The vehicle the Smales traveled in is a yellow bakkie, or small truck. It’s a rugged, economical car for Afrikaners and “coloureds” who can’t afford much else. For wealthy, white South Africans, a bakkie is typically a second car reserved for use in sporting activities. Bam Smales bought the bakkie for himself on his 40th birthday to use on trap-shooting trips, though he is by nature too non-violent a man to shoot much of anything. Before the children were born, Bam would take Maureen on trips to Botswana or Mozambique.
That the Smales can afford international travel and a second car just for sporting activities reaffirms their economic privilege. “Afrikaner” refers to an Afrikaans-speaking person from South Africa. Afrikaans is the Dutch-derived language passed down from the Dutch settlers who colonized South Africa in the 17th century. That the Smales belong to this social group gives more context about what kind of life they’re used to. Under apartheid, Afrikaners were considered the superior racial class and received better treatment than the country’s non-white population. “Coloureds” refers to a legal racial classification enforced under apartheid in South Africa. The term encompasses multiracial people with ancestry from a number of ethnic groups of the region. Under apartheid, white people held the highest status, followed by Indians and Coloureds, then Black African people.
Bam had bought the bakkie for pleasure. Although Maureen was displeased when she saw him arrive home in the vehicle for the first time, she joined her children in crowding around to admire Bam’s new purchase. In the present, Maureen considers how “Nothing made them so happy as buying things.”
Bam and Maureen’s wealth allows them to make purchases for pleasure rather than out of necessity for survival. Establishing what a central role “buying things” once played for the family makes it all the more jarring that they are now, for reasons that remain unknown, residing in a mud hut.
Maureen recounts the political circumstances that led to this point in time. It was 1980, and the strikes continued. The government continued to negotiate disingenuous deals with the Black trade unions. There were riots, general civil unrest, and the occupation of international corporations. The government censored practically all media forms, and people relied on rumors to know what was going on with the uprisings. Fifteen thousand Black people organized a march on Johannesburg. The authorities halted the march at the city center, but there were many casualties, Black and white.
This scene offers some context to explain how the Smales have ended up in their present situation. July’s People is a work of speculative fiction that offers an alternate history of South Africa where apartheid ends with a violent civil war after Black rebels overturn the oppressive, white-led regime. Gordimer is South African and uses the book to predict one way apartheid could feasibly end.
A bank accountant for whom Bam had designed a house tipped Bam off to the fact that if unrest in the city continued, banks would issue a moratorium. In response to this information, Bam and Maureen covertly withdrew thousands of dollars from the bank. However, the banks didn’t close. Citizens subdued the blacks, due in large part to the participation of white Rhodesian immigrants, some of whom were former Selous Scouts, and white mercenaries who arrived from Bangui, Zaïre, and Uganda. The children stayed home from school. The liquor store resumed delivering wine and beer orders. Things seemed to have returned to normal, which had been the pattern of things “since Sharpville, since Soweto ’76, since Elsie’s River 1980.”
This passage provides more background information about Bam’s profession—he’s an architect. While the Smales seem to have become the victims of a violent political uprising, their position of privilege allowed them to have advance notice of the bank moratorium, putting them in a better position than people without their degree of wealth and connections. The uprising that ends apartheid in this book is fictional, but Gordimer references actual historical events as well. The Sharpeville Massacre and Soweto Uprising of 1976 were real events where South African police attacked and killed citizens protesting the apartheid system. Refencing these other episodes of violence in South Africa’s history lends credibility to the alternate history Gordimer presents in the novel.
The Smales wondered when the time would come when things didn’t return to normal. They wished their time spent living as “white pariah dogs in a black continent” would come to an end and joined political organizations and community groups to make up for the privilege that other white people tried “to guard with Mirages and tanks.” They considered moving to another country but couldn’t bring themselves to leave the place they considered home. The real reason—though they had trouble admitting it—was that they couldn’t retrieve their money and investments, like the De Beers shares Maureen had inherited from her maternal grandfather, from the banks. Now, as order returned to the city once again, the Smales had begun to feel silly for hiding their money in the house.
The Smales set themselves apart from white South Africans who accept the privilege the apartheid system gives them without question. They feel guilty about being “white pariah dogs in a black continent” and join organizations to try to atone for their privilege. One has to wonder, though, whether these actions reflect a genuine desire for change and racial equality or are simply a means for the Smales to continue being complicit in an oppressive system without feeling guilty.
But then, everything changed. The yellow bakkie that Bam had bought for pleasure became their only vehicle. They used it to drive away from gunned-down shopping malls and burning houses. Nora, their cook and nanny, ran away. And July, the male servant they’d employed for years, and to whom they’d given a long list of privileges, such as decent pay, clothes, the liberty to entertain friends and town women, became their “frog prince” and “saviour.”
Suddenly, an unstable political climate unleashes violence onto the entire city, imbuing the Smales’ mostly comfortable (if occasionally guilt-ridden) existence with uncertainty and suffering. Maureen’s description of July as their “frog prince” suggests a reversal of the former social order as well. Before, July was at the mercy of his white, wealthy employers. In this new environment, suddenly he has the power to be their “saviour.”
Back in the present, July brings in a zinc bath to bathe the children. Maureen washes the children first, then herself in the dirty water. Bam risks catching bilharzia and bathes in the river. Afterward, July returns with porridge and fruit. He wears a faded T-shirt and trousers instead of his usual uniform, though he holds himself the same as he had in all his years serving the Smales family. Maureen insists that they can cook their own food, and July brings wood for Bam to make a fire.
July continues to serve the Smales despite the fact that they can no longer claim the esteemed social position they had in Johannesburg. It’s unclear if he’s doing this as an act of personal kindness or because they’re paying him. Either way, the dynamic is odd. He’s accustomed to waiting on white people, and they’re accustomed to Black people waiting on them, even though their context has dramatically changed.
July returns later that night, apparently not trusting the family to take care of themselves. He’s accompanied by a little Black boy—his third-born child, he explains. The white children look at the boy “as at an imposter.” July gestures toward a can of goat milk he’s brought with him. He advises Maureen to boil it if she likes—goat milk is very different from the sterilized, refrigerated bottles of milk he’d served the family in their home.
It’s ironic that the Smales children look on the Black child “as an imposter,” when the boy is July’s actual child, not them—if anything, they’re the “imposters.” Implicitly, the children are used to feeling in command of their environments. Even as children, they possess a degree of entitlement.
A few days ago, July sat in the Smales’ living room—something he never did—and offered to shelter the family at his home. So, they loaded the children into the bakkie, covered them and Maureen with a tarp, and drove into the night. Because they were too afraid to use roads, the 600-kilometer journey took three days. July knew the way, however, having walked it many years ago when he’d first come to Johannesburg to look for work.
Maureen and Bam claim not to support apartheid, yet they employ a Black man who doesn’t feel comfortable sitting in their living room (or isn’t allowed to). Even if they don’t intend to be oppressive, the atmosphere in which they live establishes a foundation of inequality that impacts their relationship with July. July sitting on the couch symbolizes the changing power dynamics in their relationship that the latest uprising has inspired. July feels emboldened by the uprising and deserving of the same privileges as his white employers. Finally, this passage gives context for where the Smales family is at the opening of the story and how they got there: they’re in a rural African village outside of Johannesburg, a major South African city.
July’s home is a settlement of mud huts inhabited by his extended family. Last night, when Maureen expressed her fear that the sight of the bakkie would alert outsiders to the fact that July was hiding white people in his home, July burst into laughter at her ignorance of his foresight. He explained to her that he’d already thought of this—as a cover story, he’d told everybody that the Smales gifted him the car. Bam laughed, wondering who would believe this lie. July assured them that everybody knows what’s currently happening to white people in Johannesburg, which would make them believe July’s lie.
Already, the novel has mentioned the Smales’ yellow bakkie many times. It’s an important object: it served the practical function of transporting the family from the violence of the city to the safety of July’s village. It’s also a source of conflict, though: if people see a bakkie—an object associated with white people and very out of place and unusual in July’s rural setting—it could alert outsiders to the presence of white people in the area, putting the Smales’ lives in danger if rebel forces find them in July’s village.
Everybody struggles to adapt to their new surroundings. Victor asks Maureen if he can play with the electric racing-car track that he managed to sneak aboard the bakkie during the chaos of the family’s departure. He wants to show it to the Black children in July’s village, but he asks Maureen to tell them that they can’t touch it. Meanwhile, Royce, the youngest child, won’t stop asking for a Coca-Cola. When Maureen boils river water on the stove, Bam tells her not to bother—the children have been drinking fresh river water anyway. Exasperated, Maureen asks Bam what they’ll do if the children get sick. Bam says nothing. The message contained in the silence that passes between them is clear: they should be glad just to be alive.
The Smales children aren’t accustomed to the rustic conditions of July’s village. Like Maureen before them, they take for granted that they can have material objects and leisure activities to dull the hardships of life and fill their time with distractions. July’s village will be a huge change for them. They’re faced with no choice but to weather the elements and no longer have a way to distract themselves. While the narrative reaffirms how grateful the Smales are to be alive, there’s enough mention of their unhappiness scattered throughout these opening chapters to suggest that the Smales’ rescue won’t be a story of redemption alone, and that conflict and tension are lurking beneath the surface.