Thoughts in the aftermath of an attack

2014-03-02 14:00

As a little boy in the 1970s, I would play ‘Dispatcher’, a game that involved sending imaginary couriers on routes mapped out from Holmden’s Register of Johannesburg, the city’s eccentric street-guide.

This is how I learned about apartheid: I discovered there was no mapped route through, from my upper middle-class white suburb of Sandton to the black township of Alexandra next door.

And that Soweto was not mapped at all. I came to understand my home town as a city of impermeable boundaries.

My new book, Lost and Found in Johannesburg, is an account of a life’s attempt at trying to cross these boundaries, and of finding the borderlands between them, as a gay, white Jewish South African.

In the second part of the book, I tell the story of being the victim of a brutal attack. The extract below is the aftermath.

Hearing the story of our attack and the theory of the inside job, one of Bea’s relatives exclaimed, ‘Yes! That’s exactly why I don’t let black people into my house.’

Similar iterations were in the air everywhere, even among more enlightened and empathetic white listeners.

The violation of one’s home and hearth is the primal settler anxiety, deeply embedded in white South African consciousness, epitomised by the image of the ox-wagon laager corralled against the savages beyond.

It was at the foundation of Mau Mau anxiety; it is what happened in Kenya, it is what happened in Zimbabwe, and now, look, it’s happening to us.

How could these thoughts not be somewhere in the deep recesses of our own subconscious minds, too – well, Bea’s and mine, at least – given that we had been raised white in apartheid South Africa?

How could we not subject each passer-by on the street – each desperate panhandler at each traffic light – to our own form of racial profiling? In South Africa, young black men commit crimes.

Their mothers protect them. Their fathers fence for them. Their families live off them.

Even if you were a bleeding heart liberal like myself, and you believed that most crime was economically motived and a consequence of our deeply unequal society, and that its violence was a consequence of our bloody, brutal history, you would still be doing the profiling: That is a young black man.

He looks like the men who terrorised me.

He walks like them and dresses like them. He lives in the same kind of place that they do. He has the same pressures on his life that they do. On the basis of my personal experience, he is a threat. I must avoid him.

It seemed to me that it was a slippery slope from that kind of reasoning to the precepts of ‘national and racial hatred’ that (Primo) Levi describes: I must hate him. No: I would not fall victim to it.

More than that: our own personal experience, during the attack, had actually proven the virtues of humanism. We had insisted that our assailants recognise our humanity, and in turn, we had to recognise theirs.

This alone did not save us, but I have to believe that it helped. Certainly, it gave me the insights which have meant that I have learned from the attack, not just about myself but about my society, and this has added to rather than subtracted from my life’s experience.

Along with the exhilaration I felt in those first days – an exhilaration at being alive, at having survived – an immense sadness came over me. ‘What have we done?’ I found myself asking, repeating the plaint of the hymn ‘Senzenina?’, which became something of a struggle anthem during the anti-apartheid years.

What have we done to deserve this, of course, but also: what have we done to our society, our world? What have we done to enrage you, O Lord?

The way Shorty moved me tenderly when asked; the way he offered Bea milk or juice and helped her to put her trousers on.

The way The Colonel buttoned her blouse. The way they called Bea ‘Grandmother’ and Katie ‘Sister’. Perhaps, too, the decision to leave my legs unbound so that I could get help once they had left.

These were well-brought-up boys, once, before they became monsters, emasculated by poverty, by unemployment, by the culture of entitlement, by the AIDS epidemic, by the degradation of traditional life and the failure of urbanism to provide any sane alternative.


* Lost and Found in Johannesburg is published by Jonathan Ball. Mark Gevisser will launch the book in a public lecture, and then a public conversation with City Press editor Ferial Haffajee, at the Wits Art Museum at 6.30 pm on March 4. If you would like to attend, please go to for more details.

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