There are writers whose prose style is so fluid, so easy, the reader feels as though he has been taken by the hand and is being gently led down a path by a guide who can be trusted to point out interesting landmarks, allow the odd meander, but always keep firmly on course.
Mark Gevisser, who published a praised biography of former South African president Thabo Mbeki a few years ago, is one such, and the metaphor seems apt in view of this book’s title, which comes from a game the author played in childhood.
Perched on the back seat of his father’s Mercedes, he would pore over a map of Johannesburg, sending imaginary emissaries out into the city and trying to ferry them home. Too often, the boy found, the journeys had to be aborted: the dots could not be made to join up, adjoining districts of this goldrush city did not seem to connect. It was all very puzzling.
There was a good reason for this, Gevisser came to realise. Maps are not only dreams, fantasies of cities that planners hope will one day spring into being; they are also records of political intent. In apartheid South Africa, the racial divide took stark geographical form, the colour of your skin determining where you worked, slept and played, which stretched as far as the cemetery. Law-abiding citizens were simply not meant to take the journeys the young Gevisser kept dreaming up.
So a memoir about journeys, which begins with those his Jewish forebears made from both Ireland and Lithuania, narrowly escaping the pogroms, swiftly becomes one about boundaries. Gevisser is fascinated by the frontiers — physical, legal and psychological — separating townships from affluent suburbs, black men from white women and men from one another.
Delving into family photo albums and newspaper archives, his book brings to light the many transgressive acts of quiet rebellion committed by Johannesburg’s inhabitants through the decades, in swimming pools and on beaches, in clandestine bars and the fragile privacy of servants’ quarters to remain human.
Gevisser is both a journalist and a campaigning gay activist, so much of his memoir focuses on the subterfuges that closet gays and lesbians were forced to adopt in order to meet and mate in a system that was as prudish as it was racist. How does a mixed-race, same-sex couple spend the night together when pass laws oblige one of them to head to the family home in Soweto at the end of his shift? Somehow, people found a way.
Hostility towards homosexuality is currently running at an all-time high in Africa, with draconian legislation drawn up in Nigeria and Uganda and presidents fomenting against an ‘un-African’ perversion imported from the West. So it’s refreshing to be reminded in these pages how open-minded many pre-colonial African communities really were. Xhosa adolescents were encouraged to practise ukusoma, non-penetrative thigh-sex, with either boys or girls. The great Zulu warrior chief King Shaka, urged his soldiers to adopt the same method when away on campaign.
In modern South Africa, the biggest dividing line is now that between rich and poor, and when that line is breached it is all too often done with sudden violence. Gevisser deftly interweaves the exploration of his family’s and city’s history with an account of his mugging by three men who broke into a frind’s apartment in Hillbrow. During the slightly farcical police investigation that follows, Gevisser, the classic soft liberal, is shocked to be asked by a private investigator whether he might not simply prefer to pay to have his attackers rubbed out. Post-Mandela, post-apartheid South Africa is a place of rough justice. Tempted to leave the country, he deals with the trauma instead by making the same journey as his attackers, only in the opposite direction, abandoning his safe white bubble for the gritty reality of Alexandra township.
There are times in this account when the analogy of the dispatcher wears a little thin, the border metaphor feels somewhat strained. But these are negligible quibbles. A humane and enlightened observer, Gevisser has pulled off what every memoirist hopes but often fails to achieve, capturing both an extraordinary chapter of history and the essence of a turbulent, shifting society via the examination of his own life.
Michela Wrong’s books include In the Footsteps of Mr Kurtz and It’s Our Turn to Eat: the Story of a Kenyan Whistleblower. Dispatcher: Lost and Found in Johannesburg is available from the Spectator Bookshop, £14.99, Tel: 08430 600033