South African writer Mark Gevisser has released a memoir about growing up in Johannesburg, in which where he traces the city’s apartheid past seen through the eyes of a young Jewish boy discovering his sexuality.
As a bookish child, Mark Gevisser played a game he has retrospectively called ‘Dispatcher’ in which he would plot routes in his parents’ street guide, the Holmden’s Register of Johannesburg, using the index to place names.
“Inevitably, the Dispatcher took me to places I was not meant to go,” he writes, recalling the time he stumbled across one of the few African names – “Let’s call him ‘Mphahlele, M’ – in the book and discovered that the address was only two pages away from where he and his family lived on page 77.
But his family lived in the upmarket and ‘whites only’ suburb of Sandton while ‘Mphahlele, M’ was in the neighbouring black township of Alexandra, separated by only two pages and a stream – but in every other aspect, they were worlds apart.
Gevisser says there was no way of steering his imaginary courier from page 77 to page 75 as “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”.
Those geographical puzzles from Gevisser's childhood game became the starting point for his recently published memoirs, Lost and Found in Johannesburg (also published under the title Dispatcher: Lost and Found in Johannesburg), which documents his coming-of-age tale in his segregated hometown. Along the way, it maps his family’s Lithuanian Jewish past with his own journey of sexual self-awakening as he realised he was gay.
Gevisser, who is also the author of a widely acclaimed biography of former South African president Thabo Mbeki, spoke by phone from his current Paris base about his new book and next project.
In your lifetime, do you think Johannesburg will ever get over its apartheid past?
Apartheid is inscribed into the planning of Johannesburg. And the inequality in South African society that is increasing means that I don’t see any way that it will get over its apartheid past in my lifetime. What is changing and what will continue to change dramatically is the growth of a black middle class and the way the previously white neighbourhoods are becoming more mixed.
Do you think Johannesburg’s maps are still somehow deceptive?
Sure, in the way that all maps are deceptive. When you look at a map of Johannesburg you can obviously see where the blocks are smaller and where they’re bigger. But you can’t see anything about how dramatically different Alexandra is from Sandton. Even if you look on Google Earth, you will notice a certain density and lack of trees in Alexandra as opposed to the space and the green in Sandton. But that doesn’t tell you anything of course about how different life is in those two places.