Renowned South African writer and Nobel Literature Prize winner Nadine Gordimer wrote July’s People (published by Penguin) at a time when her country was still firmly under Apartheid rule. Set in the early 1980s, the book portrays a country undergoing a revolution with the writer predicting what happens when the black majority overthrow their white rulers. Gordimer imagines a South Africa, where the blacks have revolted against the white minority, with help from neighboring African countries like Zimbabwe, Botswana, and Mozambique. Houses are set on fire, industries are burnt, and white South Africans are being killed in droves.
At the center of all this upheaval is a white couple, Bam and Maureen Smales, with their three young children. They are saved by July, their black servant of 15 years. Driving in the Smales’s family car, they flee to July’s village – a far cry from the luxury living they’ve been used to back in the city. Here, among July’s people, in a village with no electricity and only the most basic necessities, the Smales have to make do with living in a traditional hut that formerly belonged to July’s mother.
Life in July’s village is quite dreary for the Smales as they struggle to cope with the transformation, starkly depicted by the tensions and changes in their relationship with July, their former servant. Much of what we learn is through Maureen’s eyes as the former mistress and her servant navigate their changed roles – who has the power, who is subservient to the other is not always clear for both Maureen, who has long been used to wielding authority and July, for whom the whole notion of power is new.
The most dramatic of these changes is symbolized by the power struggle over who controls the Smales’ family car.
Suddenly keen to learn how to drive, July seeks to take charge of the car, something that does not sit well with Maureen in particular. For the Smales, it is difficult to understand July’s remarkable transformation from the servant, who for many years took orders on even the most mundane matters into a man determined to lead and take charge. While Maureen feels gratitude for being saved by July, she struggles to accept that the balance of power has shifted.
This shift in the balance of power is further dramatized when the chief of July’s village asks Bam to teach him how to use his gun as a precaution in case the violence gets to the village. Bam refuses, but not long after, his gun goes missing – stolen apparently by Daniel, one of the villagers who goes to join the fighters.
For Bam, the gun loss comes to represent the ultimate transformation, leaving him feeling totally helpless.
Not long after, the militants overrun the village. Maureen flees for her life leaving her husband and children behind.
Gordimer’s story telling is powerful. Her writing style is unique and does take some getting used to though.