A Historical Moment of Social Transformation

Benjamin Graves '98 UTRA Fellow 1997

The salient "material" events here, however, are the historical contexts of social transformation in late 1970's South Africa that informed the novel's writing. Towards the novel's opening, an omniscient narrator describes the events that drove the Smales to flee Johannesburg along with their three children:

Riots, arson, occupation of the headquarters of international corporations, bombs in public buildings-the censorship of newspapers, radio and television left rumour and word-of-mouth as the only sources of information about this chronic state of uprising all over the country. At home, after weeks of rioting out of sight in Soweto, a march on Johannesburg of (variously estimated) fifteen thousand blacks had been stopped at the edge of the business centre at the cost of a (variously estimated) number of lives, black and white. (7)

Although the revolutionary setting that Gordimer describes above is fictional (perhaps meant to be set a year or two after the book's publishing in 1981), this "chronic state of uprising...in Soweto" recalls several salient moments of black nationalist insurgence in South Africa in the mid to late 1970's-namely the Soweto student uprising of 1976 in Johannesburg. Since 1948, South Africa has borne the rule of the Afrikaner National Party, whose political policy of apartheid (an Afrikaans word meaning "apartness" or "separateness") demands the government-sanctioned segregation of races and moreover severely restricts the political rights of non-whites to vote, to hold certain jobs, to seek an education, and to own land (African Political Dictionary 36). In June, 1976-12 years after the sentencing of Nelson Mandela and one year prior to the arrest and murder of Black Consciousness organizer and activist Steven Biko-thousands of black students in Soweto (an economically under-privileged collection of townships within the city limits of Johannesburg) protested against the compulsory use of Afrikaans by public school instructors and students (Head xvii). After organizing a "peaceful mass demonstration" on June 16, protesting students "were met with a hail of bullets" resulting in the death of two (Davies, Omeara, Dlamini 34). By 1977, approximately 575 non-whites in Soweto had been murdered, galvanizing many students to leave the country in search of military training to combat the hand of apartheid (34). Despite its depiction of horror, then, Gordimer's suggestion of "fifteen thousand blacks" marching on Johannesburg recalls Gramsci's "morbid symptoms" in that it forecasts the necessary violence of black nationalism's aspirations for social transformation.

[These materials have been adapted from a paper written for James Egan's English 160, The Invention of America, Brown University, 1997]

Gordimer OV July's People