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“JULY’S PEOPLE” (1981):


Miguel Ángel Benítez Castro

Textos y Contextos en Inglés
July’s People (1981): South Africa’s Interregnum


1. Introduction ..............................................................................................3
2. Historical background (1948-1994) .........................................................3
3. Nadine Gordimer (1923-).........................................................................7
4. July’s People (1981)...............................................................................10
5. List of References...................................................................................14

Miguel Ángel Benítez Castro

July’s People (1981): South Africa’s Interregnum

July’s People (1981): South Africa’s Interregnum

1. I

This essay intends to explore the way in which the relationship between literature and
historical context appears reflected in July’s People (1981), a novel by one of South
Africa’s most world-renowned writers: Nadine Gordimer. In order to fulfil this purpose,
we shall first of all present the historical backdrop against which Gordimer’s literary
career has developed for so many years. The racial segregationist movement of
apartheid led many South African intellectuals to use their writings as powerful
weapons against a system they did not believe in. Nadine Gordimer’s strong
commitment to this intellectual struggle has permeated most of her novels, short stories
and critical essays, to such a degree that some of her works were banned during the
apartheid regime. It should be noted, however, that despite her social realism in
depicting the plight of black people under this unfair system, Nadine Gordimer has
always kept a strong sense of artistic individuality, which, as we shall see, shines
through both her language and literary images. Once the historical and biographical
background is set, we will then draw our attention to the nightmarish “interregnum”
found in July’s People. In the light of the uprisings of the 1970s, the novel’s fictitious
revolution leaves the (white) reader with a disturbing feeling about what might happen
in South Africa, if the country’s black population overthrew the system of apartheid.
Gordimer’s futuristic novel is the writer’s attempt to make South Africa’s white liberals
aware of the fact that, despite their opposition to the system of apartheid, deep down
they share with apartheid supporters the same racial prejudices and lack of
communication with black people.

D (1948-1994)
Apartheid (Afrikaans word for apartness) was a system of legalized racial segregation
enforced by the National Party (NP) South African government between 1948 and 1994.
With the foundation of the Union of South Africa in 1910 (first as a British dominion),
racial segregation began to be officially implemented through The !ative’s Land Act of
1913. This first piece of segregationist legislation was intended to restrict the ownership
and acquisition of land by blacks throughout the four provinces of the Union of South
When the Afrikaner Nationalists (the National Party) came to power in 1948, the
system of apartheid was systematized and institutionalized under extensive legislation.
The implementation of the policy was made possible by The Population Registration
Act of 1950, which put all South Africans into three racial categories: Bantu (black
African), White, or Coloured (of mixed race). A fourth category, Asian (Indians and
Pakistanis), was added later. Having legalized racial segregation through the previous
Act, the Afrikaner government further enforced the system of apartheid by a series of
laws passed in the 1950s.
With the passing of The Prohibition of Mixed Marriages Act (1949) and The
Immorality Act (1950), any kind of union (marital in the first law, and sexual in the
second one) between people of different races was outlawed. The Group Areas Act
(1950) further separated people by assigning racial groups to different residential and
business sections in urban areas. An effect of the law was to exclude non-Whites from
living in the most developed areas, which were restricted to Whites. Consequently,
thousands of Coloureds, Blacks and Indians were removed from areas classified for

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July’s People (1981): South Africa’s Interregnum

white occupation. This law, nevertheless, did not deprive Non-whites of the right to
work in White areas, but in order to be allowed to commute to one of these privileged
areas, all black South-Africans over the age of sixteen had to carry a pass book at all
times (Pass Laws Act, 1952). This document contained details on the bearer, such as
his/her fingerprints, photograph, the name of his/her employer, and how long the bearer
had been employed. It should be noted that passes were issued for just one district,
confining the holder only to that area. Being without a valid pass made a person subject
to arrest and trial
Non-whites saw their social condition get even worse with the passing of The Bantu
Authorities Act (1951) and The Promotion of Bantu Self-Government Act (1959). These
laws furthered the divisions between the races by creating ten African homelands,
administered by what were supposed to be reestablished tribal organizations. Tribal
Authorities were set up and positions given to traditional Chiefs and Headmen, who
became accountable for both the distribution of land and the well-being of their people.
These two Acts implied that these separate territorial governments would eventually
become independent, thus attempting to turn South Africa into a country split into a
white centre and a cluster of black states along its borders.
A turning point in the government’s Bantustan strategy was a new piece of
legislation passed in 1970: The Bantu Homelands Citizenship Act. This Act made every
black South African a citizen of one of the homelands, effectively stripping the black
population of their South African citizenship. The aim was to ensure whites became the
demographic majority within South Africa, by having all ten bantustans (homelands)
choose independence. From that moment, the citizens of the new independent states
needed passports (not pass books) to work in White South Africa. However, eligibility
requirements for a passport were extremely difficult for blacks to meet.
Racial discrimination in apartheid South Africa involved not only geographical
separation (Grand apartheid), but also social inequity and intolerance (Petty apartheid).
Paramount in this process of social discrimination was The Reservation of Separate
Amenities Act (1953), which enforced segregation of all public facilities, including
buildings, and transport. To provide some examples of such a terrible situation, buses,
trains, hospitals, ambulances, public beaches, public swimming pools, public toilets,
some pedestrian bridges and graveyards (among other facilities) were segregated.
Striking as it may seem, race prejudice did not leave education unscathed, for only-
black schools and universities were created in the homelands.
The terrible ordeal black people went through under apartheid was twice as
appalling for women as for men. Indeed, African women had very little or no legal
rights, no access to education and no right to own property. Since jobs were so hard to
find, many black women worked as agricultural workers in rural areas. The Pass Laws
Act (1952) and The Group Areas Act (1950) highly contributed to a worsening of the
condition of black women, as wives and children had to be left behind in the black
homelands, while men stayed in (white) urban areas, working very hard to send their
monthly wages to their families: “Most of the women of childbearing age had husbands
who spent their lives in those cities the women had never seen” (Gordimer 1981: 83).
This situation is deftly portrayed by Nadine Gordimer in July’s People, where we find
July, one of those black men who were employed by a white household as domestic
workers. Due to his economic dependence on the Smales, July could visit his family
only once a year for a short period of time. Martha, July’s wife, refers to this situation
as follows: “Across the seasons was laid the diuturnal one of being without a man...The
sun rises, the moon sets; the money must come, the man must go” (Gordimer 1981: 83).

Miguel Ángel Benítez Castro

July’s People (1981): South Africa’s Interregnum

In this passage, Martha resigns herself to her role as a husbandless woman entangled in
a cycle in which her husband’s long awaited visit is simply a part of nature’s eternal
course: time goes by, her husband comes back for a short period of time, and then he
goes away. Hence, it is obvious that the system of apartheid separated and destroyed
many black families, who were forced to face up to the fact that they would no longer
be together.
The implementation and enforcement of apartheid, which has already been
commented on, did not go unopposed. A number of black political groups, often
supported by sympathetic whites (one of them being Nadine Gordimer), opposed
apartheid by using a variety of tactics, including violence, srikes, demonstrations, and
sabotage. Among the most notable resistance movements were the ANC (African
!ational Congress) and the PAC (Pan Africanist Congres of Azania). In the 1950s, the
ANC began to advocate a policy of open defiance and resistance to the system of
apartheid. With The Defiance Campaign of June 1952, the ANC (led by Nelson
Mandela) encouraged black people to defy the segregationist laws through strikes,
boycotts and civil disobedience. This defying fervour soon spread throughout the
country, giving rise to mass arrests by the segregationist government. Once things had
calmed down, the government took several supreme measures, among which we could
mention the Suppression of Communism Act and the Public Safety Act. This new
legislation empowered the government to declare states of emergency and increased
penalties (life sentences, whippings...) for protesting against or supporting the repeal of
a law.
In 1959, a group of disenchanted ANC members broke away from the ANC and
formed the Pan Africanist Congress (led by Robert Sobukwe). The first thing in their
agenda was a series of nationwide demonstrations against the Pass Laws. The PAC
called for blacks to demonstrate against pass books on 21 March 1960. One of these
mass demonstrations took place at Sharpeville, where a crowd of black people refused
to carry their passes. Immediately, the government declared a state of emergency which
lasted for 156 days, leaving 69 people dead and 187 wounded. In the aftermath of the
Sharpeville massacre, the government banned both the ANC and the PAC. After this
terrible carnage, South Africa’s policies were subject to international scrutiny,
eventually leading to the country’s exclusion from the British Commonwealth of
nations in 1961, and its subsequent change of status (from the Union of South Africa to
the Republic of South Africa).
Sharpeville’s dreadful incident prompted both the ANC and PAC to run campaigns
of sabotage and terrorism through their armed wings. However, their campaign would
soon come to an end, with the arrest in 1963 of 19 ANC leaders, who had been hiding at
a farm in Rivonia. In the subsequent trial, ten leaders of the African !ational Congress
were tried for 221 acts of sabotage designed to overthrow the apartheid system. Nelson
Mandela, one of the defendants in that trial, was sentenced to jail, where he remained
until 1990. The trial was condemned by the United Nations Security Council, and was a
major force in the introduction of new international sanctions against the South African
After the banning of the ANC and PAC, and the Rivonia Trial, the struggle within
South Africa suffered a major setback. Nevertheless, in the mid-1970s, a new devotion
came from the latest, youngest generation. In the 1970s, Steve Biko (a black student
leader) founded the Black Consciousness Movement, which would empower and
mobilize much of the urban black population. This movement drew most of its support
from high schools and higher education institutions. The BCM, together with The South

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July’s People (1981): South Africa’s Interregnum

African Students’ Organisation (SASO), played a major role in the mobilization of

students that led to the Soweto uprisings (1976).
The Soweto uprising lit the fuse of a nationwide protest that greatly endangered the
survival of the segregationist regime. The mechanism which most directly set the
uprising in motion was the Afrikaans Medium Decree (1974), which forced all black
schools to use Afrikaans and English in a 50-50% ratio as languages of instruction. The
policy was deeply unpopular, since Afrikaans was regarded by some as the language of
the oppressor (by contrast, English was favoured as an important global lingua franca).
The resentment was such that, in April 1976, the children attending one of the schools
in Soweto went on strike. Their rebellion then spread to many other schools in Soweto,
spurring some students’ associations to organize a mass rally for June 16, 1976. On the
morning of June 16, 1976, thousands of black students walked from their schools to
Orlando Stadium for a rally to protest against having to learn through Afrikaans at
school. The protest was intended to be peaceful, but when the crowd was confronted by
the police, panic and chaos broke out. Surrounded by a mob of students (most of them,
children), the police began to fire shots into the crowd, killing 23 people only on the
first day. Riots in Soweto lasted for three more days, with a final death toll that varies
from 200 to 700.
The revolutionary spirit ignited in Soweto led to mass protests all over South Africa.
In this atmosphere of revolutionary awareness, students became more conscious of the
major role they could play in overthrowing the white rule of apartheid. For this reason,
many young people left South Africa, most of them to Tanzania, to be educated in
militant struggle. Outraged at the violence displayed by the apartheid government in
Soweto, the ANC and PAC began to recruit emigrant students to join the armed
struggle. In the meantime, the white segregationist government was so afraid of the tide
of hostility that was sweeping across the country that it urged police to raid all the black
townships in search of ringleaders. One of the arrested leaders was Steve Biko, who
died while he was in police custody.
Little by little, South Africa’s National Party government became more and more
isolated, both internationally and domestically. With the independence of the
neighbouring nations of Angola and Mozambique, the apartheid system of South Africa
lost two important allies. The victory of liberation leftist movements in these two
countries showed that white colonialists could be beaten by military force. The fact that
most of these liberation movements had a leftist or communist perspective can be
explained by reference to the global power balance between the USA and the USSR
during the Cold War. This power struggle is illustrated in Nadine Gordimer’s July’s
People. In the light of the uprisings of the 1970s, Nadine Gordimer provides the reader
with a fictional account of the power reversal that could come about in South Africa, if
black revolutionaries were successful in their overthrow of the system of apartheid. The
following quotation from the novel makes it clear that if blacks succeeded in their
revolt, this would be thanks to the military and economic aid provided by both other
neighbouring nations and Cuba:

It’s a war. It’s not like that, any more...The blacks have also got guns. Bombs
(miming the throwing of a hand grenade). All kinds of things...People have come
back from Botswana and Zimbabwe, Zambia and Namibia, from Moçambique,
with guns...The blacks have Cubans flying from Moçambique and Namibia.
(Gordimer 1981: 116-117)

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This passage is taken from the section dealing with the Smales’ visit to July’s tribal
chief. In their conversation with the chief, the reader finds out that Nadine Gordimer’s
vision of a future South Africa is rather pessimistic, in the sense that in a hypothetical
demise of apartheid, it is quite unlikely that all blacks will be eager to change the
established order. Contrary to Bam Smales’ belief that all black South Africans are
members of “Mandela’s people and Sobubkwe’s people” (Gordimer 1981: 120), the
chief fears that the black rebels (“Those people from Soweto” Gordimer 1981: 119) and
those supported by both Russians and Cubans will “take this country of my nation”
(Gordimer 1981: 119). Shortly afterwards, the chief makes explicit mention of the fact
that South Africa is not the homogeneous “black nation” (Gordimer 1981: 119) white
liberals pride themselves on upholding, but a kind of melting pot of many different
black tribes: “They not our nation. AmaZulu, amaXhosa, baSotho...I don’t know”
(Gordimer 1981: 119). Therefore, Nadine Gordimer is calling the reader’s attention to
the fact that in a future overthrow of the apartheid regime, tribal chiefs will do anything
they can to defend their own people (their own tribe), and not “Mandela’s and
Sobubkwe’s people”; if that defence implies using weapons, they will learn to shoot
their guns against those who may dispossess them of their land. However, at the end of
July’s People, Nadine Gordimer implies that, in an eventual liberation of the country,
not all black people will be willing to fight for the defence of their own tribes. This may
be found in Daniel’s failure to comply with his allegiance to his tribal chief, for he takes
sides with the revolutionary cause rather than with his own people (tribe):

Daniel’s raised fist in greeting had seemed a matter of being fashionable... ‘Cubas’:
it was he who had supplied the identification when the chief could not name the
foreigners he feared – So he’s gone to fight. Little bastard. He only took what he
had a right to (Gordimer 1981: 153)

In this excerpt, Maureen shows July the deep resentment she feels at Daniel’s stealing
of Bam’s gun.

E GORDIMER (1923-)
Nadine Gordimer was born in 1923 in Springs, a small mining town near Johannesburg.
Her parents were both Jewish immigrants, her father a watchmaker from Lithuania, and
her mother from London. Gordimer attended a Catholic convent school for some time,
but was largely home-bound as a child because of her mother’s fears that she had a
weak heart. Being so isolated led her to read all that fell into her hands; thus, she
became interested in literature from an early age. Nadine began to write at the age of
nine, and her first short story was published in a South African magazine when she was
only fifteen. Gordimer studied for a year at Witwaterstrand University, where she got to
know some important professionals across the colour bar. While taking classes in
Johannesburg, Gordimer continued to write, publishing mostly in local South African
magazines. She collected many of these early stories in Face to Face, published in
1949. Her first novel, The Lying Days, appeared in 1953. Over half a century, Gordimer
has written thirteen novels, over two hundred short stories, and several volumes of
Gordimer endured the bleak Apartheid decades, refusing to move abroad as so many
others did. Her decision to remain in the country through the years of political
repression has reflected her commitment to her racially divided society, and to her
vision of a postapartheid future. In that sense, we may well say that Nadine Gordimer
became the voice for all the silenced, black South African writers. In the early 1960s,

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July’s People (1981): South Africa’s Interregnum

and particularly after the Sharpeville massacre, Nadine Gordimer became actively
involved in South African politics. In the Rivonia Trial (1963), Gordimer became a
close friend of Nelson Mandela and his defence lawyers. Some years later, she joined
the African National Congress, when it was still listed as an illegal organization by the
South African government. Throughout these years, she also regularly took part in anti-
apartheid demonstrations in South Africa, and travelled internationally criticizing South
Africa’s segregationist regime.
Gordimer’s outspoken perspective led to the banning of several of her works, two
for lengthy periods of time. The Late Bourgeois World was banned for almost a decade,
and A World of Strangers was censored for twelve years. Other works were forbidden
for lesser amounts of time: Burger’s Daugher was censored for six months, and July’s
People was also banned for some time. Surprisingly enough, censorship has not yet
disappeared from South Africa’s post-apartheid era; for instance, July’s People (among
many other works) was removed in 2001 from school reading lists, on the grounds that
the novel was highly racist. Despite her country’s reluctance to her works, Gordimer’s
literary output has achieved international recognition, culminating with the Nobel Prize
for Literature in 1991.
Once some biographical facts have been considered, it is important that we confine
our attention to the literary development that this writer has experienced over the years.
First of all, it should be pointed out that Nadine Gordimer’s literary style is based upon
the occidental literary tradition. However, with the passing of years, Gordimer has been
able to gear her occidental literary background towards a more personal South African
perspective. This South African viewpoint has permeated most of her liteary output,
providing the reader with a very clear picture of how distressing and appalling life can
be under the yoke of a segregationist regime. In spite of Gordimer’s socio-political
commitment, she has been able to keep her social engagement apart from her artistic
individuality. In Nadine Gordimer’s words, what really makes a writer is the tension
arising “between standing apart [artistic individuality] and being fully involved”
(Conversations 34-35, cited in Baena 1998: 32)
Nadine Gordimer’s first works are characterized by the humanistic liberal ideology
that prevailed in the 1950s. Humanistic liberalism advocates that racial differences may
disappear, simply by ignoring them and by interacting and communicating with black
people. At that time, Nadine Gordimer became acquainted with many African
intellectuals, among whom we could mention Lewis Nkosi, Ezekiel Mphahlele or
Lionel Abrahams. In addition to the humanistic perspective typical of her first works,
from the outset of her literary career, Gordimer endowed her fiction with an intense
narrative realism. Gordimer’s realism has its origins in the Hungarian philosopher and
critic Georg Lukacks. Her concern, as shown in her highly acclaimed novels of the
1970s (The Conservationist and Burger’s Daughter), is to evoke by means of the
individual character a broader political and historical totality.
The initial humanistic optimism of the 1950s was gradually undermined by a series
of historical and political events. For example, the multiracial and multicultural stance
upheld by the ANC in the early fifties was soon endangered by the africanist position
proposed by the PAC. According to the Pan Africanist Congres, apartheid could not be
overthrown simply by promoting intercultural communication. This segregationist
regime was “an oppression of the black indigenous majority by a white settler minority”
(Clingman 1986: 73, cited in Baena 1998: 34), and as such, it involved a war in which
all the African (black) nation should stand up in arms against all the white population
(without exceptions). July’s People is a perfect example of what might happen in South

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Africa if the black nation (as a whole) revolted against the white minority. This
Africanist utopia did not last too long, for two terrible historical events shattered the
nationalist hopes of the black population: the Sharpeville massacre, and the subsequent
banning of both the ANC and the PAC.
As one might expect, Nadine Gordimer’s literary art was not immune to the course
of events already mentioned. A Guest of Honour (1971) marks a watershed in Nadine
Gordimer’s artistic development, in respect of her growing engagement with an
exclusively African perspective. From that moment onwards, Gordimer’s novels begin
to depict the entire South-African society, which means that Gordimer no longer
provides only a white standpoint in her works, but tries to offer a general overview of
the South-African society as a whole, including both urban environments and black
rural areas. Bearing this in mind, it is no wonder that some of the novels coming after A
Guest of Honour contain rural areas to reflect an African tradition which has nothing to
do with the white colonial urban areas. The stark contrast between white urban areas
and black rural villages is wonderfully portrayed in July’s People.
The ideologogical evolution found in A Guest of Honour was immediately followed
by a formal evolution, coinciding with the publication of The Conservationist (1974).
This novel marks the starting point for Gordimer’s experimentation with postmodern
and metafictional techniques. From then on, Nadine Gordimer makes use of a
fragmented and multiple perspective, whereby she expresses a reality which is gradually
becoming more twisted and complex. Gordimer’s postmodernism brings the reader
closer to the African conflict, as it offers a wide range of attitudes and opinions coming
from the innermost psychology of her protagonists. Furthermore, Gordimer’s novels
from the seventies and eighties offer a pessimistic perspective of the white humanistic
liberalism typical of the fifties. Bruce King explains Gordimer’s shift in her literary
perspective as follows: “The Conservationist [brought] a foreshadowing of the many
voices, the confusion of facts with fantasies, the unreliable or dislocated narration,
found in such works as Burger’s Daughter or July’s People” (Bruce King 1993: 3-4,
cited in Baena 1998: 40).
July’s People is one of the best instances of a postmodern reality which is gradually
falling apart. In this novel, Nadine Gordimer prophesies that South Africa’s future
liberation might lead to “an explosion of roles” (Nadine Gordimer 1981:117), as a result
of which blacks will take over the privileged position formerly occupied by the whites.
Gordimer thinks that this situation will result in “a great diversity of morbid symptoms”
(Nadine Gordimer 1981: epigraph). In the novel, the character who most suffers the
consequences of such “interregnum” is Maureen Smales. Unable to come to terms with
a new reality which she cannot understand, Maureen finally decides to flee from her old
life (her family, her privileged position) in search of an unknown fate, represented by
the helicopter. Maureen’s despair becomes apparent to the reader in the first pages of
the novel: “Maureen was aware, among them in the hut, of not knowing where she was,
in time, in the order of a day as she had always known it” (Nadine Gordimer 1981: 17)
Nadine Gordimer was not the only South African writer depicting a revolutionary
future in one of her novels. Besides July’s People, the early eighties also saw the
publication of two other novels similar in nature to Gordimer’s: Promised Land by
Karel Schoeman, and Waiting for the Barbarians by J.M. Coetzee. These South-African
works are important, not only due to their futuristic nature, but also to their presentation
of the possible consequences that could arise from a future contact between colonizer
and colonized. In July’s People, the material deprivation that Bam and Maureen Smales
experience in rural South Africa, and the difficulty of adjusting to dependency on their

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July’s People (1981): South Africa’s Interregnum

former servant cause them to lose their self-image as independent, gracious, liberal
citizens. This loss of personal identity is one of the possible effects that could be
brought to light by a future contact between blacks (colonized) and whites (colonizers).
Gordimer draws our attention to the fact that white liberals would discover the
hypocrisy underlying their ideals, if they were forced to live with black people under
equal conditions.
To sum up, Nadine Gordimer’s literary career until the publication of July’s People
(1981) proceeded as follows: from optimism to pessimism, and from humanistic
liberalism to a fragmentary reality. With the new revolutionary fervour of the 1980s,
South Africa was getting closer to its eventual liberation. The apartheid government,
however, was not yet ready to hand over its power to the black population.
Consequently, we may assert that South Africa at that time was in the throes of the
revolutionary transformation that ten years later led to the final overthrow of the
apartheid regime. Taking this idea into account, the following section will be devoted to
a commentary on the “interregnum” Nadine Gordimer presents in July’s People.

4. JULY’S PEOPLE (1981)

Nadine Gordimer wrote July’s People at a time of widespread uncertainty about the
future of South Africa. The resurgence of a revolutionary consciousness in the eighties,
coupled with the gruesome repression by the apartheid system after the Soweto riots,
brought the final liberation of the country closer to becoming a reality, but a reality
whose achievement was not going to be plain sailing. Thus, it becomes clear that July’s
People was written against a backdrop of socio-political tension between “the old”
system of racial segregation, which was about to die, and the future system of racial
equality, which was struggling to be born. The interval between these two events is
what Antonio Gramsci’s epigraph refers to as “interregnum”. The metaphorical
nobody’s land resulting from such a situation gives rise to a “great diversity of morbid
symptoms”. It is precisely this “diversity of morbid symptoms” what July’s People is all
In the middle of a widespread black revolt in South Africa, the privileged position
formerly occupied by the whites (‘colonizers’) is about to be taken over by the blacks
(‘colonized’). This situation leads many white families to flee their homes in their
comfortable residential districts. One of these families, the Smales, find themselves
forced to accept the help of their black servant, July, who offers them refuge at his mud
and thatched hut village. July’s protection, together with Bam’s yellow bakkie (a little
truck), “turn out to be vital” (Gordimer 1981: 6) in the Smales’ successful escape.
The Smales are white liberals who have always been against the segregationist
regime of apartheid. Being liberal, however, will not spare them the ordeal of having to
suffer the consequences of such a terrible situation. To provide an example of the
uselessness of the Smales’ liberal ideals in the novel’s “interregnum”, Bam and
Maureen Smales were so confident about the immunity they thought they would be
granted as white liberals, that they were extremely baffled when they were advised to
withdraw all their money from the bank (“Bam, in a state of detached disbelief at his
action ... withdrew five thousand rands in notes” Gordimer 1981: 7). By introducing the
reader to this family, Nadine Gordimer attempts to highlight the difficult position many
white liberal families found themselves in at that time: “they might find they had lived
out their whole lives as they were, born white pariah dogs in a black continent”
(Gordimer 1981: 8). The previous quotation may be taken as an illustration of the wide
disjunction between the ideals associated with white liberalism and reality; no matter

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how hard they tried to “slough their privilege” (Gordimer 1981: 8), blacks would
always regard white liberals as “masters” (‘colonizers’).
Referring to the notion of “masters” doubtlessly involves the existence of slaves. In
the South-African segregationist context, it is not at all hard to identify to whom each
label is assigned: masters (whites) vs. slaves (blacks). However, the “interregnum” the
reader is confronted with in July’s People makes it difficult to maintain such division.
July’s People is, more than anything else, the fictional account of a power reversal,
whereby former masters become slaves and former slaves become masters. This power
reversal is closely related to the Smales’ growing dependence on their former servant,
July. Since July was the only person they could turn to for survival, “there was nothing
else to do but the impossible” (Gordimer 1981: 11); this was the starting point for July’s
rise to power.
Throughout the novel, July starts to take control of every possible aspect of the life
of the Smales. From the very beginning, the reader becomes aware that July does not
want the Smales to act on their own, thus depriving their everyday lives of ‘meaning’:
“If the children need eggs, I bring you more eggs...He smiled at the pretensions of a
child, hindering in its helpfulness – That’s not your work” (Gordimer 1981: 96). Not
being allowed to cater for themselves leads the Smales to become less independent and
more subservient to July’s goodwill.
The only thing that helps the Smales make some sense of their pointless lives is the
radio. Desperate for outside news, the adults practically worship their radio. Bam
constantly listens to the radio, frantically searching for stations broadcasting any
updates on the current situation of the war. The Smales are so obsessed with this device,
because it is the only link they have to the outside world from which they fled.
Nevertheless, little by little, radio stations are attacked and broadcasts are made vague
and less informative, if they are made at all. By the end of the novel, the only
information they can get from the radio is “the sounds of chaos, roaring, rending,
crackling out of which the order that is the world has been won” (Gordimer 1981: 124).
Gordimer’s depiction of a reality that is gradually falling apart is clearly reflected in the
previous quotation.
The fragmented reality their life comes down to by the end of the novel does not
come about all of a sudden. It is a gradual process that is inextricably linked to the
Smales’ gradual loss of power. The former masters begin to lose their privilege at the
very moment when they are forced to flee from their comfortable home to July’s
village. This event is in turn followed by July’s learning to drive the bakkie, without the
Smales’ consent. July is so enthusiastic about his new skill that he is very reluctant to
give the keys of the car back to the Smales. Despite being so annoyed at July’s use of
their car, they do not dare to ask him for the keys of the vehicle, for they know that they
are now at the mercy of their former servant. At one point in the novel, July realizes that
the Smales are not at all happy about him keeping their car: “You don’t like I must keep
the keys” (Gordimer 1981: 69). In the argument about the keys of the bakkie, July
points out correctly that Maureen has never really trusted him to take care of the things
he was asked to, while the family was on holidays. It is precisely at that moment that
Maureen begins to realize that her white liberal ideology is nothing but a show. If the
communication between master and servant had been better, she would have found out
that July felt as any other black did under the yoke of the apartheid regime. By using the
word “boy” and “master” in this exchange, July emphasizes Maureen’s hypocritical
liberal ideals: “you tell everybody you trust your good boy” (Gordimer 1981: 70).

Miguel Ángel Benítez Castro

July’s People (1981): South Africa’s Interregnum

Despite having been against the use of such words as “boy” and “master” for so long,
this “interregnum” unveils the Smales’ real ideology.
If losing their bakkie speeded up the Smales’ growing subservience to July, the
stealing of Bam’s gun by Daniel brings about the final and complete reversal of roles
(master-servant). Having been stripped of the only objects reminding them of their
former white power (the bakkie and the gun), the Smales (particularly, Maureen) have
to face up to the fact that they will never recover their former life. Maureen’s
resentment about this reversal of roles may be shown in the way she refers to July at the
beginning of the novel: “a good man” (Gordimer, 1981: 32), as opposed to the way she
calls him towards the middle of the novel: “a moody bastard” (Gordimer, 1981: 57).
Maureen and July’s final row over the disappearance of the gun is of critical
importance, in the sense that this passage may be regarded as the novel’s climax. In this
passage, July, no longer willing to appear as the “good” loyal servant, voices all his
feelings about his relationship with the Smales. The curious thing of this exchange is
that July speaks to Maureen in his own native language, not in English. Surprisingly
enough, Maureen “understood although she knew no word. Understood everything”
(Gordimer 1981: 152). After so many years with July, it is only when he starts speaking
in his native language that Maureen eventually becomes aware of all that he has gone
through: “She was not his mother, his wife, his sister, his friend, his people” (Gordimer
1981: 152). In short, what July is trying to tell us is that Maureen was not the kind and
benevolent white liberal who would treat her servant as a relative or a friend. Hence, it
becomes clear that July feels himself as a member of hiw own black tribe, and not as
part of the group of privileged white liberals, who, to a greater or a lesser extent, had
also benefited from the apartheid regime. This scene ends with Maureen posing herself
provocatively against the hood of the bakkie, like a model in an advertisment.
Nonetheless, her physical appearance is not that of a model, but a kind of caricature of
an attractive middle-aged white woman: “She lurched over and posed herself, a
grotesque..sweat coarsened forehead...neglected hair standing out wispy and rough”
(Gordimer 1981: 153). In that attitude, Maureen gathers all the irony, hurt and
bafflement of someone whose former role (master) has been exploded.
From what we have said so far, surely the role played by language in July’s People
has not gone unnoticed. Power is related not only to political and economic superiority,
but also to speech. As one might expect, those in power are always those who find
themselves entitled to modulate and understand language according to their socio-
political loyalties. The following excerpts will serve as an instance of linguistic power:

“They could assume comprehension between them only if she kept away from even
the most commonplace of abstractions; his was the English learned in kitchens,
factories and mines. It was based on orders and responses, not the exchange of
ideas and feelings (Gordimer 1981: 96)

“When she didn’t understand him, it was her practice to give some noncommittal
sign or sound...Bam did not have this skill and often irritated him by a quick
answer that made it clear...the black man’s English was too poor to speak his
mind” (Gordimer 1981: 97)

As may be remembered from the second section of this paper, those who had a high
command of English were the white masters. Black South-African schools based most
of their instruction either on Afrikaans or on tribal languages, consigning English to a
secondary position (Afrikaans Medium Decree, 1974). While white education was

Miguel Ángel Benítez Castro

July’s People (1981): South Africa’s Interregnum

aimed at obtaining white professionals (doctors, lawyers...), bantu education only

intended to supply future labourers with some little instruction. Hence, it is no wonder
that Gordimer refers to July’s English as that language variety “learned in kitchens,
factories and mines”. More often than not, the immediate consequence of such lack of
linguistic competence was an uncomfortable miscommunication between masters and
servants (“Bam did not have this skill”). It is precisely this lack of communication that
challenges all the preconceptions Bam and Maureen Smales had about July.
Last but not least, of paramount importance in July’s People is the role played by
children. In comparison with the great pains taken by Bam and Maureen to adapt to the
new situation, Roy, Gina and Victor quickly get used to July’s village. The reason for
such successful adaptation on the part of the children lies in the fact that children play,
while adults do not. What I mean is that the only thing children are concerned with is
playing and having fun; they have not yet been contaminated with the (racial, social...)
prejudices typical of adults. Their adaptation is so great that they even begin to acquire
the language of the other black children. Nadine Gordimer uses the children’s
relationships to cast some light on those of the adults. Bam and Maureen, as adults, are
contaminated with all the values and ideas associated with white urban life in South
Africa (privilege, discrimination...), whereas the children are too young to have been
completely contaminated or influenced by adulthood. This dichotomy highly
contributes to explaining why Bam and Maureen, unlike their children, find it so hard to
become independent: “her children had survived in their own ability to ignore the
precautions it was impossible for her to maintain for them.” (Gordimer 1981: 123)

5. CO

July’s People inhabits a world where traditionally assumed roles and rules have been
overturned, where relationships have become undefined, where everything, even
vocabulary and language, has been called into question. In this novel, past and present,
and us (whites) and them (‘the others’: the blacks) are magnificently combined by
Nadine Gordimer. This award-winning writer introduces us to a future South Africa
where a lack of communication between races will continue to be a major problem. She
also calls our attention to the hypocrisy underlying white liberal ideals. It seems that
white South African liberals are criticized for their passivity in the anti-apartheid
movement, and for failing to recognize that their material well-being owes a great deal
to the discriminatory policies of apartheid. The only ray of hope in Nadine Gordimer’s
apocalyptic prophesy of a future South Africa rests on the new generations of South
African children. Gordimer probably thinks that all the children born after the
overthrow of the apartheid regime will not be contaminated with the racial and social
prejudices of their parents.

Miguel Ángel Benítez Castro

July’s People (1981): South Africa’s Interregnum

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Miguel Ángel Benítez Castro