(Critical Guide to British Fiction)

Nadine Gordimer’s novel July’s People is a fictitious account of a black revolt in South Africa. In the novel the blacks in the South African police force refuse to arrest their own people, public services break down, and fighting erupts in the major cities, quickly spreading into the rural areas. Bloodshed engulfs the country. The rebels have prepared well. They have heavy caliber weapons and airplanes and help from the neighboring black states of Botswana, Zimbabwe, Zambia, Namibia, and Mozambique, as well as from Cuba and the Soviet Union. Everywhere their forces threaten the security of the white settlers.

Bamford and Maureen Smales, a liberal, white couple, flee with their three children from their home in a comfortable residential district of Johannesburg and find refuge in the mud and thatched hut village that contains the extended family of their black servant, July.

July then becomes their protector. He quarters them in one of the dwellings that had been occupied by his wife. She resents the eviction, thinking that the whites should seek help from other whites, but defers to the authority of her husband. The lives of the white visitors are transformed beyond their imagination. In the bush they have none of the amenities of their former existence: no electricity, no running water, no modern sanitation. Maureen believes that she is in another consciousness; “it pressed in upon her and filled her as someone’s breath fills a balloon’s shape.” Time, as the family once knew it, begins to lose meaning. Desperate for outside news, the adults practically worship their radio, fearful that its batteries might give out. Yet the garbled transmissions they receive do not tell them the fate of their society and its chances of survival.


(The entire section is 728 words.)


(Masterpieces of World Literature, Critical Edition)

July’s People is set in a time and place when the African effort to liberate blacks from white rule has successfully taken place. The entire country has become a battleground; the novel focuses on the plight of the Smaleses, an enlightened white middle-class family.

Bamford and Maureen Smales are “rescued” from deterioration by their servant, July, who takes them and their children into his native village. On the way there, July is seen literally caring for them, and it is obvious to the reader that he has not entirely abandoned his socialized role as a servant to white people. The Smaleses are uncomfortable with the shifting situation as they discover their increasing dependence on July. The novel’s epigraph is an emblem of what the reader might expect in the course of events. Gordimer quotes from Quaderni del carcere (1948-1951; partial translation as Selections from the Prison Notebooks of Antonio Gramsci, 1971): “The old is dying and the new cannot be born; in this interregnum there arises a great diversity of morbid symptoms.” Africa is experiencing a change, and both blacks and whites are caught in the “interregnum,” in the midst of change itself.

Gordimer, however, does not simplify the political implications. In other words, she does not advocate a view that white liberals such as the Smaleses must necessarily be excluded from black liberation. Neither does she cast an approving eye on the transition to black South African rule. Both groups experience pains in the transition; the new cannot yet be born in the middle of all the changes. Everyone is thrust into chaos and uncertainty; all social roles are...

(The entire section is 685 words.)