Transfer of Power in July's People

W. Glasgow Phillips '92

Several objects are invested with symbolic power in Nadine Gordimer's July's People. Gordimer presents Bam's gun and the yellow bakkie (and its keys) as objects that represent power in the text. At the beginning of the text the Smales family owns these objects, and as the narrative progresses their grasp on these objects of power becomes more tenuous, and July and other blacks assume ownership of the objects. The transfer of ownership, like the parallel transfer that occurs in Johannesburg, is uncomfortable for the whites involved. July, as well, experiences some discomfort as he takes power, in the form of the keys. The characters in the novel are continually forced to negotiate new ways of relating to one another, and Gordimer makes use of the awkward communication between the whites and blacks that result from a new power structure and the language barrier between them to illustrate the discomfort of that negotiation. Pages 57 - 63 deal with the issue of the bakkie keys in particular:

There was the moment to ask him for the keys. But it was let pass.

They stood in the midday sun and watched, over at the deserted dwelling-place, the yellow bakkie being reversed, bucking forward, leaping suddenly backwards again; kicking to a stop. July was at the wheel. His friend was teaching him to drive. . . .

--I would never have thought he would do something like that . He's always been so correct.-- Bam paused to be sure she accepted the absolute rightness, the accuracy of the word. --Never gave any quarter, never took any, either. A balance. In spite of all the inequalities. The things we couldn't put right. Oh, and those we could have, I suppose.--

Gratitude stuffed her crop to choking point. --We owe him everything.--

Her husband smiled; it didn't weigh against the keys of the vehicle, for them. . . . (p. 58)

(July) was enthusiastic about his prowess with the vehicle. --You know I'm turning round already? I'm know how to go back, everything. My friend he's teaching me very nice. --

--I saw. You didn't say you were going to learn to drive. You never said you wanted to learn.--

--In town?-- He was affable, deprecating his own ability, or reminding them that they knew he had known the limits of his place.

--Here. Here.--

He leaned forward confidentially, using his hands. --Is no good someone else is driving the car, is it? Is much better I myself I'm driving.--

--If they catch you, without a licence. . . --

He laughed. --Who's going to catch me? The white policeman is run away when the black soldiers come that time. Sometime they take him, I don't know . . . No one there can ask me, where is my licence. Even my pass, no one can ask me any more. It's finished.--

--I'm still worried that someone will come to look for us here because of the bakkie.--

--The bakkie? You know I'll tell them. I get it from you in town. The bakkie it's mine. Well, what can they say?-- (p. 59)

After July laughs, and talks about how he is not culpable for vehicular infractions because there is no longer any white system of authority to stop him, the conversation becomes extremely difficult. July does not come right out and tell Bam and Maureen that he can do what he pleases, whatever they might say. Instead, he acts as though he has an understanding with them about the particular situation (that it is fine by them for him to be driving the bakkie), and that neither he nor they have to worry about external authority. July masks his revolt against the Smales' (by this time nonexistent) authority by talking around it. He acts as though there is an understanding they have reached together, that he is only acting as if he has taken control of the bakkie, but that it in fact still belongs to them.

But the plausability of the charade, if charade it is, is too much for Bam.

. . . His eyes were blue as Gina's shining out of dirt. --Is it yours, July?--

All three laughed in agitation.

--They hear me. They must know, if I tell them I take it from you. (p. 60)

July continues to take cover under the subtleties of language. The tables have turned in his favor, and he can use misunderstanding to his own ends. He makes clear that he is in possession of the power now, or at least capable of being in possession of the power now, which amounts to the same thing. The keys and the car are July's if he wants them to be, though he returns them at the end of this exchange. By the time he returns them, Gordimer makes it seem as though July is lending the car to the Smales for the time being.

Gordimer OV July's People