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Lost and Found in Johannesburg: A Memoir
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Lost and Found in Johannesburg: A Memoir

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by Mark Gevisser

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An inner life of Johannesburg that turns on the author's fascination with maps, boundaries, and transgressions

Lost and Found in Johannesburg begins with a transgression—the armed invasion of a private home in the South African city of Mark Gevisser's birth. But far more than the riveting account of a break-in, this is a


An inner life of Johannesburg that turns on the author's fascination with maps, boundaries, and transgressions

Lost and Found in Johannesburg begins with a transgression—the armed invasion of a private home in the South African city of Mark Gevisser's birth. But far more than the riveting account of a break-in, this is a daring exploration of place and the boundaries upon which identities are mapped.
As a child growing up in apartheid South Africa, Gevisser becomes obsessed with a street guide called Holmden's Register of Johannesburg, which literally erases entire black townships. Johannesburg, he realizes, is full of divisions between black and white, rich and poor, gay and straight; a place that "draws its energy precisely from its atomization and its edge, its stacking of boundaries against one another." Here, Gevisser embarks on a quest to understand the inner life of his city.
Gevisser uses maps, family photographs, shards of memory, newspaper clippings, and courtroom testimony to chart his intimate history of Johannesburg. He begins by tracing his family's journey from the Orthodox world of a Lithuanian shtetl to the white suburban neighborhoods where separate servants' quarters were legally required at every house. Gevisser, who eventually marries a black man, tells stories of others who have learned to define themselves "within, and across, and against," the city's boundaries. He recalls the double lives of gay men like Phil and Edgar, the ever-present housekeepers and gardeners, and the private swimming pools where blacks and whites could be discreetly intimate, even though the laws of apartheid strictly prohibited sex between people of different races. And he explores physical barriers like The Wilds, a large park that divides Johannesburg's affluent Northern Suburbs from two of its poorest neighborhoods. It is this park that the three men who held Gevisser at gunpoint crossed the night of their crime.
An ode to both the marked and unmarked landscape of Gevisser's past, Lost and Found in Johannesburg is an existential guide to one of the most complex cities on earth. As Gevisser writes, "Maps would have no purchase on us, no currency at all, if we were not in danger of running aground, of getting lost, of dislocation and even death without them. All maps awaken in me a desire to be lost and to be found . . . [They force] me to remember something I must never allow myself to forget: Johannesburg, my hometown, is not the city I think I know."

Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
Playing a game called Dispatcher as a child in apartheid-era Johannesburg, journalist and writer Gevisser (A Legacy of Liberation: Thabo Mbeki and the Future of the South African Dream) became fascinated by maps and what they both revealed and disguised. Poring over Holmden's Register of Johannesburg, the city's official street guide, it eventually dawned on him that entire black townships were simply blocked out, as if they didn't exist; and indeed, until 1976 and the first uprising in Soweto, most white South Africans denied their existence. In this finely calibrated memoir of his dawning political consciousness, Gevisser (born in 1964) tracks his hometown's evolution from a mining camp to the "Manhattan of Africa." A magnet for economic refugees, the bulk of Johannesburg's workforce—mainly blacks and Indians—were hidden from citywide thoroughfares and largely excluded from photographs (such as the servants Gevisser's family employed to care for the children and house.) Gevisser cleverly applies the trope of "boundaries" to the segregation and eventual strangulation of Jewish enclaves in the author's ancestral Lithuania, as well as the closeted and shunted homosexual underworld to which he was drawn. "Stifled by the whiteness, the privilege of childhood," the author found release and self-acceptance living in New York for seven years, a time coinciding with the collapse of apartheid. His dream of an "open city" for all people was challenged by a recent break-in at his friends' home and attack at gunpoint, underscoring the elusiveness of his city, and casting over this elegant memoir shadows of vigilance and insecurity. (Apr.)
From the Publisher

“[Mark Gevisser] is unflinching in his account of the complex contradictions that still haunt his country.” —Andrea Denhoed, The New Yorker

“Gevisser . . . is acutely aware of the historical ironies in his story. . . . Part memoir, part psychogeography, his book is concerned with life as it's lived in these liminal spaces, which, in Gevisser's fine handling, take on both physical and symbolic dimensions.” —Emma Brockes, The Guardian

“Mark Gevisser asks profound questions--about race, sexuality, faith, and politics--while examining both his own history and that of his beloved Johannesburg. The result, Lost and Found in Johannesburg, is unlike any other book I know. It is illuminating, unsettling, engrossing, often funny, and, in a word, brilliant.” —Claire Messud, author of The Woman Upstairs

“Outstanding. A genuinely strange, marvelous, and complex account of a self and a city. Mark Gevisser does for Johannesburg what Orhan Pamuk did for Istanbul. Gevisser is as intimate and sophisticated a guide as one would wish for to this great, troubled metropolis.” —Teju Cole, author of Open City

“Mark Gevisser brilliantly maps out multiple worlds fractured by race, class, and history in a story as complex and beautiful as any memoir I've ever read.” —Dinaw Mengestu, author of All Our Names

“Apartheid is a phenomenal teacher, and Mark Gevisser has converted its untold lessons about geography and gender into a fascinating memoir about the making of a cosmopolitan.” —Diane McWhorter, Pulitzer Prize-winning author of Carry Me Home: Birmingham, Alabama: The Climactic Battle of the Civil Rights Revolution

Kirkus Reviews
A journalist and author from Johannesburg uses maps to retrace the boundaries of his boyhood, the dimensions of apartheid and the geography of imagination. Gevisser, who has published previously about his native country (A Legacy of Liberation: Thabo Mbeki and the Future of the South African Dream, 2009, etc.) and wrote the script for the documentary The Man Who Drove with Mandela (1999), returns with an intimate journey through his life, a journey that took a wicked detour in January 2012 when he and two close friends suffered a brutal home invasion. The author begins with some brief pages about the event, mentions it again a few times in the ensuing narrative (it swims, sharklike, just below the surface of the text), then focuses on it in a 40-page section near the end. The author, who is Jewish and gay, writes affectingly about both these aspects of his life, but it was geography, initially, that consumed him as a boy. He loved to play a self-invented game called "Dispatcher," in which he used a map book to imagine lives and journeys; he often played for hours per day. (The game returns in the final section of his text.) Gradually, Gevisser guides us through his life—his family, schooling, travels, love of books and writing, and his dawning awareness of his sexual orientation, apartheid and danger. He includes many maps and photographs, some of which sent him into library archives. He includes accounts of his interviews with people from all walks of Johannesburg life, including a woman who guided him through the township of Alexandra. The home-invasion section is wrenching to read—though the author had the resources to visit therapists and to get away into the mountains with his partner, whom he refers to only as "C." An often moving account of the ways we navigate our emotional and geographical landscapes.

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Farrar, Straus and Giroux
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6.30(w) x 9.00(h) x 1.40(d)

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Lost and Found in Johannesburg

A Memoir

By Mark Gevisser

Farrar, Straus and Giroux

Copyright © 2014 Mark Gevisser
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-4299-4774-9




Closed City

When I was a boy, in the 1970s, I used to play a game I have retroactively called Dispatcher, for hours on end, using my parents' street guide, the Holmden's Register of Johannesburg. Ring-bound with a blue cloth cover, its whimsical title and archaic typography conjured a nostalgia for less turbulent times — although I knew none of that, of course, aged seven or eight, when I found a whole world between its covers.

Somehow, perhaps with the help of a parent, I found our road in Sandton, the bucolic new dormitory town north of Johannesburg, on page 77 of the Holmden's, and then plotted it on the key plan in the front. On Sunday afternoons, accompanying one or the other of my parents as they drove Granny Gertie home, I would sit in the back of the car and look at the street signs, finding them in the index of the Holmden's and piecing together our route, all the way along Oxford Road and then across Killarney into Houghton Drive on page 19, through The Wilds and up onto Louis Botha Avenue to Paul Nel Street in Hillbrow, where she lived in a residential hotel called The Lloyd. These forays into the lower numbers of the Holmden's took me tantalizingly close to a place called "the Fort" on page 3, which was barely my finger's length away from Granny Gertie's hotel, and yet thoroughly beyond my reach. I remember my distress when, sitting in the back of the car with the street guide, I realized that the Queen Elizabeth Bridge crossed railway lines rather than a river, as in the London Bridge of nursery rhymes; I expected the same kind of romance from the Fort and was suitably gratified when told that it was Johannesburg's jail, and that the only time I would be visiting it would be in the back of a police van.

* * *

Once I tired of plotting Granny Gertie's route home, I found other itineraries, with the assistance of the street index in the Holmden's and its inescapable companion, the Johannesburg Telephone Directory. Here is how the game went: I would open the phone book at random and settle on a name, say, "Pupkewitz, P., 14 Beryl Street, Cyrildene." I would then look for Beryl Street in the Holmden's street index, find it on page 29 of the maps, refer back to the key plan, plot a route there from our home, and then dispatch an imaginary courier to Mr. Pupkewitz, or Mr. Papenfus on Pafuri Road in Emmarentia' or Mrs. Papadopoulous on Panther Street in Kensington.

Other mapmaking activities derived from Dispatcher, such as the plotting of new suburbs in the white spaces of the Holmden's, or the designing of floor plans for houses at the addresses I had found. All of these activities conspired to create an obsessive attachment, within me, to the Holmden's, which I would spirit out of the car after having been collected from school, and into a quiet corner of my rambunctious home: by the time I was seven I had three younger brothers.

I would inevitably forget to return the book to its cubbyhole, an oversight that would be discovered only once it was actually needed on a real journey. Thus did a strict rule come to be made, and vigorously enforced: the Holmden's was not, under any circumstances, 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 and plotting out my suburbs. One of my strongest memories of childhood is asking to be excused from the lunch table and rushing off to the garage with a telephone directory to spend a happy afternoon of Dispatcher and associated activities. In the memory it is always gray and rainy — although it seldom was in Johannesburg — and I am safe and warm up against the creamy perforated leather until my nanny, Bettinah, comes to coax me out for my bath, or tea.

* * *

Inevitably, Dispatcher took me places I was not meant to go. I stumbled across one of the few African names in the Johannesburg telephone directory — let's call him "Mphahlele, M." — with an address in Alexandra — and discovered how intent the Holmden's was on actually losing me. I had, of course, heard of Alexandra: it was that thing called a "township," that place where the black people who worked for us would go to church or to visit family on their days off. It would function in adults' conversations as a trigger not only for fear but also — in the liberal Jewish world in which I grew up — for pity and concern. It was a place where blacks lived, and as such it was unknowable, difficult, and dangerous — not least for the poor people who had no choice but to live there. It was on another planet, and for this reason I must have missed it on my journeys through the Holmden's.

But using the street guide's index I now discovered that Mr. Mphahlele lived only two pages away from us, on page 77, far closer than Granny Gertie's hotel or even my school in Victory Park. Even now, I can recall my frustration at trying to get my courier to his destination in Alexandra: there was no possible 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. The key plan might have connected the two pages, but on the evidence of the maps themselves there was simply no way through.

* * *

How extraordinary it seems to me now that anyone found his way anywhere using the Holmden's. There was no logic to the pagination, no standard scale, and no consistent north: some pages had the compass arrow facing left, or right, or even, in a few instances, down. Sets of neighboring suburbs were grouped — in admittedly pleasing designs — as if they were discrete countries, often with nothing around the edges to show that there actually was settlement on the other side of the thick red line. Sometimes the cartographers would leave you a turn-page marker as a clue, but just as often the streets would melt away at the page's edges, or — in some instances, such as Riverlea on page 105 — would be surrounded by nothingness, as if islands in a sea of white paper.

I realized the madness of all this only at the age of twelve when, in the aftermath of the 1976 Soweto Uprising, my parents took us to London for six weeks. South Africans of all races and classes were fleeing the country. Just a couple of pages away from us, children were being funneled through the hidden alleyways of "Dark City," as Alexandra was universally known among black people (there was neither electricity nor law) across the border to join the liberation army. Meanwhile, on our side of the Sandspruit, white families were — as the contemptuous cliché had it — "packing for Perth." Many in our world were emigrating, to Australia or America, to Britain or Israel, and although my parents did not want to follow, they packed us off to Pimlico for a "trial run" masquerading as an extended holiday.

What I remember most about the trip was, not surprisingly, the London A–Z street atlas; "over 30,000 streets in your pocket." In those days, it was available only in black and white, but no matter: the maps were continuous, which meant I could dispatch my courier from our rented house on St. George's Square all the way to Harrow or to Hackney, to Richmond or to Rotherhithe, just by flipping the pages. Released from the suburbs and a life of being driven around, I could even use it myself, to plot my way down the King's Road or past Buckingham Palace and across Green Park to an exhibition at the Royal Academy. As it began to dawn on me how bizarre the Holmden's was, I began to ponder the reasons for its eccentricity. Thus began, cartographically, the dawning of my political consciousness.

* * *

Alexandra might have been on another planet before my Holmden's revelation, but its name was nonetheless familiar as a concept. Soweto, on the other side of the city, was almost entirely beyond my ken. Prior to that terrifying Wednesday in June 1976 when we were sent home from school, most of what I knew about it would have come from the Coca-Cola bottle tops we traded, which had black footballers printed on their foamy undersides. Whites and blacks had different leagues, of course, and my friends all were fanatical supporters of one or another of the white Johannesburg clubs, Highlands and Rangers. But the bottle tops alerted us to the fact that there was a parallel world out there, with fabled heroes named Kaizer Motaung and Jomo Sono, who played for clubs called Kaizer Chiefs and Orlando Pirates. On the playground of King David Primary School, this is what "Soweto" meant.

I had, in fact, been to the township once — on a field trip in standard two (fourth grade) arranged by my Jewish school — to visit the rabbi of Soweto. Who knows how he acquired his position? Perhaps he had worked for Jews and converted; perhaps he was a member of the Lemba tribe from the north of the country, who, like the Ethiopian Jews, claim direct descendance from the Israelites and who have practiced Jewish rituals for generations. Whichever: we were piled into a bus, and when we got to his nice enough house in what must have been Soweto's middle-class enclave of Dube, we were met by a jolly little man in a prayer shawl and yarmulke who led us through some incantations and told us that he was happy to have been able to show us that Soweto really wasn't so bad after all.

That trip would be the sum total of my exposure to townships before I left home and went to university at the age of eighteen; certainly it — together with what I heard on the playground about the Pirates and the Chiefs — was all I knew about Soweto in June 1976, when the name found itself, suddenly, on everyone's lips. If the uprising unsettled my parents, it upset me too: black schoolchildren my age were being killed, as were good white people who had gone to the township to help blacks. The name of Melville Edelstein, a Jewish doctor who worked at Baragwanath Hospital in Soweto and was murdered by a group of angry rioters, was on every adult's lips.

I sought out the Holmden's to find out more.

But I was thwarted. Soweto wasn't there! The huge, sprawling agglomeration of townships was a phantom in that bottom left-hand corner, in that white space below Riverlea and to the left of Robertsham, where I had insouciantly plotted so many of my own fantasy suburbs; unmarked, unheeded, home to hundreds of thousands of people who commuted to the rest of the city to make it to work each day.

Later, looking through older maps of Johannesburg, I came to see that there was a long tradition of Soweto-denial in Johannesburg cartography. Although the township was actually only proclaimed as Soweto in 1963, given its name (an acronym for "SOuth WEst TOwnships") by the white winner of a competition run by the city council's Department of Non-European Affairs, Johannesburg's black people had been settled there, behind the mine dumps and along the Klip River, since the early twentieth century, as part of a supposed slum clearance policy. But even though the area constituted a huge part of Johannesburg, both in population and physical size, it did not feature at all on any road maps to the city. From the 1930s, a cunning convention had been established: the enlarged inset of the "Central City Area" would be placed in the bottom left-hand corner of a map, filling the space where Soweto should have been. In most instances, there would be no indication at all that this inset was covering a human settlement. But in some brazen examples, such as Holmden's own hanging street map, the cartographers actually had the audacity to mark out Soweto, albeit in a solid bluish block without any roads or features, before obscuring it with the inset of the downtown area. Thus does it appear, a leering dark underside to the city, its evening shadow.

* * *

I was not, it turns out, the only one to begin thinking about Soweto in 1976. This was the year that the Map Studio company published its first street guide to the black city. By the end of the decade, Map Studio would bring out its Street Guide to the Witwatersrand, which joined all of the region's cities, black and white, together in a series of continuous maps. The Holmden's was quickly rendered obsolete: compared to the Street Guide, it was silent films to talkies; black and white to color; analog to digital. This explosion into color and continuity seemed to mirror other awakenings within me, sexual and political. Suddenly, there were whole fields of data across double pages that ran into each other, with roads in yellow and parks in green and industrial areas in gray, with schools in ocher and rivers in blue, and police stations marked with blue dots and hospitals with red crosses; fields of symbols as expansive at the terrain they now populated. Central Johannesburg was still the center, but it seemed so tiny now, as did our little corner of suburban Sandton. Soweto was mapped. Soweto! It was a city. It took up almost as many pages as Sandton. This was a revelation.

The previously undifferentiated notion of the township came into focus as a complex sequence of suburbs, some with familiar names — like Orlando and Meadowlands — and others new to my ears: Zola, Emdeni, Kliptown, and the delightfully paradoxical White City Jabavu. And yet they were mapped with exactly the same precision, exactly the same symbols, as the white suburbs, even if in different patterns. They were not unknowable, not unimaginable: they had streets and parklands; red crosses for clinics, ocher blocks for schools, green ones for parks; traffic lights and main roads and secondary roads, just like anywhere else. This became the cartographical expression of something I had come to believe with early adolescent fervor: even if we were forced to live in different places under different conditions, we were all the same.

But as I grew older and learned more, the Street Guide to Witwatersrand became evidence, too, for exactly the opposite: "they" wanted us to believe that Soweto was "separate but equal" to Johannesburg, a fully serviced city, when anyone could see, looking at the maps, that it was not. As I studied the Street Guide more closely, I came to be struck more by the townships' difference from the suburbs of my childhood than by their similarity. The blocks of land were such tiny slivers that one could hardly imagine houses on them, and the streets were set out in dense, oppressive grids, often identified by bureaucratic strings of letters and numbers rather than the alluring names to be found in white suburbs, if identified at all. There were schools and churches all over the place, but few of all the other symbols which dotted the white parts of town, and I grew skeptical: I knew there were parks in Parktown and oaks in Oaklands, but could there possibly be meadows in Meadowlands?

The Holmden's had not been entirely wrong: townships were indeed islands, like Riverlea (which I was later to discover was a colored township), surrounded by the white space of empty veld, and often with only one access road. This, coupled with the lack of street names in wide swathes of township, made a dispatcher's job more frustrating, and more interesting; thus, through the Map Studio Street Guide, did I begin to understand, too, how the primary logic in the planning of townships was control.

As I came to understand apartheid, it was fascinating to me that the residential areas for different racial groups were not color-coded, and I now set about doing this. I used whatever clues I could find — "Coloured Cemetery"; "Mosque"; Jabulani Street; Shivananda Drive — and supplemented these with interrogations of those adults to hand: my parents, domestic staff, those very rare teachers who seemed to have an interest in such things. And so I discovered why suburbs like Riverlea were islands: they were established as buffers between the white city and Soweto, to which mixed-race residents of inner-city neighborhoods had been forcibly removed.

As I learned more about the city, I came to track other journeys: the route down Fuel and Commando Roads the government lorries would have taken as they transported evicted black residents from Sophiatown to their new homes in Meadowlands in 1955; the route black workers took down Louis Botha Avenue during the Alexandra bus boycott of 1957; and yes, finally, the route the Soweto protesters took from the Morris Isaacson School (marked on the map) through Dube, down to Orlando West, where Hector Pietersan was shot at the top of Vilakazi Street, on June 16, 1976.

* * *

A while ago, while browsing through the Collectors' Treasury on Commissioner Street in downtown Johannesburg, I came across an edition of the Holmden's amid the old porcelain, the tattered photo albums, the ziggurats of books that the owners have salvaged from estates of the deceased or cleared garages. The shop, up a flight of steps off the concrete gulch of Commissioner Street, with its purveyors of cheap sex and cheap Chinese goods on one of the rougher fringes of Johannesburg's now black inner city, felt like a walk through Holmden's itself, a museum of cast-asides and left -behinds that ossified the first century of white Johannesburg experience into several stories of musty rooms.


Excerpted from Lost and Found in Johannesburg by Mark Gevisser. Copyright © 2014 Mark Gevisser. Excerpted by permission of Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
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Meet the Author

Mark Gevisser is the author of the prizewinning A Legacy of Liberation: Thabo Mbeki and the Future of the South African Dream and Portraits of Power: Profiles in a Changing South Africa. He is the coeditor of Defiant Desire: Gay and Lesbian Lives in South Africa. His journalism has appeared in The Guardian, The New York Times, Granta, and other publications. He is the writer of the award-winning documentary film The Man Who Drove with Mandela. Born in Johannesburg in 1964, he lives in France and South Africa. Gevisser was a Writing Fellow at the University of Pretoria from 2009 to 2012 and an Open Society Fellow from 2012 to 2013.

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Lost and Found in Johannesburg: A Memoir 2 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 1 reviews.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Same old same old. Same old moralizing about how the devolution of Johannesburg -- from a modern, immaculate, First World metropolis into a violent Third World nightmare -- can be overcome if we all simply come to respect our common humanity. But actually, nope, that won't change things back. And parts of this story seem embellished and contrived. This is a writer amongst writers, but I find it ironic how those who most benefit from a society are the first to undermine and deconstruct it. Wouldn't you think the opposite would be true?