Deep inside Jo’burg: a review of ‘Lost and Found in Johannesburg’ by Mark Gevisser

lost and found in johannesburgLost 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.

braamfonteing cemetery

The Old Cemetery at Braamfontein

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 wilds

The Wilds, in the heart of Jo’burg

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.

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For more on what’s interesting about Jo’burg, read my blog post: Why you should drop the fear and visit Johannesburg

 

 

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Why you should drop the fear and visit Johannesburg

2212355983_74be3eec5f_zFor any ex-“Jo-burger” living in Melbourne, one can probably count the number of kind things said about Johannesburg on the palm of one’s hand, including comments from ex-South Africans.

For most it exists in the mind as crime-ridden, lawless place with rolling blackouts and road rage – and for those visiting South Africa, the only memory they may wish to have of Johannesburg will be of the ultra-modern airport and perhaps a short cab ride along the motorway – or via the Gautrain – to the safety of their hotel in the leafy suburbs of Rosebank or Sandton.

Most will no doubt wish to head straight out of “Jozi” or “eGoli” (as it is affectionately known by its six million plus residents) for Cape Town and its nearby wineries, the beaches and warm oceans of Kwazulu-Natal or the world-famous Kruger National Park Game Reserve. Anywhere, but hanging about in Jo’burg…

Not even die-hard Jo’burg fans such as myself would be foolish enough to argue that crime is not so bad – you only have to look at the ridiculously high walls and electrified cables which surround nearly all the homes or read the front page of any newspaper to know this is true.

But there is certainly a lot more to the city than tales drenched in blood.

The Johannesburg CBD skyline

The Johannesburg CBD skyline

The city, like South Africa itself is constantly changing and much is being done to shake off the cobwebs and re-energise Johannesburg in a very positive sense – meaning there is a lot to see for any tourists brave enough to venture beyond their hotel room.

The Apartheid Museum

Symbolic seperate black and white entrances to the Apartheid Musuem

Symbolic seperate black and white entrances to the Apartheid Musuem

First on any tourist itinerary should be a visit to the Apartheid Museum, situated just a short distance from the Gold Reef City Theme Park and Casino – (a gaudy monument to Johannesburg’s modern roots as site of the world’s biggest ever gold rush in 1886).

The museum was completed in 2001 and provides a totally exhaustive and engrossing history of the struggle to end what was a brutal, tyrannical and inhumane regime.

Upon entering the museum visitors are arbitrarily and symbolically classified as either “white” or “non-white”. Once classified, visitors may only enter the through the gates allocated to their race group. Much like the high, windowless concrete walls of Berlin’s holocaust memorial, such devices immediately transport one back into the dark day of Apartheid, setting the tone for the museum, which is designed to be as interactive as possible.

It’s an enormous exhibition full of photographs, video footage and installations detailing apartheid’s genesis, life under the regime, and the resistance struggle which took root in the 1960s and saw Nelson Mandela’s rise to power.

Give yourself at least four or five hours to explore – more if you are one of those people who likes to read every word and watch every video.

Constitutional Hill

Next stop on the political trail should be the Constitutional Hill complex near Hillbrow, seat of the Constitution Court, the highest court in the land, where South Africa’s constitution – considered the most democratic in the world – has its home.

The old prison cells - home to Ghandi and Mandela at one point at Constitution Hill

The old prison cells – home to Ghandi and Mandela at one point at Constitution Hill

The complex is built on the site of the Old Fort, the notorious prison built originally by Boer leader Paul Kruger in a vain attempt to defend Johannesburg from the British.

Visitors to Constitutional Hill should sign up for a guided walking tour to get a real feel for the place. Local guides take visitors through cell blocks which housed every famous political prisoner the country produced including Nelson Mandela and Mahatma Ghandi.

Mandela’s cell has been recreated and besides the video footage on display it contains original letters written by Mandela – a qualified lawyer – written in elegant curved freehand, detailing his numerous requests from prison authorities for access to books, legal counsel and to see his family.

On the way visitors bypass the now empty and incredibly eerie cellblocks – like everything under apartheid, divided into white and black sections.

As the guides explain and visitors can see for themselves, Apartheid’s reach was limitless. The walk takes one passed notice boards which detail meal rations for prisoners (more meat and extra coffee and sugar for white prisoners, less for Indian prisoners and virtually no luxuries for black inmates).

But constitutional hill is also an uplifting experience culminating in a visit to the Constitutional Court itself. Decorated with paintings and sculptures by some of the country’s finest artists (the nearby art gallery is a must) the building has literally taken what was once a symbol of oppression and turned into a symbol of freedom – an entire wall of the court building is made from the bricks of a section of the old prison.

Ancient histories

For history that predates the arrival of the first Dutch settlers who moored at the Cape of Good Hope in 1652, say by a couple of hundred thousand years, another new permanent exhibition has sprung within an hours drive of the city. Called “Maropeng” or “The Cradle of Mankind” it remains one of the world’s great fossil sites and is rightly listed as a “World Heritage Site”.

Looking like a massive ant hill, and surrounded by ominous orange signs telling visitors to “Beware of snakes” (surely not likely to scare off any Australian tourist), the tour main walk way is lined with human and animal fossil finds which lead into the main building. Here a ride through an underground lake takes one to a massive exhibition hall where the “history of mankind” is put on display including some of its most famous fossil finds.

If that’s not enough, there is also an opportunity to visit the nearby cavernous Sterkfontein caves, complete with dripping “stalactites” and “stalagmites”.

Soweto

A painted old power silo near Soweto

A painted old power silo near Soweto

No visit to Johannesburg can ever be called complete without a visit to the adjacent township of Soweto. Gone are the days when no one ventured near the township unless they lived there, it’s now a major tourist magnet (and with good reason) with numerous tour companies offering full day tours.

For about $90 you can spend an entire day with a Soweto resident as he takes you in air-conditioned mini-bus on a dazzling tour of the South Western Townships.

Putting aside its significance as the centre of the anti-apartheid struggle, the following tidbit should be enough to pique your interest in paying Soweto a visit.

6268519080_0efa4845fe_zAll tours of the township will take you down Vilikazi Street, a dusty street, lined with mostly small, compact houses and unique in this aspect – it is the only street in the world where two Nobel Peace Prize winners lived – the country’s greatest leader and former president, the late Nelson Mandela, winner of the prize in 1993  and the enigmatic, Desmond Tutu, the much-loved retired archbishop of Cape Town, who won the prize in 1984.

The tours include a walking tour through traditional African markets – complete with an African witch doctor who can give you a remedy for making anyone of the opposite sex swoon at your feet, outdoor butcheries and once illegal drinking taverns called “Shebeens” where you can sample South African curries and semolina pudding, commonly known as “pap”.

Those brave enough can try dried Mopani worms (similar to Wichita grubs) washed down with Amazi, the traditional African “sour” beer.

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The Hector Pieterson memorial in Soweto

You will also visit the site of the Soweto Uprising of 1976, when students protested against being forced to study in Afrikaans, and where Hector Pieterson a 13-year-old schoolboy was gunned down by police and whose dead body (famously photographed by Sam Nzima) became a symbol of the evils of apartheid.

Multi-cultural shopping and dining

Not all the things touristy in nature in Johannesburg are about history.

Given that one Australian dollar buys you around Nine South African “Rands”, shopping in eGoli can be a real spending spree. The city is littered with mega-malls stocking the latest local and international brands. For those on the hunt for modern finery and expensive African crafts, the ultra-chick Sandton City Mall and Hyde Park Shopping centre in the city’s North are enormous palaces to consumerism, while for sheer ridiculousness, the Monte Casino resort is worth visiting. Besides housing an enormous array of slot machines (pokies) and poker tables, the shopping and eating mall is designed as a fully enclosed Italian village, complete with washing hanging on the line, fake pigeons and a twinkling ceiling, where it’s forever nighttime.

Fake Italian: inside gaudy Monte Casino

Fake Italian: inside gaudy Monte Casino

There are many adventures to be had in the City of Gold, all of which can be done relatively safely, provided you stick to basic rules like not walking down quiet streets alone at night, leaving your expensive jewellery at home and keeping gadgets out of sight.

Most importantly keep in mind that Johannesburg is a friendly, multi-cultural place filled with some of the loveliest, most hospitable and zany people you will ever meet.

So go on, next time you’re flying into Jo’burg – spend a few nights and explore!

I dare you!