July’s People

by

Nadine Gordimer

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July’s People Study Guide

Welcome to the LitCharts study guide on Nadine Gordimer's July’s People. Created by the original team behind SparkNotes, LitCharts are the world's best literature guides.

Brief Biography of Nadine Gordimer

Nadine Gordimer was born near Springs (now part of the City of Ekurhuleni), a mining town outside Johannesburg. Her father was a Lithuanian Jewish immigrant, and her mother was from London. Gordimer’s parents influenced her interest in inequality in South Africa—her father was a refugee from Tsarist Russia, and her mother was sympathetic to the discrimination against Black people in South Africa. Gordimer attended college at the University of Witwatersrand but did not finish her degree. She moved to Johannesburg in 1948 and began publishing her work in local South African magazines. In 1951, the New Yorker published her short story “A Watcher of the Dead,” which garnered her wider recognition and marked the beginning of her longstanding relationship with the magazine. Most of Gordimer’s works grapple with political issues and racial inequality in South Africa. Gordimer’s first novel, The Lying Days, was published in 1953. Other notable works include The Conservationist (1974), for which Gordimer won the 1974 Booker prize, Burger’s Daughter (1979), and July’s People (1981). Gordimer’s involvement in anti-apartheid activism began in 1960 after the Sharpeville massacre. She became active in South African politics and helped Nelson Mandela edit his famous “I Am Prepared to Die” speech, which he delivered at his trial in 1964. Gordimer lived in Johannesburg in the 1960s and 1970s, leaving for short intervals to teach at universities throughout the United States. She died of natural causes on July 13, 2014, at 90 years old.
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Historical Context of July’s People

Apartheid, which means “apartness” or “separateness” in Afrikaans, was a system of racial oppression enforced in South Africa that began with the all-white National Party’s rise to power in 1948. The National Party campaigned on an election platform that promised to protect white employment and advance white domination in a culture where post-war economic development and Black urbanization had incited racial animosity. The National Party’s rise to power created a system of legislation that enforced existing segregation policies and expanded segregation to extend to most aspects of daily life. The Population Registration Act of 1950 established three categories to classify all South African residents according to race: Bantu (Black Africans), Coloured (mixed race), and white. The government later added a fourth category, Asian, to encompass Indian and Pakistani residents. Under apartheid, contact between white and non-white South Africans became severely limited. The passage of subsequent Land Acts awarded exclusive land rights to the country’s white minority. The passage of “Pass laws” required all non-white South Africans to carry specific documents that authorized their presence in areas restricted to white citizens only. The government created separate public spaces for white and non-white South Africans, and non-white citizens were barred from participating in national government. Marriage and sexual relations between Black and white South Africans were prohibited. Apartheid received regular resistance over the years, and many anti-apartheid activists received lengthy prison terms or were executed. Nelson Mandela, who helped found Umkhonto we Sizwe (“Spear of the Nation”), the ANC’s military wing, was imprisoned from 1963 to 1990. Apartheid-era legislation was gradually phased out beginning in the late 1980s. In 1989, Pieter Botha was forced to resign as State President of South Africa. Botha was replaced by F.W. de Klerk, whose administration saw the 1994 passage of a new constitution, which enfranchised Black and other non-white citizens.

Other Books Related to July’s People

Most of Nadine Gordimer’s works involve the politics and social issues of South Africa. Her earlier works largely deal with the anti-apartheid movement. Gordimer’s first novel, The Lying Days (1953) is a semi-autobiographical Bildungsroman (coming-of-age novel) about a young white South African woman’s growing political and social consciousness. Occasion for Loving (1963) follows the romantic relationship of a white South African woman and a Black South African man during apartheid, when interracial relationships were forbidden. The Conservationist (1974), for which Gordimer received the Booker prize, also takes place in South Africa under apartheid and explores Zulu culture through the perspective of the novel’s antihero, a white South African businessman. Burger’s Daughter (1979), a novel, is set in the 1970s and follows the life of a South African woman,  Rosa Burger,  as she grapples with her relationship with her late father, an anti-apartheid activist. Other South African authors who write in English include J. M. Coetzee, whose notable works include Life & Times of Michael K (1983), a novel about a man named Michael K who travels from Cape Town to visit his mother’s rural birthplace during a fictitious civil war during the apartheid era. Alex La Guma is an important Black literary figure of 20th-century South Africa. And a Threefold Cord (1964), La Guma’s second novel, explores class conflict through the story of a mixed-race family living in the shanties of the Cape Flats. Amandla (1980) is Miriam Tlali’s second novel; she was the first Black South African woman to publish a novel. Amandla follows a group of student revolutionaries in Soweto during and after the 1976 Soweto Uprising. Finally, Fools And Other Stories (1983) by Njabulo Ndebele is a collection of stories focused on the experience of growing up in Johannesburg during the apartheid era.
Key Facts about July’s People
  • Full Title: July’s People
  • When Written: Early 1980s
  • Where Written: South Africa
  • When Published: 1981
  • Literary Period: Contemporary
  • Genre: Novel; Speculative Fiction; Alternate History
  • Setting: South Africa
  • Climax: The Smales family discover that Bam’s gun is missing from its hiding place in their hut’s thatched roof. Maureen confronts July and accuses him of stealing the gun.
  • Antagonist: There is no clear-cut antagonist.
  • Point of View: Third Person

Extra Credit for July’s People

Bountiful Bans. July’s People was first banned under apartheid. In 2001, it was temporarily banned from schools in Guateng Province, South Africa. Critics argued that the book’s language was “not acceptable” and “does not encourage good grammatical practices.” They also claimed that “the story comes across as being deeply racist, superior and patronising.” These accusations are ironic, given the book’s anti-racist themes and Gordimer’s extensive history of fighting for racial equality in South Africa.

Novel Nobel. In 1991, Gordimer received the Nobel Prize for literature, making her the first South African person to win the award.