The Library: Lost and Found in Johannesburg, by Mark Gevisser

City of Gold and Empty Spaces

Review: Paul Scraton

After a brief prologue that sets the scene for a brutal and frightening home invasion in Johannesburg, 2012 - a story which will be told in harrowing detail later in the book - Mark Gevisser starts his story with a childhood map-reading game called ‘Dispatcher’ played on the pages of the family’s Holmden’s street atlas of the South African city. The young Gevisser would take addresses from the phone book and attempt plot the course of an imaginary dispatcher moving through the city… Only, it was not that simple and his dispatcher would sometimes come up short due to the seemingly illogical nature of the layout of the maps:

“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 was actually settlement on the other side of the thick red line.”

Some of the maps are recreated in the book, showing little islands of streets surrounded by empty spaces, the compass arrow marking north pointing this way and that. And sometimes those settlements on the other side of the red line were not to be discovered anywhere in the book, not even on a different page. For the Holmden’s Register of Johannesburg not only presented the city on the whim of a creative designer, but also erased entire black townships or else presented them as if on another planet. Attempting to dispatch a courier from his home to an address in the black township of Alexandra, Gevisser came up against uncrossable white space. The destinations may have been only two pages apart in Holmdens, but there was no route between them:

“The key plan might have connected the two pages, but on the evidence of the maps themselves, there was simply no way through.”

It might have been geographically inaccurate, but the atomisation of the city through these maps did reflect the divisions between black and white, rich and poor. Through this game played on the pages of Holmden’s in the back of his father’s Mercedes, the young Mark Gevisser begin to come to terms with the reality of life in his home country. It was, he writes, the start of the development of his political consciousness.

This rediscovery of his childhood cartographic games leads Gevisser to take a step further back, to explore the first commercial street guide to Johannesburg published by W. Tompkins in 1890, just a couple of years after the discovery of gold in Witwatersrand. This map was as much a fantasy as it was a reflection of the facts on the ground… many of the neighbourhoods laid out their in neat rows on the map were speculations, and some of them would never even be built. But the most meaningful discovery for Gevisser is the two small patches of land plotted out south of the railway tracks. Like islands in the open veld, one portion was allocated to “coolies” (workers of Asian descent) and one to “kaffirs” (black labourers).

This speaks to the viewer in two ways. Firstly, that “apartheid was embedded in the development of Johannesburg from the very start”. And the second was that all the workforce that would be needed to build this new city could be contained in twelve city blocks. “Here, then, represented by the Tompkins map, is the folly of apartheid capitalism and the reason why it was destined to fail, even if it took a century to do so.”

From this point on Gevisser, not only through his words but also through maps, photographs, newspaper reports and other documentary evidence, tells the story of the city and of his own family, who came from Lithuania as Orthodox Jews and ended up in a rich white suburban neighbourhood in South Africa. He tells the story of his own personal political development, in the bohemian corners of bookshops and bars, of his own sexuality and the lives of gay men under apartheid, and the many, myriad ways in which people were kept apart - and not only through the white spaces on a map.

The writing is gentle and fluid, leading you through the pages like he once led his imaginary dispatcher through the city streets, only with no dead ends along the way. Gevisser is excellent in its descriptive powers and with a creativity that can conjure entire imaged scenes from a single photograph.

In parts it is a gripping tale, especially when we get to the story of an attack on the apartment of his friends whom he was visiting at the time. It is brutal but could, in Gevisser’s own reflections, been worse (and what does that say?), whilst the aftermath paints a less than positive impression of the South African judicial system and the investigatory powers of the police. And while this is going on, Gevisser is self-aware enough to consider the classic reactions of guilty white liberals when faced with such a crime.

In this he is reflecting on contemporary South Africa, contemporary Johannesburg, and how the present - especially the new boundaries that have developed in the city, those new spaces between people that have been thrown up in the twenty years since the euphoria of those first democratic elections - are still being shaped by the divisions of the past. And yet he finds hope for his hometown, despite the continued difficulties and the challenging realities of everyday life, in one of the world’s most complex and fascinating cities.

Mark Gevisser's website

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