Gina Modeling An Apartheid Free South Africa in Nadine Gordimer’s "July’s People"
Apartheid still reigned in South Africa when Nadine Gordimer wrote her novel, July’s People, in 1981. She masterfully brings together the Smaleses, a wealthy white family, and their servant July’s family, who live in a small village in the bush, through a fictionalized political uprising that highlights the racial war between the whites and the blacks in South Africa. Each character has difficulty coping with the new reality of intermingling in the bush as they allow their preconceived culture- based prejudices and biases reign. However, the young character of Gina in July’s People represents the hope for an apartheid free South Africa in the way that she peacefully and tolerantly interacts with the people around her.
Love in a Lullaby
Gordimer writes: “For Gina, what hadn’t before been seen in this village was new to the world” (140). Gina, still young and impressionable, assimilates into whatever culture surrounds her, in this case, that of the bush. She is blessed to not have years of built up prejudices and represents a new generation born into an apartheid free nation that can start from scratch apart from their fathers’ sins.
When the family gets intoxicated with meat, they each display their true selves. Bam takes pride in singing an Afrikaans song for an entertained Royce, while Victor recounts life back home. However, “Gina wavered through a lullaby she had learnt from her companions, in their language” (79). Gina quietly sings the most soothing of songs from her new home, representing a peace that none of the other characters will ever feel.
The family enjoys their meat secluded from the blacks and dwell on life “back there” - as Gordimer so often repeats – but Gina already gives a hopeful whisper in the form of a lullaby of a culture that includes equality between blacks and whites.
As much as Gina welcomes black culture and takes it back to her family, the blacks simultaneously welcome Gina. Maureen and Bam never set foot inside another black person’s hut, either because they are not invited or they are not bold enough to step over the racial line and begin to assimilate like Gina so naturally does.
When the family goes to the chief, Gina runs off with a group of black children. Gordimer tells the reader that Gina “would disappear into the dark of this hut or that and wouldn’t be found, as usual, taken in, by those who lived inside, as neither [Bam] nor his wife ever were” (121).
The blacks welcome Gina into their homes because she displays the innocence of a child not yet taught in the ways of racial cruelty. Gordimer foreshadows that one day blacks and whites will intermingle and welcome each other into their homes just like how children are universally welcomed everywhere. The country must first become like children, humble and accepting, and then healing will occur.
Humbly Holding Hands
While Maureen and Bam display white superiority through their treatment of July for fifteen years, giving him their junk as hand me downs and then still treating him like a servant in the bush, Gina flees from favoritism and views the blacks as equals. Gina befriends Nyiko and in their child-like colorblindness, they become the most intimate of friends.
The separation line between blacks and whites grows wider when Gordimer shares that Martha has never touched a white person until Maureen. Touch (or the lack of), one of the most intimate mediums of communication, defines relationships. Gina not only constantly comes in contact with black skin in play, but clings to Nyiko, her best friend, as they stand “hand-in-hand” on display for their family (87). Gordimer depicts a culture through the two young girls that shares love and intimacy equally across the racial line while they share secrets and hold each other like children often do.
Gordimer hopes that South Africa will look like the two girls’ beautiful friendship, founded in colorblind love between the blacks and whites. Although Gordimer doesn’t delve into the family’s religious views, Gina completes the Christian law. Paul writes in Galatians echoing Jesus’ words that, “The entire law is summed up in a single command: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself’” (NIV Study Bible Gal 5.14). Gina shows no favoritism in her new home and loves all her neighbors: Nyiko, the rest of the children, and even some adults like Daniel.
When South Africa realizes like Gina that the word “neighbor” is not color specific, true healing from apartheid will be possible.
Freedom in the Panic
Gina and Nyiko’s relationship bursts forth freedom. When the gun goes missing and the family panics and frantically digs, Gina merely “[runs] off to skip with Nyiko, who had an old dressing-gown cord for a rope” (144). In times of strife and the shattering of old ideals and safeties, Gina finds the most freedom.
The gun, a sign of the old white Afrikaans life and power, doesn’t concern her. Instead, she would much rather run off with Nyiko and play with a simple jump rope while enjoying each other’s existence than to panic with her family over a destroyed old life. Gina fully embraces the new order and skips, the most joyful means of getting somewhere.
The future hope and healing in South Africa relies on not desperately digging for the old, but running forward to the new, hand-in-hand.
Through Gina’s assimilation and acceptance of black culture in July’s People, Nadine Gordimer foreshadows the hope of a generation functioning in South Africa without the confining boundaries of a hate-filled apartheid. Gina accepts the black culture by adopting their lullabies and playing with the children while the blacks in turn accept her into their huts. She forms the most intimate of friendships with Nyiko and together they display the freedom and joy found when racial walls are lowered.
Gordimer, Nadine. July’s People. New York: Penguin Books, 1982.
NIV Study Bible.Ed. Kenneth L. Barker. Grand Rapids Michigan: Zondervan, 2002.