Our evergreen Nadine finally answered nature’s call, leaving us with books that will constantly remind us that in all seasons of life, colour should not matter most. I admire her as that woman whose passion for peace and humanity kept burning in spite of her body’s weakening by age. Despite having most of her books banned by the apartheid government, she continued to write densely about racism within the context of South Africa, questioning all forms of power relations. In her writings, she expressed true knowledge of the threads of thought and emotions that run through the complex and political spaces of South Africa.
When I planned my visit to South Africa this July, I had searched for books by South African authors to help me relate my learning expectations before arriving. Nadine’s novel ‘July’s People’ stood out actually because symbolically it connected with my travel month July. But engaging this book, it certainly was worth more than a symbolic title. It helped me understand better the present day realities of the South Africa I set my foot on and more so it supported my narratives.
In Nadine’s words, “I would have been a writer anywhere, but in my country, writing meant confronting racism”. This she has excellently done with ‘July’s People’ as she captured the social disintegration inherent in racial tensions between the inferior black and the domineering white skin.
Set in a black skin village in South Africa, we meet Bamford and Maureen Smales. Humbled by a war where the blacks in revolution are killing the whites. Consequently, the Smales family become war refugees to their black servant July in his village. Injected into a new world, they begin a dance between power and powerlessness, constantly negotiating and renegotiating the meaning of power with their servant July in whose space they now live. They struggled with trying to adjust to their new realities.
There are trials and error at socializing with the natives of July’s village, Bamford and Maureen the supposedly liberal white couple were coming to understand that the colour of their skin will always hinder them from getting the true fabric of the realities they seek. Indeed, privileges go beyond spaces, it is also skin deep! Hence despite being in July’s space, there is a conflict in maintaining the master servant relationships. July now drives the Smales vehicle to distract combative attention but also attract power to himself, an almost impossible feat pre-war. Objects that were once meaningless, suddenly began to take on entirely new levels of symbolic importance. In the face of theft and no police to help, Bamford felt impotent, these where all new and hence they struggled.
Buried tensions come to the surface. Maureen Smales struggles with her subservience to July as she watches him become less and less subservient to her and more independent as her family stay in his village. Many times, she tries to negotiate with him using subtle blackmail of telling July’s wife Martha of his city affair with Ellen. Long absences of husbands have become a normal part of black women’s lives as their men worked as slaves in the city for white bosses; hence a relationship with other city women like Ellen was inevitable.
July’s family worries that the unwanted white skinned Smale family will trigger trouble for them. The Smales are scared when they are summoned by the village chief of a black nation. The chief could not comprehend the image of a powerless white government; whites running from blacks or taking refuge with them. Living through a time when the whites will never let him own a gun, he finds the presence of the Smales family in his home as an opportunity to request that Bamford teaches him to shoot his fellow black people with his gun. In shock, Bamford responds ‘You’re not going to take guns and help the white government kill blacks, are you?. . . You mustn’t let the government make you kill each other.’
This novel challenges the identity and ambiguous moral constructions of any liberal South African white. Reflective Maureen recalls in her childhood days walking home from school with Lydia the black family’s servant carrying the family school bag on her head. With a photographer’s click of these symbolic image of the two racially different girls, Maureen finds the picture in a Life photograph book years later and was provoked to question a system that makes Lydia carrying her books.
Does questioning alone make-up for an active revolt of such an exploitative system? Likewise, If revolting, does partaking in the privileges of such system therefore indict someone in the institutions’ injustices? The Smales never identified with the oppressive Afrikaner society as they deplored the apartheid system. In their understanding within their former spaces, there was nothing condescending in their relationship with the blacks, especially with July despite his being their servant. But injecting them into a new space reveals that an unconsciously unequal relationship of master and servant exists. They struggled to reconcile with the truth that they too share part of the blame for reinforcing racism.
Like America, South Africa continues to witness the legacy of slavery and the disastrous consequences of Apartheid. Thirty three years after Nadine Gordimer wrote this book, the ‘Whites Only’ sign posts have disappeared but the battlegrounds of South Africa remains on the human skin shade as I could still feel racism among citizens strong enough that I could cut it with a knife. If Nadine hoped for a future where power will shift from the white to the black, I am glad she saw a fragment of it with the end of Apartheid. I say fragments because this freedom is incomplete. What I experienced in South Africa shows that power was sliced into two parts. While the white skinned people held the economic power living a first world life, the blacks hold political power, marginally living and working in subservient positions. I am left to wonder between the two powers, which one Nadine Gordimer desired to shift.
Nadine Gordimer ‘July’s People’ is a mentally provocative book that stretches one’s intellectual muscles on the dynamics of relationships triggered by racism. The shifts in relationships and spaces give a remarkable understanding of the constructions of difference between blacks and whites. Towards the end of this book, Maureen is seen fervently running after a helicopter perhaps with a hope that they be rescued and returned back to the familiar world where she was once a queen of the Manor with servants.
Imagining Maureen standing nude in the rain makes me think we may need to stand in the rain too to be washed of all racism… Nadine is gone with the month of July, as we bid her farewell with a wish that her soul finds rest, no better honour could be given to Nadine Gordimer’s life and fights than a South Africa washed of racism. In my language, I will say Kachifo; until morning comes Nadine, thank you.
Written by~ Adaobi Nkeokelonye