July’s People

Nadine Gordimer


(A white South African family in danger of racial violence flees to a village under the protection of their black servant.)

LukeKgatitsoe1986Luke Kgatitsoe, Magopa, South Africa, 1986 (photo by David Goldblatt)

You like to have some cup of tea?—

She runs.

This is the novel.  Rather, between these two lines lies the novel, and these two (the first and last lines of the novel) are the tail ends of two realities that rest on either side of the novel and overlap within it.  The pre-novel reality is a comfortable family in South Africa under apartheid, served by a black man July (I almost wrote “Friday”), “as his kind has always done for their kind”.  The post-novel reality is an unwritten future, a frenzied sprint to the unknown, where the white mother, in some ways the central figure of the family, flees either to her violent death or to her salvation.  Which of these she finds is not known, was not written, never came to pass.  The novel is not about an ending, and so this is not a spoiler.  The novel is about the boiling metamorphosis in process.  As the novel’s frontispiece quote by Antonio Gramsci indicates, the goal is to portray the “morbid symptoms” of a time when “the old is dying and the new cannot be born”.  The first line is the old that is dying, and the last line is the failing to be born of the new.  In a terseness and simplicity of prose not unlike that of her countryman Alan Paton, the eventual Nobel laureate Nadine Gordimer unwraps the space between these two lines, guiding us through the development from one into the other.

JulysPeople1stEdBam and Maureen Smales are a progressive white couple with three children (Victor, Gina, and Royce) in 1980s South Africa.  They realize the dignity of July as a person and try not to treat him as an inferior, but their relative situations virtually guarantee a domestic apartheid regardless of how they behave.  He has been their servant for 15 years, living in a house in Johannesburg far from his family except when given leave to visit them.  Today is different, however.  A (fictitious) violent rebellion of the blacks against the whites has sent the Smales into hiding, and July has agreed to shelter them in his own village.  The narrative begins with three distinct impressions whose relation to each other is only discernable upon close attention:  (1) a servant courteously serving tea, (2) a couple in a hovel, and (3) a woman in a shaken delirium while hiding in a vehicle for three days.  These word pictures are presented in reverse chronological order, from a small ordinary event outward and backward to its extraordinary origin and context.

In perhaps any upheaval, whether personal or political, the turning upside-down of lives and societies is not entirely an immediate and cataclysmic event.  The first and most obvious change might be sudden (an injury, a realization, a death, a coup, a disaster), but the subsequent transformations, which could be just as pervasive, might take years.  This seems almost too obvious to mention in general, but in specific personal situations we are often tempted to think that the change happens at the outset, and afterwards the process is just one of adjustment rather than a new stage of radical alteration.  The Smaleses are tempted to think this way as well, occasionally talking in ways that would only have been appropriate “back there”, and being shocked at their steady loss of authority and autonomy as life in the village proceeds.  The novel is the account of profound changes in their social status and in the interactions between them and July.  These changes amount to a decisive inversion—the book itself says explosion—of roles.  It is this social transformation that is the artery of the story.  Every line is a contributing capillary.

July, who never even sat down in their living room at the Johannesburg house, used to ask Bam and Maureen, “The master he say I can come in?”, and they had always unsuccessfully asked him to replace “master” with “sir”.  But after a time in his village, he merely says “You say I can come inside?”.  Likewise, July had chauffeured the Smaleses when they were “back there”, but now keeps the keys, drives away when he pleases, and eventually is chauffeured by Bam.  He flatly instructs his former employer as they visit the chief: “We just going stop that place under the tree.  Just wait little bit by that building there.  Over there.”  The junctures of the inversion are decisive—Bam loses power over the bakkie (a light Datsun truck)... and over July... and over his gun.  This last event, the theft of his gun while the Smaleses are socializing with the villagers, is devastating to Bam (ch.19).  The final vestige and symbol of his power has been taken from him.  The boy Daniel, who likely stole it, has gone to join the freedom fighters.

Having considered this inversion of roles, who are “July’s People”?  With roughly equal plausibility we can see them as his fellow villagers on the one hand, and the Smaleses on the other.  If July were to say “my people”, we can be sure he would be referring to his family, his village, his ethnic group.  This novel brings the white family to July’s People.  However, just as an employer will say “my people”, referring to the help, the Smaleses would presumably have said “our July” in this context.  Now that the hierarchy has been inverted, the Smaleses are at the mercy of their former servant.  He tells them where to go and what they must do in order to survive.  The power they inherited has disintegrated.  Their race, so privileged under ordinary circumstances, is of no help to them.  In ch.16 they find that America has become involved, but will only rescue Americans and Europeans.  They are alienated from everyone, and are completely dependent on July.  Maureen and Bam and their kids are now July’s People.

One result of the Smaleses being beholden to July is that they become a sort of “black man’s burden” in an interesting reversal of the stereotypic race relation described in a Kipling poem.  Just as in their old life the Smaleses realized that July is a person and deserves equal treatment under the law despite their continued life and prosperity under apartheid, July now harbors a white family amid the ambivalence of his community and the outright opposition of some members of his own family.  He saves them, protects them from violence and from their own impotence, but at a cost.  In ch.4, in a moment of exquisite and sensitive irony, July defends his former employers to his own wife, even as his country is experiencing the violent overthrow of the white minority by the black majority.  In ch.16 the Smaleses realize that July himself has nowhere to turn, as the freedom fighters will not look kindly on him.  They are a burden to July.

July’s interactions with Maureen are more complex than those with Bam, and exhibit more of the subtleties of the transition at the heart of the novel.  One landmark in this strange relationship comes in ch.8 when tension mounts between them about July’s appropriation of the bakkie.  He disingenuously assumes the role of the lowly servant, and she becomes incensed, arguing that she has always treated him with integrity and, besides, he is no longer their servant.  His reply is needling: “You not going to pay me, this month?”  Maureen then tries to goad him out of his pretended deference by referring to his “city woman”, Ellen, back in Johannesburg.  The victory is hollow, however, merely fomenting an antagonism that bursts forth again at the end of the novel.  After the gun is stolen, she asks him for information, forcing him to choose his loyalty (ch.19).  He claims nervously that he knows nothing.  Eventually the veneer of her respect for him is worn away, and she humiliates him by bringing up his petty thefts from their house.  As soon as she does this, the transformation is complete.  She has cast about in desperation for a way to bring July back down again, but it is impossible.  He does not cower this time:

“Suddenly he began to talk at her in his own language, his face flickering powerfully.  The heavy cadences surrounded her; the earth was fading and a thin, far radiance from the moon was faintly pinkening parachute-silk hazes stretched over the sky.”  (ch.19)

This is his place.  These are his people.  This country is his.  Maureen can no longer command him.  In her final disorientation and resentment she blurts that he is a selfish juvenile motivated principally by a desire for trinkets and to be seen as a “big man”.  With such futile lashes we can imagine that she hurts herself much more than him, by regressing towards that ideology that is being roundly overthrown, that has already lost.

By investigating the psychological and social changes that follow a toppling of racial hierarchy, Gordimer makes a statement similar to that in Twain’s Prince and the Pauper or, even more to the point because dealing with race, Pudd’nhead Wilson:  namely, that stereotypical differences between blacks and whites exist not because of intrinsic differences between people, but because of the situations in which they have developed, both individually and as cultures.  Thrown into different environments, indeed opposite environments, we can expect to see blacks in power use race tyrannically as a basis for policy just as the whites had done, and we can expect whites to abandon the rule of law when it no longer serves them (“I looted”, Maureen admits).

The author expresses not one but two levels of strained self-conscious ambivalence about race.  The first is obvious and expertly pervasive in the narrative.  We see it in July and Maureen most distinctly.  We also see it in occasional small events in the Smales’ family life.  Maureen drowns unwanted kittens in a bucket of water in ch. 12, and defends herself by denigrating the way Africans just learn to accept suffering instead of trying to reduce it.  Bam agrees, and as they come together in a way that is somehow simultaneously romantic and gruesome, he asks her, “Why didn’t you get one of them to do it?”  But a second level of tension is subtler, more fundamental, and perhaps not even entirely intended by the author.  Gordimer studiously refrains from permitting Bam or Maureen any healthy or fully natural traits, any whole humanness, in the face of their identity as white South Africans and part of a social problem.  Although the white children can play with the black children and incorporate themselves into the community (even culturally informing their parents, for instance that nobody owns cats in African society (ch.12)), the adults are restricted to a partial humanity, apparently as penalty for their sins.  Their interactions with Africans are tainted.  Even when Bam kills a warthog for the village, the event and its aftermath is described in terms of unholy ecstasy, intoxication, and vulgarity; and of course the event leads to an interest in Bam’s gun, which is eventually stolen.  The Smaleses are nothing outside of their proper environment.  “And here; what was he here, an architect lying on a bed in a mud hut, a man without a vehicle”.  The reader perceives the white adult characters as superficial husks, whose pith was entirely “back there”.  Even their physical appearances and marital interactions are ugly.  By ch.14, Bam refers to Maureen not by name, not as his wife, but merely “her”; their relationship too is a thing that really belongs “back there”.  Near the end of the novel, white society is compared to brown bread that makes a house smell good but is tasteless.  Their culture is superficial and meaningless, yet is the only place the Smaleses can belong.  How strange, then, that they experience no craving for their old comforts, for “back there”!  They suffer in their present situation, but they have no wishes for anything, even for a moment.  Perhaps their creator willfully denies them a right to wish?  Perhaps the author sees things this way: their previous life was made possible by an evil political system, so they cannot wish for that without being unconscionable.  But their current life is not their own but that of black Africans, and the Smaleses are not worthy of adapting or fitting in.  Their old has died, and their new cannot be born.  The author might stunt them simply to fulfill the novel’s theme in the clearest way.  Another possibility, however, is that the thin characterization of the white couple is itself an expression of guilt, an act of authorial contrition.  An author in a novel like this is a god sitting in judgment on the characters.  To limit the scope of Bam’s and Maureen’s selves to their experience of alienation, and ultimately to condemn them to their respective hells of impotence and anxiety, might amount to a literary human sacrifice, in atonement for apartheid.

Little more than a decade after this novel was published, the apartheid laws were repealed one by one, political dissidents were freed, and the white leadership stepped down (finally, under world pressure) to make way for fair elections and majority rule.  So, has the new now been born?  As a lover of South Africa I wish I could say yes.  The truth is that the transition has been tortuous, though with bright moments.  We have yet to see whether this beautiful country is running towards its salvation or its demise.

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This book is divided into unnumbered, unnamed chapters.  I list here the first clauses of each chapter, for use in locating quotes and events I describe here.  They also give clues as to the progression of the novel.

  1. You like to have some cup of tea?
  2. The vehicle was a bakkie
  3. A dresser made of box-wood
  4. Why do they come here?
  5. Bam could help July mend such farming tools
  6. At least for Bam the days were roughly divided
  7. Her husband was pumping the Primus
  8. There was the moment to ask him for the keys
  9. Always a moody bastard
  10. The white man had watched the wart-hog family
  11. Good meat, mhani?
  12. The clay vessels Maureen used to collect
  13. At first the women in the fields ignored her
  14. Bam rose from the bed
  15. They sat in the vehicle
  16. In the vehicle they did not speak in front of July
  17. The white woman did not understand
  18. A man in short trousers came along the valley
  19. If he hadn’t been with them watching the installation
  20. The mists of the night left a vivid freshness



‘The old is dying and the new cannot be born; in this interregnum there arises a great diversity of morbid symptoms.’ –Antonio Gramsci, Prison Notebooks

-frontispiece quote


People in delirium rise and sink, rise and sink, in and out of lucidity.  The swaying, shuddering, thudding, flinging stops, and the furniture of life falls into place.  The vehicle was the fever.

-ch.1, on the bakkie fleeing into the bush


The circumstances are incalculable in the manner in which they come about, even if apocalyptically or politically foreseen, and the identity of the vital individuals and objects is hidden by their humble or frivolous role in an habitual set of circumstances.

-ch.2. [This sets the stage for the novel—we are curious as to how these circumstances are going to come about.]


--We can go to my home.-- July said it, standing in the living-room where he had never sat down, as he would say ‘We can buy little bit paraffin’ when there was a stain to be removed from the floor.  That he should have been th eone to decide what they should do, that their helplessness, in their own house, should have made it clear to him that he must do this—the sheer unlikeliness was the logic of their position.



--White people here!  Didn’t you tell us many times how they live, there.  A room to sleep in, another room to eat in, another room to sit in, a room with books (she had a Bible), I don’t know how many times you told me, a room with how many books… Hundreds I think.  And hot water that is made like the lights we see in the street at Vosloosdorp.  All these things I’ve never seen, my children have never seen—the room for bathing—and even you, there in the yard you had a room for yourself for bathing, and you didn’t even wash your clothes in there, there was a machine in some other room for that—Now you tell me nowhere.--

-ch.4, July’s wife on the Smales; by nowhere she is referring to July’s statement that they had ‘Nowhere else to go’.


But the transport of a novel, the false awareness of being within another time, place and life that was the pleasure of reading, for her, was not possible.  She was in another time, place, consciousness; it pressed in upon her and filled her as someone’s breath fills a balloon’s shape.  She was already not what she was.  No fiction could compete with what she was finding she did not know, could not have imagined or discovered through imagination.

-ch.5, Maureen, after trying to read a novel to pass the time.


The old woman was at an age when people pretend not to enjoy anything any more, as a constant reproach to those who are going to live on after them.



The vehicle passed huts where people were doing what they did where the passengers had come from.  The same endless dragging of wood, chopping of wood, for the same fires; the same backsides bent at washing, squatting picking over maize; the same babies staggering towards mastery of their legs among the old slowly losing it.  An acceptance that produced restless fear in anyone unused to living so close to the life cycle, accustomed to the powerful distractions of the intermediary or transcendent—the ‘new life’ of each personal achievement, of political change.

-ch.14, the white couple observe African village life on the way to visit the chief.


Us and them.  What he’s really asking about: an explosion of roles, that’s what the blowing up of the Union Buildings and the burning of master bedrooms is.

-ch.15, the inversion of the hierarchy in both macro and micro scales.  Note master bedrooms…


He struggled hopelessly for words that were not phrases from back there, words that would make the truth that must be forming here, out of the blacks, out of themselves.

-ch.16, Bam.

Back to Section Head


…you are considering the effects of racial hierarchy;


...you want to see what can happen when the complacent comforts of middle class life are yanked from under someone’s feet.



(for the observer of South Africa’s epic racial struggle:)

  • Alan Paton, Cry The Beloved Country  (1948)
  • Nadine Gordimer, Selected Stories  (1975)
  • Mongane Wally Serote, Come Hope With Me  (1994)
  • J. M. Coetzee, Disgrace  (2000)

 (for one wracked by the moral ambiguity of revolution:)

  • Charles Dickens, Tale Of Two Cities  (1859)
  • Mariano Azuela, The Underdogs  (1924)
  • George Orwell, Animal Farm  (1945)
  • Graham Greene, The Honorary Consul  (1973)





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