In 1981, more than a decade before apartheid’s end, Nadine Gordimer wrote July’s People, a hypothetical “apocalypse”--a “what if” scenario of apartheid’s end on the terms so many believed would be the only way: war and violent bloodshed. Rather than sensationalize and desensitize her audience, she does not pan across graphic scenes of carnage in the cities and visualize dead bodies in shades of terror. Rather, with the story-teller's gift, she focuses on a single family and their “escape.”
The Smales were a typical, prosperous white family in Johannesburg with two live-in servants. Bam and Maureen Smales saw themselves as different from their peers and silently protested the injustice of apartheid by treating their servants kindly and fairly. Sensing those feelings of superiority over other whites who did not “do their bit” for fairness, Gordimer looks into their hearts and perceives: “They sickened at the thought that they might find they had lived out their whole lives as they were, born white pariah dogs in a black continent.”
Mwawate was their gardener and handyman, but they never knew him by any name other than "July". His faithful service and humble demeanor gave them confidence to trust him when he suggested that the family flee to his own rural home for safety as their white suburban neighborhood would soon be a battleground. The book opens with July, at the door of their room, subserviently asking if they would like tea. But it is not their room. It is his own mother-in-law’s rondavel which she has had to vacate for July’s white family to live in. From this daily routine of morning tea, Gordimer proceeds to draw out deep and basic truths about who we are in the mundane. She does not wax grandiose, but reminds us that despite the greatest calamities, life goes on step by step. Cup of tea by cup of tea. Describing the Smales in their first hours of adjustment to bush life as “people in a hospital waiting room in the small hours, not looking at one another” she jars us into the awareness and the insistence of ordinary life.
The point of view of the story flows between Maureen (Mrs Smales) and July because they were the ones who had a reasonable level of communication, although she had never bothered to learn Fanagalo (let alone Zulu) and his English was kitchen-level at best. Gordimer uses culture and life style to celebrate the differences between people and accentuate how much we are all required to adapt to one another for harmony in community. The Smales have never lived in such close proximity to others, particularly those very different from themselves. Hope for understanding ebbs and flows like a tide. When Maureen through signs asks July’s wife for the herbs she uses for her coughing children and July finds Maureen preparing them, he vigorously protests that what is good for his black child is not good for the white child, and they must find medicine in a shop. As Maureen pushes back, insisting that what is good for children does not regard their color, we begin to realize the historical extent from which the misunderstandings and mistrust have roots. “There was in his dark profile the painful set of his broad mouth under the broad mustache, a contempt and humiliation that came from their blood and his. The wonder and unease of an archetypal sensation between them, like the swelling resistance of a vein into which a hollow needle is surging a substance in counterflow to the life-blood coursing there; a feeling brutally shared, one alone cannot experience it, be punished by it, without the other. It did not exist before Pizarro deluded Atahulpa; it was there in Dingane and Piet Refief.”
Now and then in the story, the questions are raised: why did July save his family? And what is going to happen now? We never find out. July’s offer to protect his family seems to have been instinctual: doing the right thing as he had done it for fifteen years. His natural bent toward community and responsibility as a parent and elder made him the savior in a hopeless situation. We are also presented with the conflicting sense he has that whereas once he was their servant and completely dependent upon them and their kindness for his livelihood, the positions are reversed. And the reversal is painful on both sides. When he asks Maureen if she isn’t going to pay him that month, she tries to assure him that they would, but that the tables are now turned. They cannot begin to pay him for salvation. But July “refusing to meet her on any but the lowest category of understanding” reminds her, “African people like money.”
More than anything, July’s People is a good insight into how cultures criss-cross, befuddling one another. The sameness of bush life (chopping wood, tending fires, washing clothes, squatting over maize) is a jolt to those living from a veneer of busyness requiring clocks and calendars. In so many ways, Gordimer details “an acceptance that produced restless fear in anyone unused to living so close to the life cycle, accustomed to the powerful distractions of the intermediary or transcendent--the “new life” of each personal achievement, of political change.”
July’s People is less about the end of apartheid and more about how we relate to each other. Gordimer’s fascination for human relationships is paramount. From different elements of primitive life she asks: how do we relate to one another? how do we build bridges? how do we erect walls? what short-circuits the process and breaks us apart? Part of those answers are reflected in the undercurrent of child activity. The Smales have three children, bred to elitism and class, but when they are immersed in simple bush life, they adapt and make friends in surprisingly simple, straightforward ways. We smile when son Victor discovers, astonished, that the peanuts they bought in packets in shops are the very same as the ones they've dug up from the ground and shelled with their own hands. She indirectly reminds us we have much to learn from the child-like. No wonder, then, that we must become like children to be citizens of the Kingdom of Heaven.
Although Gordimer does not wrap her story neatly, (we are practically air-lifted out of the village by helicopter and left wondering what happens to Smales), her point is crystal clear. As human beings, we were made to live in relation to one another. Developing and nourishing relationships is delicate business, complicated by culture and language. But we can learn; there is hope for us. She reminds us that there is not An Answer. We are journeying to a place, not filling in blanks in a worksheet. Reading someone who writes so profoundly is a good place to start asking ourselves those questions about how we relate to and nourish one another.