211. July's People by Nadine Gordimer

It is apartheid South Africa. This time Blacks are up in arms, heavy arms, fighting the Whites. And the Russians and Cubans are here to help them. White South Africans are running for their dear lives. With nowhere to go, the Smales' family took the advice of their houseboy, a man they named July, following him to his family. July's People (Penguin, 1981; 160) is about the changes in the roles and the dynamics of Black-White relationships.

The Smales' are liberals whose relationship with South Africa Blacks in general and with their houseboy in particular is cordial and non-discriminatory. However, they were forced to analyse this view when it dawns on them that, though liberals as they are they could not speak any of the native's language whereas the apartheidists or their followers could and therefore found it difficult communicating with July's people. They never also did actually ask July of his real name. They just named him as such. How liberal is one if he refuses to allow the other to bear his own name? Is there a human without a name?

It was at July's home that the Smales saw how privileged their lives were and how much they took for granted. There on the farm, whereas the natives lived freely on and off the land, unaware of any other way life could be lived, the Smales were working around on the necessary adjustments required to be made in the absence of such things as tissues, proper clothes, their privacy and more. The scatological effects of their adjustments are at par with the behaviours of the incarcerated blind folks in Jose Saramago's Blindness. The Smales' remembrance of their past lives and their realisation of the lives their kinds have carved for the natives in their country led them to repudiate, further, the actions of their kind.

On the farm, with his people, July - who had always obeyed, never retorted - now has to be the man his family wants them to be and also the servant of the Smales. The balance between this two extreme spilled over sometimes; for even though the Smales were fully prepared to take things into their own hands, working  or looking for their own food, washing their own clothes, service has become a habit for July or Mwawate. Yet, through his replies to some questions, and seldom outbursts, Mrs Smales was able to perceive July's opinions of them; that some thing exist beyond the Yes-Sirs.

Though almost every Black man was seen to participate in the fight, from the blacks in the Force to civilians, there were dissensions. Nadine never assumed that all natives were on the same page and in agreement to the course. Those who were most against the uprising were the native Chiefs who were of the view that those behind the insurrection would take their kingdoms away from them, and this is what the apartheidist government had told them. These egoistic thoughts have been the bane of African unity. Now Bam and Maureen, liberals as they were, must decide on whose side they were: the Chief's, who supports the Whites, or the freedom fighters. Now as the Chief was trying to recruit the service of Bam Smales in case the uprising gets to his land, July who refused to join his people in the insurrection against Whites - choosing rather to lead his employers into safety - must now avoid joining the Chief to fight the blacks. In this war, of good and of evil, there is no 'no-choice'. These dilemmas of the Smales and of July give flesh to Archbishop Desmond Tutu oft quoted statement that 'if you are neutral in situations of injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressor. In an elephant has its foot on the tail of a mouse and you say that you are neutral, the mouse will not appreciate your neutrality'.

This novel offered a possible trajectory the future for South Africans could take if things are not rectified; that is, if the apartheid is not destroyed; however, even though Blacks couldn't mount a sustained campaign on Whites, with arms, and therefore wrestle power as such, as it is in this story, their sustained demonstrations and fearlessness of death saw them win. 

This story is like a Zimbardoesque experiment. It studies human behaviour - adjustments and responses to stimuli - in different environments. It was as if Nadine was studying how a privileged White - who takes his privileges for granted - will behave when put into such a situation. Were the Smales supporters of the government, every bit of schadenfreude would have transformed into psychological insecurity of suicidal tendencies. 

The language was sparse, the dialogue - without quotation marks, without the 'he said' 'she said' to identify the speaker - was open to the reader's own interpretation; a lot was left unsaid. There were pauses between questions and responses. This, together with Nadine's minimalist touch, helped create the required tension between the couples, Bam and Maureen, which moves the story.

Once again, Nadine's prose was gratifying though it wasn't as dense as either The Conservationist or Burger's Daughter. With her keen sense of observation and deeper understanding of the human condition and the workings of the mind, writing from within the character's mind, Nadine has shown why she is an authority when it comes to South Africa's apartheid literature. Like most of her books, July's People had been a victim of censorship in apartheid and post-apartheid South Africa. In Apartheid South Africa, it was was banned for being too liberal; in post-Apartheid South Africa it was removed, in 2001, from school curricula for being 'deeply racist, superior and patronising.' It is highly recommended.


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