Thursday, July 17, 2008

Writer Profile: Mark Gevisser

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Mark Gevisser is a South African journalist best known for his 2007 biography of Thabo Mbeki The Dream Deferred (see my review) as well as his numerous profile pieces for the Mail & Guardian. Gevisser was born in Johannesburg in 1964 and attended Yale University, graduating in 1987 with a degree in comparative literature (Magna cum Laude). He worked in New York for a while writing for both The Nation and The Village Voice. In 1990 he returned to SA and has since published widely on politics, art and culture, as well as the built environment. At various stages in his career Mark has worked as a screenwriter, documentary filmmaker and museum exhibition designer (he was content curator for the Constitutional Hill exhibition). He is quite the polymath.

Below is an overview of Mark Gevisser's most notable writings and involvements:

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'Mugabe's good son' appeared this April in the M&G during the height of the electoral crisis in Zimbabwe. It provides something of a follow-up to last year's biography of President Mbeki and tries to unpack the motivations and strategic shortcomings of "Quiet Diplomacy". The relationship between the two leaders is represented as that of a tumultuous father-and-son bond. Gevisser asserts that Mbeki has been unable to balance his loyalty to this errant anti-Colonial stalwart with the democratic ideals of the African Renaissance. The article also reveals the ambivalence that the writer has for Mbeki. Gevisser is at once captivated and repulsed by the failings of the last eight years:
For many, particularly in the Zimbabwean opposition, Mbeki's filial loyalty to Mugabe disqualifies him from being an honest broker. Mbeki sees it another way: he believes that it is precisely this relationship that gives him access to the old man's inner sanctum. Who but a son can drum sense into an age-inflamed father? This is the logic behind Mbeki's "quiet diplomacy". We should not forget the role that he and his South African team played in brokering this benchmark election in the first place. But the fact that the poll is in effect now meaningless is, of course, a dramatic illustration of the limitations of Mbeki's filial diplomatic policy.

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In 2001 Gevisser wrote an excellent piece for The Nation on the international responses to the September 11th attacks ('Dispatches' 27 Sept '01). The article highlights the differences between black and white reactions among students at the University of Witwatersrand and the roots of anti-Americanism on our campuses and in the broader society. Gevisser's article formed part of a six-part series by writers from across the globe and provides a glimpse of the zeitgeist immediately following the attacks.
If South Africans - and other people of the South - thought the United States was arrogant before, this was only confirmed in the aftermath of the attacks. "We have been wronged," the message went, "so the whole world must go to war." The distasteful consequence is, among many South Africans, a lack of empathy for a deeply wounded nation, an admiration for unjustifiable terror tactics and a limited understanding of the attack's global consequences.

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The 1998 documentary film, The Man Who Drove With Mandela, sees Mark Gevisser credited for his role as screenwriter/researcher in this unusual piece about one of history's neglected characters. Those familiar with struggle folklore will recall Nelson Mandela in 1962 assuming the identity of a chauffeur, criss-crossing the South African countryside in a limousine whilst planning acts of sabotage as leader of Umkhonto we Sizwe. The man in the back seat posing as the wealthy patrician was actually renowned stage director, communist and homosexual Cecil Williams. The film explores the life of a man who, despite his fame, fought many a battle with authority on account of his association with the 'two underworlds' of the struggle movement and the gay subculture. This film won the Teddy Documentary Prize at the Berlin Film Festival in 1999.

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In 1996 Gevisser's M&G weekly columns were collated into a publication called Portraits of Power: Profiles in a Changing South Africa, which included over 40 pieces of writing on people of influence in SA. These included politicians (Matthews Phosa, Tokyo Sexwale, Trevor Manuel, and Zola Skweyiya) social activists (Fatima Meer, Mamphela Ramphele, Barney Pityana), musicians and sportsmen. I have browsed through the book and read some of the entries and it provides a fascinating glimpse of South Africa's transitional years, condensed into the lived experiences of these individuals.

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Mark is also an outspoken member of the homosexual community having co-edited a book in 1994 with Edwin Cameron Defiant Desire, Gay and Lesbian Lives In South Africa (Routledge). In his article, 'Affairs of the heart' Gevisser talks about his two exhibitions on the politics of sexuality. The first Home Affairs: About Love, Marriage, Families and Human Rights is at the Apartheid Museum until September and Jo’burg Tracks: Sexuality in the City is showing at the Old Fort, Constitution Hill, till November.

After I gave a public lecture on my Mbeki biography in Cape Town a few weeks ago, an old comrade came up to me and embraced me. An older woman, she had played a key role in the fight for gay equality and had been one of my icons and so I was somewhat taken aback when she told me how “surprised” she had been (“pleasantly”, she added) that I had acknowledged my life partner by name in my book.

In that moment I realised how far I - and this country - have travelled in the two decades since I met her. The thought wouldn’t have occurred to me not to name my partner and disclose my sexual orientation. But for my older comrade, who had fought battles that I had not, my acknowledgement was a profoundly political act, a blow against homophobia, rather than just a thank you to the man who shares my life.

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As the above material attests, Mark Gevisser is a gifted writer who has enabled South Africa to better understand itself. If you haven't already done so, I encourage you to take the time to read Thabo Mbeki: The Dream Deferred; it is one of the finest biographies I have encountered.

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