Nadine Gordimer’s time and place have been twentieth century Africa and she has presented to her readers for the past thirty years her knowledgeable perceptions of the chaotic political, military, and social conditions of that world. Had she been an inhabitant of another place in another time, however, her novels and stories would have been much the same, for Gordimer’s emphasis is on the human alienation, isolation, and solitude that occurs within the given framework of a particular situation, and the response, conditioned and conditional, that the concerned individuals make.
Out of her immersion in the culture of South Africa, Gordimer uses again and again as one of her principal themes the relationship between black and white people, but by varied techniques and stylistic devices as well as multiple character situations, she manages to keep this theme fresh and effectively reusable. Though the larger canvas of the political and social climate provides the backdrop, Gordimer operates on the level of the individual.
July’s People, in the first few paragraphs, immediately sets the theme. “’You like to have some cup of tea?’—July bent at the doorway and began that day for them as his kind has always done for their kind.” The novel grows more complex as Gordimer develops first the situation in which her characters find themselves and then the tensions that emerge consciously and unconsciously out of that situation.
Bamford Smales is a member of the architectural firm of Smales, Caprano & Partners, and Maureen Smales (née Hetherington) is “from Western Areas Gold Mines.” July, their black servant for fifteen years, has seemingly profited from an economically sound, secure, and comfortable existence in Johannesburg. On the surface he is considered to be almost one of the family, performing outside chores, provided with a white uniform when he works inside, serving meals and helping with the care and discipline of the Smales’ children, Gina, Royce, and Victor. July has been “for fifteen years in their home; of service, not servile, understanding their needs and likings, allying himself discreetly with their standards and even the disciplining and indulgence of the children.”
July has his own living quarters in the yard, where he is allowed to keep his “town woman,” Ellen, and where his friends can visit him. He visits his village on a fairly regular basis to take money and supplies to his village wife Martha, his child, and his aged mother.
In Gordimer’s fictional scenario, the labor strikes that began in 1980 in Soweto have continued and spread; without any work to occupy them, more and more black workers become hungry and angry. At last, approximately fifteen thousand blacks march against Johannesburg. In fear for their lives amid the burning, looting, and killing, the Smales are forced to flee with their servant, who becomes “frog prince, saviour, July.”
In panic the Smales grab what supplies and household articles they can (mostly useless) and with July, they escape in the yellow bakkie, a small truck Bam bought on his fortieth birthday as a hunting blind. For three days and three nights, Bam drives fearfully, while Maureen and the children hide beneath a tarpaulin, six hundred kilometers on back roads to July’s village. July’s mother resentfully gives up her mud hut so the white family can have a roof over their heads, and it is here as the novel begins that Maureen wakes as though from delirium, remembering first her childhood life and the more immediate past, to their present situation. “At first what fell into place was what was vanished, the past.”
Maureen bathes the three children and herself, using the same water because of its scarcity, in the small zinc bathtub July was wise enough to bring. In the ensuing days, a period of adjustment to an unbelievably bleak life-style—water that must be carried and boiled, and a diet of pap, greens, mealie-meal, porridge, goats’ milk, and pawpaws—sets in. “They had...