Black South Africa

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By AFRANIO CATANI*

Commentary on the book “The People of July”, by Nadine Gordimer

Nadine Gordimer (1923-2014), Nobel Prize for Literature in 1991, published more than three and a half dozen books, including fiction, a collection of short stories and essays, most of which consisted of precious reports involving the racial deterioration experienced by South Africa during the apartheid (1948-1994) in the country.

July's Staff it was originally published in 1982, therefore, more than a decade before the multiracial and democratic elections of 1994, won by the African National Congress (ANC), under the leadership of Nelson Mandela.

Let's imagine a South Africa in which blacks are in the power of the white minority. As blacks were dominated for countless generations, the country experienced generalized chaos, violence became more pronounced and the whites fled completely: airports became congested, other countries tried to quickly remove their citizens from there. , properties are looted, countless deaths occur and many still manage to flee to the interior of the country.

This is the background of July's People, eighth novel by Gordimer, widely known in several countries, having his books achieved numerous translations. July… follows the escape of the Smales, a white middle-class family, to native villages located in the interior of South Africa, narrating all sorts of difficulties they face.

Aboard a yellow pickup truck, Bamford Smales, just over 40, who works at “Smales, Caprano e Associados Arquitetos“, flees with his wife Maureen Hetherington, their young children (Victor, Gina and Royce) and with the black man July, his domestic servant for over 15 years. July saves his bosses' lives by guiding them, for three days and three nights, along the 600 kilometers that separate Johannesburg from his home village. Normally, this trip was completed in a single day. However, July, who had already made the journey on foot the first time she came to the city in search of work, drives the pick-up truck along lanes and shortcuts, “managing both patrols and wandering gangs” (p. 17). )

Refugees in the village of July in precarious huts, the “guests” do not get along with food, find the precarious hygiene conditions strange, suffer from unknown diseases, find language and customs practically insurmountable barriers and do not detach their ears from one stack radio, the only contact with the outside world. In the village, time has stopped: the huts were built tens of years ago, electricity is still a long way off, rudimentary tools are passed from generation to generation and tribal traditions largely set the tone. The money that enters the village comes from outside, remitted by the men who have worked in the mines for decades.

The presence in the village, initially thought of as temporary, is prolonged and the members of the Smales family try to adapt as they can: little Gina makes a friend (Nyiko) and gets along very well with her; Victor and Royce walk all day with the native boys, in newly learned games and frolics; Maureen starts picking leaves and herbs and talking with Martha, July's wife, who understands a little Afrikaans. The most unadapted is Bamford who, as time goes by, surrenders to apathy (things get worse when his hunting gun and box of ammunition are stolen) and to despair.

Maureen, 39, is the one who best copes with the new situation, trying to establish a (tense) dialogue with July about her and her family's future, trying to understand why they didn't leave South Africa soon, because since 1976 the Soweto riots begin to make it clear that whites would face increasingly adverse days in the future. They stayed “and told themselves and anyone who would listen that this, and no other, was their home, although they knew, as time went on, that the real reason was that they couldn't take the money out – Bam's ever-increasing investments and savings, the small inheritance of stocks (...) left to Maureen by her maternal grandfather, the seven-bedroom house with a pool that is increasingly difficult to sell as the riots become part of everyday life” ( p. 14); recalling the family’s day-to-day life in Johannesburg, roughly divided between work and rest, with the leisure category existing only for Bam “in the form of conversation accompanied by beer that started on Saturday morning, ended with the sleep and resuscitate with new strength until late on Sunday night” (p. 39).

Also, Maureen, “from the Western Region Gold Mines” (p. 8), “the daughter of the nice guy who worked inside the mine all his life” and who lost a finger there in the crusher (p. 109) makes a balance of her life in the last two decades, from the time when she wore ballet tights and taught modern dance classes at night for blacks, “under the eyes of her architect boyfriend, archetype of her social conscience” (p. 110). After a marriage that has lasted 15 years, in which her activity was restricted almost exclusively to taking care of the house and the children, Maureen sees that, apart from the children, almost nothing is left: her love for Bam has been torn apart, all her savings and properties if they lost, the future is bleak, they don't know if they will be able to leave the country.

July's People is a novel of uncertainties, insecurities and transformations. This can already be seen in the epigraph, extracted from a passage from the Prison Letters, by Antonio Gramsci: “What is old is dying and what is new cannot be born; meanwhile an enormous variety of morbid symptoms appear”.

*Afranio Catani is a retired professor at USP and visiting professor at UFF. Author, among other books, of History of Brazilian cinema: four essays (Panorama).

Reference

Nadine Gordimer. July's People. Translation by Waldéa Barcellos. Rio de Janeiro: Rocco, 1989.

Note

(1) This article is a version, with some modifications, of the review published in the extinct supplement “Cultura”, by The State of S. Paul, year VIII, no 458, May 06, 1989, p. 5.

 

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