July’s People

by

Nadine Gordimer

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July’s People: Chapter 16 Summary & Analysis

Summary
Analysis
July criticizes the chief on the ride back to his village, accusing the man of being all talk. Although the chief claims to want to fight, he’s a poor man with no money, resources, or weapons. He “doesn’t fight [against the white people] when the white people tell him he must do what they want,” yet he claims he’ll fight any Black soldiers who try to take his land. 
This is the most insight readers have gotten into July’s thoughts on the conflict. His criticism of the chief might be a projection of his own shame: just as the chief bends to white people to preserve his own interests, so, too, does July continue to serve the Smales rather than join the fight for Black liberation. He seems conflicted between feeling obligated to help the Smales because it’s the morally right thing to do and being obligated to help his own people.   
Themes
Racial Hierarchy and Apartheid  Theme Icon
Gratitude and Resentment  Theme Icon
White Liberalism and Hypocrisy  Theme Icon
Power  Theme Icon
July drops off Bam and Maureen in front of their hut. Gina, Victor, and Royce remain in the bakkie as July picks up some other kids. Daniel moves to the front to sit next to July. Once inside their hut, Bam turns on the radio. Neither Bam nor Maureen can get a signal, and the sound of the static is like “chaos.” For a moment, Maureen wonders where the children are, but then she remembers that “they kn[o]w how to look after themselves, like the black children.”
The static is “chaos” to Bam and Maureen because it reaffirms how isolated they are from the rest of the world and from their old lives under apartheid. It’s unclear whether Maureen makes the observation that her children “kn[o]w how to look after themselves, like the black children” with shame or with pride. Is she happy about her children’s new self-sufficiency, or is she apprehensive about her children becoming “like the black children” and abandoning their European ancestry?
Themes
Racial Hierarchy and Apartheid  Theme Icon
White Liberalism and Hypocrisy  Theme Icon
Power  Theme Icon
Cultural Displacement  Theme Icon
Bam paces around the hut and mentions a report from a few years ago, about the U.S. sending an aircraft in to rescue American citizens and citizens from other European countries. Maureen tells him she hadn’t heard that one. She knows she doesn’t need to remind Bam that they are not Americans or Europeans—just as he needn’t tell her that they missed their chance to flee to Europe or Canada years ago. Inwardly, Maureen poses a question: “If all whites became the same enemies, to blacks, all whites might become ‘Europeans’ for the Americans?”
Even though the chief has authorized the Smales family to stay at July’s village, Maureen and Bam remain apprehensive about their future there. Maureen’s question about “all whites bec[oming] the same enemies, to blacks,” and the same allies to each other, expresses her frustration at her family’s current helplessness. She’s discouraged by how the institutionalized racism of apartheid has led the Black freedom fighters to make the generalization that all white people are enemies, which discounts her family’s liberal, anti-apartheid views. If they have the right to pass judgement on her family based on the color of their skin alone, shouldn’t their whiteness be enough to qualify as white “Europeans” worthy of rescue by the Americans?
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
Maureen pauses before asking Bam about the chief’s interest in the gun. Bam squats beside her and smiles, finally telling her about his earlier—and, now, unnecessary—fear that the chief was going to make them leave the village. Bam scoffs at the chief’s request. He imagines himself throwing grenades “to protect some reactionary poor devil of a petty chief against the liberation of his own people.” But Maureen doesn’t shake things off quite so easily. She asks Bam what he’ll do if the chief follows up on his request for a shooting lesson. While Bam is confident that the chief is all talk, Maureen remains apprehensive.
Bam mocks the chief’s opposition to the war. It’s absurd to him that a Black man should position himself “against the liberation of his own people.” Bam’s inability to understand the chief’s desire to reinstitute apartheid mirrors Maureen’s conversation with July in Chapter Thirteen, where she, too, could not fathom why July would want things to return to the way they were instead of wanting freedom.
Themes
Racial Hierarchy and Apartheid  Theme Icon
White Liberalism and Hypocrisy  Theme Icon
Power  Theme Icon
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Bam changes the subject to complain about July’s earlier remark about “let[ting]” Bam drive. “A treat for me,” Bam remarks wryly, observing that July has  gotten a big head lately. Maureen pauses before suggesting that July might have been talking about himself when he criticized the chief. Bam is confused. Maureen explains how July has dedicated his adult life to appeasing white people—and that includes bringing them here. Maureen thinks that July’s decision to shelter them in his village is itself a symptom of his continued servitude to his white oppressors. “He didn’t murder us in our beds and he won’t be a warrior for his tribe, either,” states Maureen. Bam guffaws at Maureen’s suggestion that July “was a sell-out” for saving the Smales family. 
Maureen and Bam are both beginning to feel unwelcome in July’s village. So far, Maureen has been more openly spiteful toward July for acting as though he’s entitled to the bakkie. Bam taking offense to July “let[ting] him drive” his own vehicle shows that Bam, too, has begun to question July’s loyalties. Maureen’s speculation about the true meaning of July’s criticism of the chief also doesn’t bode well for the couple. Maureen is proposing that the chief’s brutal condemnation of the civil war resonated with July and made him rethink his own failure to support the freedom fighters. If July has had a change of heart about where his allegiances lie—if he feels that helping the Smales family has made him “a sell-out”—will he continue to protect them, or will he turn on them?
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
Maureen refuses to back down. July didn’t join the Soweto people, she claims. When he brought the Smales to his village, he effectively “took his whites and ran.” Bam disagrees. He believes that July is hiding them out of his genuine love for the family. After all, July could be killed for helping them—though Bam admits that he’s not sure if July realizes the possible consequences of his actions. “Then we’d better go,” replies Maureen, plainly. Maureen and Bam stare at each other. The sound of their children returning to the hut brings their conversation to an end, but the couple remains at odds with each other.
Maureen references the 1976 Soweto uprising, a demonstration led by schoolchildren in Soweto, a township of Johannesburg, to protest the implementation of Afrikaans as the language of instruction in local schools. The demonstrations resulted in at least 176 (though likely more) casualties. Compared to those who lost their lives in the Soweto uprising, July is a coward who “took his whites and ran.” Although Maureen’s analysis of July is compelling, Bam seems unwilling to admit the possibility that July would turn on them. His realization that July might not be aware of the consequences of sheltering a white family seems to plant some doubt in his mind, though. Even if July has no intentions to turn on them, it’s morally wrong to take advantage of July’s ignorance of the consequences of helping them. Regardless of how Maureen and Bam have arrived at their decision, both of them are more resolute that they need to leave the camp as soon as possible. Yet, they know all too well that they have no means of transportation nor anywhere else to go, and their shared feeling of helplessness intensifies.
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
Quotes