In July’s People, Nadine Gordimer imagines a violent, chaotic end to South Africa’s apartheid system: all-out war between black and white, with other nations getting involved (like Russia, Cuba, the US), mainly to support their own self-interest.
July is a domestic servant who has smuggled the liberal white family he works for out of Johannesburg to stay hidden in his village, far from the danger. The book describes how the family adjusts to their new lives and uncertain future, mainly from the perspective of the white wife and mother, Maureen.
Gordimer’s insights into racism and how apartheid corrupted human relationships are astute and powerful. As the book progresses, Maureen comes to realise that all she had believed about July when he was their ‘house-boy’ was an illusion and that their relationship was almost entirely determined by the oppressive system in which they lived.
Her sense of herself as a liberal, as a good boss who is opposed to apartheid and tries to treat her staff well, is shown to be self-delusion — although Gordimer doesn’t have solutions for the question that realisation provokes in the reader: is it even possible for people from the privileged class to truly act with integrity when their entire society is based on oppression and inequality?
Perhaps for Gordimer personally, the answer lay in writing novels such as July’s People. The book was published in 1981, around a decade before the end of apartheid, and so it was part of the building body of political, social and cultural evidence against that regime. I say social and cultural evidence because it included not just news reports on events such as the Soweto uprising, but novels, music, and blockbuster movies like Cry Freedom.
This body of evidence arguably contributed to the relatively peaceful end of regime (not the catastrophic violence that Gordimer predicted), because it created change from within, as well encouraging international pressures.
That’s why this book is important — it was part of a global push to end apartheid — but is it still relevant in 2016? For many readers, I suspect it will seem dated. These days there are many novels on racism, from the perspectives of people who’ve been on the receiving end, and there are many, many more novels by writers of African heritage, than there were in 1981. Why read an old novel by a white author? Well, I think because her analysis of white privilege, written before that term was even in wide usage, still holds good. And it’s necessary that white people can recognise our privilege and think and talk about the implications of that. July’s People could give us white folk another nudge along the way to more self-awareness about the roles we play in perpetuating racism. Given what’s going on in Northern Territory prisons, and Australia’s offshore detention centres (not to mention the rise of trump & Brexit), Gordimer’s insights are as important as ever.
Having said that, though … white voices such as Gordimer’s should only be part of the chorus, not the lead singers. I read the book because it was the ‘July’ reading for ABC Radio National’s African Book Club. The ten books to be covered were voted for by listeners from a list of 20, but the only South African authors on the final list (Gordimer, Paton & Coetzee) are all white, famous authors of ‘classic’ novels.
I suppose this is just a reflection of Book Club readers’ desire to get across the African literary canon (the list includes Heart of Darkness and Things Fall Apart), but it’s disappointing. Why not vote for Black African writers and learn from their perspectives? Why not vote for African authors you’ve never heard of? Why not decide you want to read Black South African authors who write about apartheid and racism, or indeed, other concerns for modern South Africa? It strikes me that maybe the Book Club fans who voted white authors up that list are in the same boat as Maureen: well-meaning, liberal, but a bit self-deluded about the realities of racism.
In explanation of only giving the book three stars on Goodreads: I was often irritated by Gordimer’s style. Occasionally her sentences were so convoluted that they lost meaning, but more annoyingly, she used dashes to signify both speech and asides. I would get totally lost trying to figure out who said what, or if they said anything at all! It seemed overly stylised, which is a shame because the content of the novel is so important and otherwise she’s a great writer — economical, evocative, and disturbing.