BY BONGANI KONA
Straddling two continents, America and Africa, and shifting between time zones, from the mid-1800s to 2008, C.A. Davids’s ambitious first novel tells – as the provocative title suggests – the story of three generations of the Black family. Yet it is also so much more than a family history. It explores the madness of apartheid’s racial categories and how they still entangle us and how the past has been whittled down to a fairy tale-like story of saints and sinners devoid of complexity.
At the centre of the 237-page novel is Zara Black; a postdoctoral fellow at the University of Berwick in New Jersey and a third generation offspring of the Black family. Her life starts to unravel when she receives a letter from the South African government naming her late father, Bart, “among the traitors, conspirators and betrayers of their time.” The allegations spur Zara to dig into her family’s past in order to unearth the truth for herself.
The inquest begins with the life of her grandfather, Isaiah, the man who “had thrown a shadow on three generations” of the family. Born and raised in Kimberly during the high-tide of the diamond rush in the 1800s, Isaiah successfully passed himself off as white to avoid toiling like a slave underground and instead found a low-paying clerical job, ordering office stationery and making tea, at one of the mines. One day he stole ten uncut diamonds and stuffed them into his shoe and he fled to Cape Town. Once he arrived in the city, he opened a jewelry store and re-named himself Isaiah Black. The scandal, of Isaiah pretending to be European and abandoning the rest of the family, cloaks the Black family in shame.
Zara’s father, the last of Isaiah’s five children, is swept up in the struggle against apartheid. Until the arrival of the letter, Zara believed her father was an ardent anti-apartheid activist to the end. When she starts reconnecting with figures from his past a different story starts to emerge about who Bart really was. The question she is faced with afterwards, is can she still love him, even after all he has done? It her cousin Amy who provides the answer when she says:
“The country was not, contrary to all expectation, split into villains and heroes. Sometimes ordinary people, good people, fucked up, Zee. What if your father made a mistake? A horrible, regrettable mistake that would follow him for the rest of his life? This great struggle of ours – my God, what a legacy it has left us: we must not see anyone but the victor, the hero, the winning narrative. No we have painted over the past as it was, and replaced it with something which is pleasing to the eye. A one dimensional story!”
The Blacks of Cape Town is an astonishingly brilliant debut. Strikingly written, it piercingly illuminates South Africa’s failure to transcend apartheid’s racial categories.
The Blacks of Cape Town is published by Modjaji Books.