July’s People

by

Nadine Gordimer

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July’s People: Chapter 15 Summary & Analysis

Summary
Analysis
The Smales wait outside a brick, church-like building while July runs ahead to announce their arrival. Bam asks Daniel where they are. Daniel tells him they’ve arrived at the hubeyni, a place people gather. Eventually, July returns, accompanied by a man wearing a mismatched suit. When July gives no indication that he plans to speak, Bam takes the initiative and introduces himself, Maureen, and the children to the man. The man asks where they came from, even though Bam assumes that he, like everyone else, must already know about them. Bam talks about the fighting in Johannesburg until July interrupts to say that it’s time to go to the chief’s house.
The brick, church-like building is a far cry from the earthen huts of July’s village. It evokes the western-influenced culture of Bam and Maureen and the other white South Africans more than it does the culture of July’s village. July’s refusal to introduce Bam and Maureen to the man in the mismatched suit is odd and could, perhaps, be another power play on July’s part, ensuring that they feel defamiliarized and unsure of themselves. Then again, July’s poor communication isn’t necessarily nefarious. He might not appreciate how unfamiliar and disorienting the customs of his culture are to Maureen and Bam. 
Themes
Racial Hierarchy and Apartheid  Theme Icon
Gratitude and Resentment  Theme Icon
White Liberalism and Hypocrisy  Theme Icon
Power  Theme Icon
Cultural Displacement  Theme Icon
The party returns to the bakkie to travel to the chief’s house. Bam tries to ask July for information about the man they just met, and July laughs, seemingly taking pleasure in Bam’s confusion. He explains that the man is the chief’s “headman.” Bam turns to address Maureen privately, expressing his regret that they haven’t brought the chief a gift. Maureen scoffs: what were they supposed to bring him? They have nothing to their name. 
Again, Bam detects an ulterior motive to July’s poor communication and assumes that July is keeping the Smales family in the dark to sabotage their meeting with the chief or for his personal amusement. Increasingly, Bam seems to adopt Maureen’s paranoia. In reality, July’s unhelpful explanations aren’t outwardly malicious; he genuinely seems not to understand that Maureen and Bam aren’t knowledgeable about the titles of authority, customs, and etiquette of his culture. 
Themes
Racial Hierarchy and Apartheid  Theme Icon
Gratitude and Resentment  Theme Icon
White Liberalism and Hypocrisy  Theme Icon
Power  Theme Icon
Cultural Displacement  Theme Icon
The party reaches their destination. After waiting outside for some time, the chief emerges, prompting Daniel and July to drop to their knees. A woman appears with plastic chairs, and everyone sits down. Small groups of people assemble in the distance to eavesdrop. The chief seems smart and discerning but doesn’t speak the Smales’ language. Bam realizes that the chief has no need for the “white man’s language” because he “doesn’t work as a servant or go down the mines.” July translates as the chief asks the Smales a series of questions about who they are, where they came from, and why they’ve come to July’s village. He’s especially interested to know about the situation in Johannesburg. Bam explains that it’s not just the Soweto but everyone else who’s engaged in the fighting.   
Daniel and July don’t inform the Smales family ahead of time that it is custom to kneel before the chief as a sign of respect. Either July is intentionally leaving them in the dark, or his culture is so ingrained into him that he innocently fails to realize that Maureen and Bam don’t instinctively understand the protocol to follow in specific social situations. Bam’s remark about the chief not needing the “white man’s language” because he “doesn’t work as a servant or go down the mines” is a critique of white South African society. He’s saying that the only way for Black South Africans to participate in white society under apartheid is by serving white people.  
Themes
Racial Hierarchy and Apartheid  Theme Icon
Power  Theme Icon
Cultural Displacement  Theme Icon
Quotes
The chief wants to know why the police don’t just arrest people the way they did in 1976 or 1980. Bam explains that the Black people in law enforcement have joined the fighting and refuse to jail their own people. In general, Black people are better armed than they have been in years past. The chief can’t believe that white people aren’t fighting back, since they have so many men and weapons. After some back and forth, Bam realizes the chief is really trying to figure out who is “us” and who is “them” in the conflict.
The chief is referencing the 1976 Soweto uprising and the labor strikes of 1980, episodes of civic unrest that were met with fierce opposition from law enforcement. The Soweto uprising, headed by schoolchildren to protest the implementation of Afrikaans as the language of instruction in schools, resulted in at least 176 casualties. When Bam realizes that the chief is trying to determine who is “us” and who is “them,” he means that the chief is trying to determine whether Bam is loyal to the white apartheid government or the Black freedom fighters.
Themes
Racial Hierarchy and Apartheid  Theme Icon
White Liberalism and Hypocrisy  Theme Icon
Power  Theme Icon
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Suddenly, in English, the chief says, “And they want to kill you.” Maureen laughs involuntarily and then immediately blushes deeply, mortified by her reaction. Bam, who takes the chief’s comment as gloating, says nothing. July won’t look at him. In the silence, a few of the onlookers walk away.
This is a tense situation. The chief’s declaration, “And they want to kill you,” is bold, but vague. It’s impossible to tell whether he sympathizes with or delights in the Smales family’s plight. July avoids eye contact with them to avoid taking a side, perhaps.   
Themes
Racial Hierarchy and Apartheid  Theme Icon
Power  Theme Icon
Finally, the chief speaks again, this time in his own language. He asks about the goals of the fighters. Bam explains that Black people want to reclaim land the white people stole from them. The chief asks if Bam, too, has had his house stolen. Bam admits that this might be the case. The chief speaks in English again, criticizing the people from Soweto, Russia, and Mozambique who are trying to enter his nation and take his land. The chief wants to take up arms and kill these people, and he asks Bam to teach him how to shoot.
The chief opposes revolution in South Africa because it’s in his immediate best interest to protect his land, and he knows he can accomplish this under the existing system of apartheid. Having lost land to European settlement already, the chief likely is wary of the uncertainty that a new system of government could bring, even if it is headed by Black people: would he lose additional land to people from other countries?
Themes
Racial Hierarchy and Apartheid  Theme Icon
Power  Theme Icon
Cultural Displacement  Theme Icon
The chief’s words shock Bam. He argues that the chief can’t possibly wish to shoot his own people: “You wouldn’t kill blacks, Mandela’s people, Sobukwe’s people,” Bam protests. He pleads with the chief not to let the government persuade him to turn on other Black South Africans. The chief pauses, shifting a match between opposite corners of his mouth. He asks how many guns Bam has at “Mwawate’s place,” referring to July. Bam and Maureen realize that they haven’t known July’s real name for all 15 years they’ve known him. Bam tells the chief that he only has one gun, a shot-gun, and that he doesn’t “shoot people.” Bam’s self-righteous response prompts the chief to snort in disgust.
The chief’s position complicates Bam’s own thoughts about Black liberation. Not only does the chief’s support for the apartheid system contradict Bam’s, but it also undermines the chief’s own people. Bam is put in the difficult position of being obligated to help somebody inflict harm on others who, he assumes, should be on the chief’s side. While the chief’s pro-apartheid views are antithetical to Black liberation, Bam’s inability to understand why the chief feels this way is indicative of his own privilege. Bam has never been in a position where oppression has diminished his capacity to make decisions that are in his best interest. A history of colonization in South Africa has made the chief wary about losing more land to outsiders, so he accepts the current situation under apartheid to minimize the possibility of incurring additional loss of land.
Themes
Racial Hierarchy and Apartheid  Theme Icon
White Liberalism and Hypocrisy  Theme Icon
Power  Theme Icon
The meeting comes to an abrupt end. Before the Smales, Daniel, and July return to the bakkie, the chief asks Maureen if her family has been taken care of at July’s village. Maureen turns to July and smiles as she says, “We owe him everything.”
It's significant that Maureen turns to July when she claims that they “owe him everything.” She’s implicitly paying her due to July, singing his praises in front of the chief to show him that she understands that his continued help is conditional: something she must earn.
Themes
Racial Hierarchy and Apartheid  Theme Icon
Gratitude and Resentment  Theme Icon
White Liberalism and Hypocrisy  Theme Icon
Power  Theme Icon
Quotes