July’s People Summary

Nadine Gordimer

July’s People

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July’s People Summary

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Apartheid, South Africa’s system of state-sanctioned, race-based segregation and oppression, officially ended through a negotiated settlement in 1994. In July’s People, a novel written a decade before that process began, Nobel Prize-winning author Nadine Gordimer imagines a different ending to apartheid: civil war.

Maureen and Bam Smales are a white, liberal Johannesburg couple that, as war breaks out and escape options evaporate, accept the offer of their trusted black servant, July, to seek refuge in his remote home village.

The Smales move into a thatch-roofed mud hut where they sleep on car seats removed from their yellow pick-up truck, or bakkie. They tell time by the sun and bathe when it rains. Maureen harvests grass for thatch alongside July’s wife and mother. She cooks in clay pots she previously favored as folkloric decor, learning to make mealie-meal pap over a camping stove. Meat is a rare treat: On one occasion, Bam shares with fellow villagers two wart-hogs that he, along with a young villager named Daniel, kill with the shotgun Bam formerly reserved for seasonal bird shoots.

The Smales children—Victor, Royce, and Gina—adapt quickly, learning that movies and Coca-Cola are a thing of the past. They make friends with village children (Gina becomes inseparable from a girl named Nyiko) and immerse themselves in their new world.

Maureen and Bam gradually let go of their middle-class expectations of privacy, comfort, and ease – luxuries they enjoyed thanks, in large part, to the work of July.  For fifteen years, July had served as their yardman, steward, and handyman. They employed July on the usual terms: they would sign the passbook that allowed July to move about town, and they allowed him time off to see his own wife and children (though Maureen also knew that July had a woman in town named Ellen). It was not a system they supported, and sensing growing unrest, they had occasionally considered leaving for Canada. Yet they stayed.

In Johannesburg (a time and place they now refer to as ‘back there’), the couple had occasionally considered visiting July’s home for a family camping holiday, perhaps, or a bird-shooting excursion for Bam. Now, they are living in the village for the foreseeable future, and July holds the keys to their survival.

It is July’s possession of keys to the bakkie that is the first sign that he may betray the Smales’s trust. One night, two men take the bakkie for a drive. July is evasive when Maureen confronts him, and he reminds her of both small slights and major injustices that characterized his position as “boy” and theirs as “master,” though the words were never used in the Smales’s household.

In the village, the Smales’s presence inspires curiosity at first, but the Smales are not universally welcome. “White people bring trouble,” says July’s wife, Martha, an observation that becomes truer by the day as news gradually filters in about the expanding civil war. If word spreads that the villagers are hiding a white family, rebels might attack.

The Smales worry they will be sent away and wonder where they would go, and how. They shudder when July tells them that the chief, who lives at a small distance, wants to talk with them. Instead of telling them to go, however, the chief reveals that he knows (likely from Daniel, who accompanies them on the visit) that Bam has a shotgun, and, increasingly aware of the expanding war, wants to learn to shoot.

The Smales are relieved that they have not been banished. Still, much like blacks’ precarious lives under apartheid, the surrounding violence means they cannot move freely, and they even refrain from crossing to the other side of the nearby river. Inside the village, Maureen and Bam’s unease with July also grows. When Maureen visits July’s family hut, she notices small things she had given to him over the years—items he knows are her throwaways. But she also sees items from her house ‘back there’ that she had not given him.

Then, Bam’s shotgun goes missing. Bam looks everywhere, even accusing their son, Victor, of taking it. Giving up, Bam lies face down on the bed in resignation. Maureen goes to see July at his post near the yellow bakkie. She asks him to recover the gun, and tells him she thinks Daniel, who had shown sympathy toward the rebels, took it. Indeed, Daniel has been missing from the village for a few days.

July defies Maureen and complains that her family’s presence is causing him unwanted trouble. Maureen responds with accusations: you took things from us, small things, but not things I had given you. July speaks back to her in his language; she does not understand but his tone is clear. Maureen feels their tie break, and she accuses July of seeing himself as a “big man”—one who has a wife and a city woman on the side, who rides around in a bakkie—words she knows go too far.

The next day, Maureen is alone in the hut repairing clothes when she hears the sound of a helicopter. Like the other villagers, she runs out to catch a glimpse of the broad landing gear and whirling blades as the craft sets to earth. She re-enters the hut to return to her work, but a wave of fear overcomes her. She sets off. Her walk breaks into a run. She crosses the village and, though she can hear, to one side, the English words of her husband and children, she fords the river towards the helicopter, without knowing—or caring—what or whom the idling vehicle has brought: “saviours or murderers.”

When first published, July’s People was banned in South Africa while also being lauded around the world for its unflinching, finely observed depiction of apartheid and the complex social relations it incited.