July's People

July's People Study Guide

July's People, published in 1981 by Nadine Gordimer, is set during a counterfactual revolutionary civil war in South Africa, in which black South Africans rise up and overthrow their white oppressors, with the aid of neighboring African nations. The story centers on the experience of Maureen and Bam Smales, a white South African couple, as they flee from Johannesburg with their children and with the aid of their black servant, July. As July brings them to his home to live in hiding with his family, the complicated nature of interracial relationships is challenged. Across the country, the hierarchy between whites and blacks have been reversed. For the most part, this has led to widespread killing. The roles between the Smales family and July have similarly been reversed, but in this case the black man protects the white people. The novel at once addressed the broader political conditions of South Africa, while also closely examining the nature of interracial friendships. As the roles between the Smales couple and July are reversed (he becomes the one with the power while they depend on him), Gordimer explores the nature of power and the possibility of equality. As tension rises between Maureen and July, one of the main obstacles to finding equal footing comes from Maureen herself as her latent mistrust of black benevolence rises to the surface of her consciousness. Though Maureen and Bam consider themselves liberal people and supporters of black liberation, Maureen grew up in apartheid conditions. Her childhood memories return and cause her to doubt the man who is saving her family.

The book illuminates the effects of apartheid and how segregation impacts the relations between blacks and whites in South Africa. Gordimer wrote July's People before the end of apartheid and the book may be read as a projection of apartheid's end.