library, where Gevisser writes about the old underground mining maps that crumble in his hands, or the Old Cemetery at Braamfontein, where he is “seduced by the voluptuous beauty” of its paved pathways, low stone walls and mossy tombstones reminiscent of famous cemeteries like Highgate in London or Pere Lachaise in Paris.
It came as shock to me when I realised the Old Cemetery was across the road from where I parked my car almost every day, whilst attending Wits University in the 1990s.
The other important place Gevisser explores (which I have never set foot in) is ‘The Wilds’ a 40 acre indigenous botanical gardens wonderland plonked in the middle of the city that sadly became a no-go zone because of its reputation as the hideout of criminal gangs.
For Gevisser it takes on a deeply personal and terrifying meaning, because it is from The Wilds that three men climb a fence on a summer’s evening in January 2012, and enter a fourth-floor apartment building where he is watching television with his friends. Then a brutal, but all too familar attack unfolds at gunpoint.
He writes of the ordeal:
Something seemingly irrevocable changed that night in my relationship to Johannesburg, my home town, the place I lived for four decades, the place of this book.
It could easily have turned Gevisser, as such incidents have done to many other white and black South Africans who have been victims of its appalling crime rate, into a hater, and his memoir, a journey into bitterness.
But, it does not. In fact it does the opposite.
Gevisser’s journey to understand the elusive city of his birth – from its earliest foundations as a gold mining bonanza, through its decades of segregation, cruelty and political activism to its status as place of economic opportunity – is a deeply compassionate one.
For more on what’s interesting about Jo’burg, read my blog post: Why you should drop the fear and visit Johannesburg