Synopsis of The Classifier by Wessel Ebersohn

The teenage love affair of Chris and Ruthie takes place against the turbulent political backdrop of South Africa in the 1970s. He comes from the white suburb of Red Hill and she from coloured Greenwood Park on the other side of the valley.

They try to ignore the realities that surround them, but that his father is the head of the city’s Race Classification office is a fact that cannot be wished away. Both families are threatened. The precarious trans-racial house of cards of which Ruthie’s family consists will crumble at the smallest conflict with authority.  But eventually the unwavering, insecure leadership Chris’s father provides is revealed to be equally vulnerable.

The reader journeys into the love of two young people who will not recognise the odds against them. On one level, this is the story of a young Afrikaner growing up, living a life full of the young-manly pursuits of which his community approves, until he finds love where the unwritten scriptures of his people forbid it. On another, it is the tragedy of the white man in Africa, applying the strictest racial restrictions on all who fall outside his group and ultimately faced with the knowledge that he may have outstayed his welcome.

Then there is Ruthie, a barely pubescent young woman, a child in a female-headed household. She has grown up knowing that politics is not for her. Ma Peterson, her mother, has explained to her children many times that catastrophe can result in their drawing the slightest attention of the authorities to themselves. ‘We are building a life,’ she tells her children. ‘We can’t afford to do politics.’

Ruthie will introduce Chris to music he will grow to love. She will extract from him levels of emotion that he did know could exist and plunge with him into a despair neither could have anticipated. Together they travel towards a destiny that has elements of both catastrophe and triumph.

The Classifier takes readers inside the race classification machinery as the pressures on the system are building. The inner workings of apartheid’s very core and the fears that brought it into being are laid bare.

The years in which the story takes place are those between the 1974 revolution in Mozambique and the 1976 schools rebellion. Both have a deep impact on Chris’s family and on himself personally. In the first of these events he witnesses the processing of the Portuguese refugees from Mozambique, as they are divided into those white enough to be allowed to stay and those too dark, who have to be sent on the Brazil. Eventually, it is time spent in his father’s office that brings Chris face to face with the truth he had never fully understood.

Chris’s view of the sorting through of the Portuguese is not a broad altruistic one though. As far as he, with his boyish world view is concerned, the Portuguese dishonoured their country when they fled Mozambique and they did not deserve better. But then there is Ruthie, and where would she have been placed in such an orgy of race classification? he asks himself. And where is she placed now?

The Classifier is both an uncompromising telling of a tragedy typical of the time and an uplifting story of a love that would change the lives of everyone it touched.

Published by Umuzi, June 2011

ISBN:978 1 4152 0151 0

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The Classifier