Lost and Found in Johannesburg: A Memoir
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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 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."
taken off his sentence; Ratshibvumo responded that seventeen months was a pretty average amount of time to await trial at the Johannesburg Magistrates’ Court, and so he could not make an exception on this account. At the time of writing these words, in October 2013, Thabani Sibanda has applied for leave to appeal both the sentence and the conviction. During the sentencing, Ratshibvumo explained to Sibanda why the law compelled him to favour the principles of punishment and retribution over that
a road, or to give me more of a sense of what it must be like to live there, or pass through there, than drawn maps have ever been able to. Thus have maps become artless and empirical. Le Vaillant’s map of South Africa was subjective (‘this is what I know) and Tompkins’ map of Johannesburg was speculative (‘this is what I want’); even in the maps of the Holmden’s, with their handdrawn lines and quirky lettering, one discerns the spoor of the men who made them; not just their labours, but their
those few who had chosen to be concealed; years later I met one of these, an Afrikaans woman, who described the Chicken Little experience of it. The only thing that fell on her head was rain, she told me, and she has marched ever since. In 1996, just after South Africa’s new constitution was passed, outlawing discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation, I watched a particularly edgy transgendered woman howling at the crowds as she sashayed through Hillbrow, yelling ‘I’m in the
paint the map of an imaginary island: ‘As I pored upon my map of Treasure Island, the future characters in the book began to appear there visible among imaginary woods; and their brown faces and bright weapons peeped out upon me from unexpected quarters as they passed to and fro, fighting and hunting treasure, on these few flat square inches of a flat projection. The next thing I knew, I had some paper before me and was writing out a list of chapters.’ For Stevenson, imagination and creativity
was an unexpected physical intimacy: I felt his body against mine and his breath, sour with beer and nicotine, against my neck as he struggled to unbuckle it and pull it out of its loops. The woollen fabric of his beanie rubbed against my face. It smelled of sweat and fear. It was repulsive and increased my impulse to retch from the gag, an impulse I stifled by attempting some forced jocularity. ‘I’m a mafuta,’ I said, a big fat man. ‘You are going to have to wind it round you twice to make it