OKLA. CITY —
American journalist Douglas Foster wrote in “After Mandela, The Struggle For Equality in Post- Apartheid South Africa” of the City of Johannesburg in South Africa that “It does not have a humble bone in its body.” And Johannesburg native Mark Gevisser recently has authored a memoir titled, “Lost And Found In Johannesburg” in which he gives some insight into the civic pride of that city.
He reminds us that it is a fairly young metropolis, having been founded in 1886, after gold was discovered on the South African plain, and that it “has none of the allegiances to the past (that) constrain ancient cities” as a result.
His description of the original inhabitants of what is often called “Joburg” may also be applicable to the first residents of Oklahoma City. “Everybody came from somewhere else and they all come for one reason, to make money.” The author’s review of pictures from Johannesburg’s early years prompted him to conclude that “The city was a distinctly modern venture: It imposed itself so quickly on the landscape that it appears almost an optical illusion in early photographs.”
Gevisser, who was born in a Johannesburg suburb in 1964, also tells the story of his Jewish forefathers who made their way from Europe to South Africa in the early years of the last century, and eventually became successful business people and leaders in the influential Jewish community of that nation. His paternal great-grandfather worked with his two brothers to sell food to black and Indian workers on the docks of the Indian Ocean port of Durban in the South African province of Natal. Their descendants in turn became entrepreneurs in Johannesburg where people from across the world had come to seek their fortune .
Gevisser takes us the Jewish Cemetery in Johannesburg where many of his ancestors are interred and writes of how the density of that final resting place is reflective of the density of the Jewish experience in Johannesburg.
And many Africans also came to the Johannesburg area, we are told, including a young Nelson Mandela, who arrived there in 1941, and were required to live in black townships such as Soweto. Gevisser documents how that experience has been chronicled in novels and songs by black author and artists about coming “to the City of Gold.” With the end of Apartheid in 1990, many more black South Africans have come to Johannesburg itself and its leafy suburbs.
Africans from other states have also come to that city and are now operating stores and restaurants that offer insights into their culture. But violent crime is a problem there, and Gevisser tells us how he and two friends were subject to a home invasion that left them all deeply traumatized. His account of the police investigation of the incident and subsequent trial of one of the suspects suggests that the Republic of South Africa could use the victim assistance services that are afforded crime victims in the state of Oklahoma.
In recent years, the City of Oklahoma City has become home for many immigrants from Mexico, Central America, and the Middle East, and many of them are involved in retail trades including convenience stores, small restaurants and auto repair shops. And maybe one of their descendants will write a book that detail their experience of growing up in Oklahoma City.
WILLIAM F. O’BRIEN is an Oklahoma City attorney.