Nadine Gordimer
Nadine Gordimer; drawing by David Levine


Writing in South Africa, in that blighted country whose own rhetoric is fixed in droughty, barren images, one starts with the fact that language can become a kind of sabotage. White or Black or Coloured, English-speaking or Afrikaans-speaking or speaking any one of a dozen native languages, one starts, even in the best of faith, in bad faith. The languages of South Africa have been consonant with race and caste, owner and worker, citizen and servant, for so long that language itself—the language one speaks and writes—is a weapon there, quite apart from those details of identity and ideology with which it happens to coincide. Words smother, sacrifices to apartheid, in the closed context of the expectations they arouse. They can sanction such perverse exaggerations, such profound contempt, that anyone who wants to write in South Africa is left with the home truth that language has lost its metaphoric flexibility and assumed, instead, a kind of brute, synecdochic power. By now, to write in South Africa is by definition political.

There are white citizens of South Africa but no “citizens” of the land itself any more. There are only claims on the landscape, made in words too loaded to be shared beyond the circle of one’s own kind, one’s own “people.” Writers in South Africa suffer more than censorship. They suffer the constraints of responsibility. Their subject (if they are any good at all) is given, and it is deadly serious. They know that they cannot in conscience play—take too much pleasure in the sound of words or tease meanings out of quirky grammar. This is not just a problem for Afrikaners, who have seen their fathers’ inventive country-Dutch speech reduced to the official “language” of a fierce nationalism and an even fiercer politics.

Today, most language in South Africa bears a kind of historical pollution, and most good writers admittedly make do without “freshness,” without the lyric energy of more Arcadian (or perhaps merely more effectively self-deceptive) times. The fiction South Africans cherish for innocence and freshness are the old genre tales of writers like Herman Charles Bosman, tales spun in some golden age a half-century or so ago when the Marico and the Karoo still yielded up the sort of crusty Afrikaner bumpkin whose solid country humor and solid country crimes and solid country madness were blessedly, ignorantly free from “politics,” when violence had mainly to do with ugly spouses chopped up and buried under the parlor floor.

What a painful journey from Bosman’s Marico countryside to Nadine Gordimer’s Johannesburg. For it is hard to find an image of love or lust or even landscape in a Gordimer story that does not carry some implication of moral fault, or imminent corruption. It is hard to find a conversation that does not strain and spoil under the political heat of today’s South African setting. Writers like Nadine Gordimer have a different tension in their work, a different set of imperatives, from Afrikaner writers—both those Afrikaners who write in English and those ecologists of language, not so different from the Bretons and the Basques in Europe, who want to force an “authentic” national literature out of a somehow purified vocabulary.

The Afrikaner who writes in English, as Athol Fugard does, or translates himself into English, as André Brink does, or moves from one language to the other within a book, as the novelist J.M. Coetzee does, has determined on an audience beyond the authority of the censor’s office. He is apt to be haunted by themes that mirror his own “betrayal” of the language that betrayed him and, of course, Africa. In a way, Afrikaners like Brink and Fugard and Coetzee (Coetzee, at forty-one, is perhaps the most interesting writer of the three, but he is published only locally and so is not much known outside South Africa) are under pressure of their predicament to explore what might be called the mutual uses of incomprehension in their country: the triumphant incomprehension of the master and the subversive incomprehension of the African.

The problem for an Afrikaner writer, finally, is how to accept the fact that the language of his mother’s songs and his childhood games and his own tenderness is also the language of his country’s cruelty—proudly, officially, identified with cruelty. Whereas the problem for white English-speaking writers like Nadine Gordimer is that English—I specifically mean “white” English, not the English of black South African writers like Steven Biko and Lewis Nkosi, who have another, different, relation to the language—has been so thoroughly the “colonial” language of South Africa, the language that did not root in the eccentricities of a new landscape or the experience of a trek, the language whose “South Africanness” has had mainly to do with coy details of dialect, the language carried up from the Cape by colonial cavalries, not covered wagons, the language that kept itself civilized and European, uneducated, unmoved, by Africa.


If Afrikaans is the language of intimate family histories put to terrorizing public use, the language of theological time and explanation, of spiritual claustrophobia in vast spaces, of cycles of land and season and crops and calvings and fixed, ordained station, the language of the trek and the end of exploration and the beginning of a dream about a land for people who now can neither leave that land nor inherit it, then English, for white South Africa, is the language that is to explicate that madness and that dream. It is the language of commentary and judgment, of an imperial vision trying to engage itself, of worldly, liberal values trapped in domestic irrelevance. And much of the literature of the English in South Africa has been not so much of wrong deeds purged as of bad faith exquisitely acknowledged—a literature for the modern chorus, for that hothouse space of bourgeois and enlightened values in which discussion is encouraged and indulged precisely because it makes so little difference to the world of realpolitik and real suffering, to the world of interrogation rooms on Jan Vorster Square and prison cells on Robben Island and a generation of voertrekkers come to political and economic power. That literature can express itself not in clumsy Boer claims to the land but in appreciation and sentiment, in colonial attachments. It has been about people reluctant to leave themselves and scared to let their children stay, about people who can leave, people who have hedged bets against the future.


The Afrikaner has virtually no choices left, no bets to hedge, nowhere to go—which may be why Nadine Gordimer put an Afrikaner at the center of The Conservationist (1975), her best novel until the recent publication of July’s People. Mehring—Miss Gordimer’s Afrikaner—is a rich businessman, one of those ambitious Boers who have alarmed the English South Africans over the past fifteen or twenty years by making money, breaking that unwritten agreement that gave the English the wealth and the Afrikaners the government. In fact, Mehring has made enough money to buy a four-hundred-acre farm in the commuter countryside outside Johannesburg. He can own that farm, but he cannot possess it and his greedy, helpless passion to possess undoes him. It is a lust that does not belong to the veld. It belongs to the mine dumps of a ravaged landscape, to those eerie heaps of excavated sand that line the highways to Johannesburg, and that finally claim him in release and terror.

Mehring is martyr to a fanatic drive that began on his ancestors’ trek and was written into the grim theology of the laager and of prayer meetings in the wilderness. The English do not produce Mehrings. They were right, of course, in claiming (as they chased the Boers across the bottom of the continent) that Mehring’s sort of fanaticism was “inappropriate.” They wanted the calm and decent values of the Crown preserved in Africa—transformed, perhaps, by the fact of so many millions of black Africans to contend with, but not abandoned. They tried, when they could, to wipe out Afrikaans and with it the fanaticism that displeased them. There are old Afrikaners who remember when English was the official language of the schools, when a child who spoke in Afrikaans had to wear a donkey’s tail until some other child repeated the mistake and took over the tail for him—a hot-potato game of shame that ended only on Friday afternoons with the child left with the tail standing punishment for the whole classroom.

The English catalogued what the Afrikaner believed and ultimately legislated—catalogued in sensibility if not in law the inhumane divisions and subdivisions of race and privilege of the colonial experiment. They created our proper Western consciousness of the Boer War—which was really a long series of Anglo-Boer wars—and that consciousness had it that the English were patriots and the Boers buffoons of brutality. They created, in Africa, the idea of white trash. They replaced the ferocious piety of laager with comely thatch churches and a good deal of correspondence about “mission” with the prelates of Canterbury. The Boers, in their way, belonged to Africa—even in their failed passion to possess its soul. The English neither possessed nor belonged. They ruled. And when ruling was inconvenient—because the Boers, after all, outnumbered them two to one by 1948, the first year of Afrikaner government—they stepped back, horrified to witness what one of Miss Gordimer’s characters called, if I remember correctly, “the end of the beginning of suffering.”


This has been Nadine Gordimer’s great challenge and her often startling achievement—to draw from her own language a prose grounded in the agony of the country, a prose referring passionately and strictly to that agony. White South Africa craves its literature. Listen to the voice—the mad voice of South Africa—in J.M. Coetzee’s second novel, In the Heart of the Country:

I who plainly had the makings of a clever girl who might have atoned for physical shortcomings with ten nimble fingers on the piano-forte keys and an album full of sonnets, who might have made a good wife, industrious, frugal, self-sacrificing, faithful, and even on occasion passionate? What have I been doing on this barbarous frontier? I have no doubt since these are not idle questions, that somewhere there is a whole literature waiting to answer them for me. Unfortunately I am not acquainted with it…. I have uttered my life in my own voice throughout, what a consolation that is, I have chosen at every moment my own destiny, which is to die here in the petrified garden, behind locked gates, near my father’s bones, in a space echoing with hymns I could have written but did not because (I thought) it was too easy.

Nadine Gordimer is rare among English South Africans in that she can share with Afrikaners like Coetzee (and with Fugard and Brink and a new generation of younger Afrikaner writers) a desire at once to possess the landscape and to liberate the land, and a steely pity for the African that acknowledges, in great pain and shame, that “In knowing him better I seem to have lost all that I liked best in him.” She is ready for the moment when black Africa discards its white families who still nestle at the bottom of the continent, protected by their bombers and their pass laws and their immorality acts, and, more often than one admits, their genuine concern for a decent country—its white families roasting steak and sausage at their Sunday braai; making their pilgrimages to Kruger for the animals and Durbin for the beaches and to “homelands” that survive on the pitiful new colonialism of porn and gambling promoters; once in a while driving the children out along the Cape to see the blue Indian Ocean meet the green Atlantic Ocean in a line as vivid and improbable as the post cards paint it; and, finally, sending their sons to fight and die in Namibia and Angola.

She senses, accurately, how much of the land has already discarded them, how many of the farms that new city rich like Mehring buy for their weekend illusions are doomed to dry rot and “smells of burned porridge and soured milk.” “A place to bring a woman,” Gordimer says, knowing that love in South Africa has soured with the milk, and tenderness, even in respectable suburban marriage beds, is clandestine. Mehring buys his farm and the farm yields up a’ black body, a murdered black body, but in the end his farm welcomes that body in burial—“One of them”—while Mehring runs to an unknown fate across a Joburg mine dump, runs from a sickly whore and a couple of threatening rednecks who are either gangsters or blackmailers or policemen or all three things, knowing at last that in his South Africa they are the same.

Or maybe never knowing, because his real argument is with the corpse, with the silence that disputes his claim to a cleaner, fresher soil, the silence that is the black man’s only language against a people who have used their own language to oppress, who erect monuments to that language, who first put it into print, appropriately, a century ago in a document called “Die Afrikaanse Patriot.” The corpse that haunts Mehring—and spoils his weekends—is the claim on Africa of men and women who are allowed no ownership. They dig the black man’s grave and pray, sing a hymn, and the earth receives him—one of them. Blacks dig graves. Whites dig mines and throw up mine dumps to receive their own.


One of Nadine Gordimer’s best stories—“Town and Country Lovers”—has to do with an Austrian geologist of vaguely noble name who comes to South Africa and starts sleeping with—and perhaps loving—a young colored girl of no particular name who works a cash register at the local supermarket. They begin with words. He corrects her grammar. She types his reports to the mining company that employs him. She has a gap between her front teeth—it affects her smile, perhaps her speech. He tries not to notice. He finds her lovely with her mouth closed. “He made his way into her body without speaking. She made him welcome without a word.” They are caught, of course. The district surgeon is silent as he motions the girl onto the examining table and places her legs apart, in stirrups, and probes her trembling body with cold, hard steel for traces of a white man’s sperm. “The two accused gave no evidence. They did not greet or speak to each other in Court.”

It is Nadine Gordimer’s peculiar triumph to be so eloquent about the bankruptcy of language in a bankrupt land. She writes, lately, in the sparest prose. Her work is elegantly functional, observant, finely honed. July’s People is written with a kind of clockwork precision, whereas her last novel, Burger’s Daughter, was more expansive: in style, in its characters, even geographically, with Miss Gordimer moving her young heroine Rosa Burger to France, to England, taking her in a backward Bildungsroman through a freer, more innocent and ordinary world than her own. Rosa is the most familiar of Gordimer’s women—familiar to us, that is, outside South Africa. She is so normal in her promise, her enthusiasms, so at home, until the last dark chapters of the book, with possibility. But outside Africa, and free from the distinction of her parents’ martyrdom—the distinction of white martyrdom in the black cause—Rosa is at odds with herself, with what she suspects is, in spite of herself, the distinction of her own destiny: “No one can defect,” she says, returning “home” to South Africa:

I don’t know the ideology:

It’s about suffering.

How to end suffering.

And it ends in suffering. Yes, it’s strange to live in a country where there are still heroes. Like anyone else, I do what I can.

It is possible to see Nadine Gordimer’s oeuvre as an ongoing investigation into the temptations of defection. She probes, as clinically as the district surgeon, almost every possibility of resolution and tenderness and even balm that the liberal consciousness has been able to invent. July’s “people” are not martyrs. They are ordinary liberal people who have risked a little, backed off from a lot, and Miss Gordimer knows that the black future will not spare ordinary liberal people like them any more than the white present has spared Rosa Burger and her parents, who were after all its own kind.

Maureen and Bamford Smales, July’s people are called. He is an architect. She was a dancer, now a housewife. They have three small children, a good house in a good Johannesburg suburb, a car, a little yellow pickup, and, of course, a house servant named July. Gordimer leads them through the sort of parable of the future—cliché of the future, really—that can be found in many literatures, in many cultures, the parable about the servant who hides his master after a war or some calamity has left the master helpless and beholden and the servant free. But she reduces that cliché to its most trenchant ironies, its most desperate banalities, its tragedy.

July has served the Smales for fifteen years. He is their “boy,” and they, of course, are his “people”—although July’s people could be said to be the family he supports in a kraal some six hundred miles into the bush from Johannesburg, the sort of bush the Smales think of as a place for camping trips. The Smales are kind, educated, modern people who have seen to it that July’s little servant’s quarters in the backyard; behind the house, is nicely furnished with their own discards, that it has water and a flush toilet and decent, serviceable (but wrong for the house) linens. They are the good whites of South Africa, the sort of employers who have sent their boy home every year for a vacation with presents for his wife, hand-me-downs for all the children they have never seen. They speak to him in English. They have been proud, in a way, not to address him in that bastard African lingua franca of the mines and factories—the language of the white baas speaking “African” as a convenience, as a shortcut to authority and obedience.

The Smales prefer a simple English. They speak simply to their boy and he replies simply, and they rely on some etiquette of their cryptic communications to dignify the relations between them. “Why is it the whites who speak their languages are never people like us, they’re always the ones who have no doubt that whites are superior?” Maureen Smales asks after the revolution begins in South Africa and Johannesburg is in flames and no one knows exactly who is winning or even fighting—and July, packing up the Smales’s yellow bakkie, the truck they like so much for camping, leads his “people” to his own village, to a hut somewhere behind his own hut, to a hut with mud walls and neither a toilet nor running water nor decent, serviceable bedspreads in the wrong print.

July is still their boy. Their honorably hypocritical resolve to acknowledge him as host, as friend and equal, as “different,” somehow, in his own village, confuses July—or insults him. He answers them, as Maureen complains, with “the insult of refusing to meet her on any but the lowest category of understanding.” The simple English between the “boy” and his “people” becomes the weapon between the “boy” and his “people.” They refuse him the honesty of his old status. He refuses them the compassion, the conversation, of his new one. Bam Smales, looking for July in the village, has to ask in Afrikaans before someone understands, before someone acknowledges his question. He has to resort to the language of the oppressor—the Smales and July would agree on that, agree that it was the Afrikaner who was the oppressor—to be understood. Yet July, everyone “back there” always said, was the best-treated servant on the block. July, back there, had carried an airline bag from Aerolineas Argentinas and got a simulated-calf wallet for Christmas, and his savings passbook showed a deposit of a hundred rands. A hundred rands that the Smales had given him to celebrate his first ten years of faithful service.

July’s People is Maureen’s story. Oppression, after all, is a domestic drama in its details. Oppression may start with the slave state, the empire, the colony, but it is re-enacted at home, clarified at home, in the authority of the husband, and finally, tellingly, it is mocked at home—the stuff of comic strips and English novels—in the authority of the housewife with her servant. The woman and the servant—that is the cliché that reduces the history of oppression to the humiliating caricature it is, the cliché that fixes the colonial order to a dip into the liquor cabinet when the lady of the house is out, to a manicured finger checking the windowsill for dust.

Bam Smales still has his hunting rifle. He has stashed it, because in the thatch of the hut where they are hiding, his rifle is his pride, his power, his last treasure from a world that would say, with him, that this “couldn’t ever happen…the fact of Bam and Maureen Smales and those three white children, here in this place.” And Maureen has her keys—the keys to the little yellow bakkie that carried them to this dreadful smelly place where mewling cats drop their litters on her children’s makeshift bedrolls, and pigs follow her around for a meal of feces, and her unshaved legs are ugly with stubble—the kind of hairy legs servant women have.

The bakkie, exposed and rusting in the hopeless camouflage of a roofless and abandoned village hut, is the Smales’s freedom. If a world exists outside July’s village—a world restored to macadam roads and petrol stations at decent intervals along those roads and radios that carry the evening news in English, broadcast from a proper studio and not from the bombed-out headquarters of an army the Smales had always made a point of despising—the bakkie will get them there. But for Maureen, it is the keys to the bakkie, not the truck, that mean something, that mean everything. Who she is. What she is. The mistress of her life and her house and her servant. Of course, at home, “back there,” July kept the keys. They were in his pocket—the keys to the bakkie, to the house, to all the closets and cabinets. Back there, July was the trusted servant, but here in his own village the keys are not Maureen’s to grant in any gracious gesture of confidence. They are simply her keys, and here in the village July wants them. By right, not by confidence and not by duty, either. Here in the village, July must break that “confidence” of a liberal white housewife in her “boy.”

Maureen rages against this July whose silence is not discretion any longer, whose keeping keys is not appropriate. They are in a battle not so much about property but about proprietorship. It drives her, finally, in her torn jeans and filthy tee shirt and hairy legs, to mock them both in a ludicrous sexual posturing against the bakkie’s corroding hood. Here is July, early on:

—You don’t like I must keep the keys. Isn’t it. I can see all the time, you don’t like that—

…Me, I’m your boy, always I’m have the keys of your house. Every night I take that keys with me in my room, when you go away on holiday, I’m lock up everything…it’s me I’ve got the key for all your things, isn’t it—

And then:

—The master he think for me. But you, you don’t think about me, I’m big man, I know for myself what I must do. I’m not thinking all the time for your things….

And Maureen, exploding:

The master. Bam’s not your master. Why do you pretend? Nobody’s ever thought of you as anything but a grown man. My god, I can’t believe you can talk about me like that…. Bam’s had damn all to do with you, in fifteen years. That’s it. You played around with things together in the toolshed. You worked for me every day. I got on your nerves. So what. You got on mine. That’s how people are—

Maureen, pleading:

—If I ask you for the keys now it’s not the key of the kitchen door! It’s not as a servant you’ve got them. Is it? But a friend—he asks, he asks…and he gives back…and when he wants something again, he asks again.—

And July, producing the keys, taking them back:

—Take it. It’s not the keys for your kitchen. Fifteen years I’m work for your kitchen, your house, because my wife, my children, I must work for them. Take it.—

But their fight goes on, it was always on. Maureen, refusing the keys she wants, taunts July about the “town woman,” Ellen, who slept with him for fifteen years and whom now he has left behind, perhaps to die. She knows that July would never have stayed in town, would never have joined the black army gathering in Soweto. Just as she knows that Bam would never have stayed in town, never played Afrikaner in a white man’s army. Is it courage or cowardice? Loyalty or betrayal? Is there any difference between keys and rifles? Bam loses his rifle. A black boy steals it to “join” the revolution while the rest of the villagers—Maureen’s children among them—are busy dancing and shrieking to the racket of an old amplified victrola.

Maureen demands an explanation from July, because after all it was July who always kept track of everything back in Johannesburg, it was July who could always find lost toys and lost rifles. And July starts, finally, to talk—not to Maureen but “at her” and in his own language:

The heavy cadences surrounded her; the earth was fading and a thin, far radiance from the moon was faintly pinkening parachute-silk hazes stretched over the sky. She understood although she knew no word. Understood everything: what he had had to be, how she had covered up to herself for him, in order for him to be her idea of him. But for himself—to be intelligent, honest, dignified for her was nothing; his measure as a man was taken elsewhere and by others. She was not his mother, his wife, his sister, his friend, his people. He spoke in English what belonged in English….

In the end, the words between them cancel all relation. But in the end, there is nothing left to say. There is no conclusion to any story about South Africa any more. No way to part except, perhaps, in flight, running toward the end of the beginning of suffering. A helicopter lands near July’s village on the next morning. No one knows whose helicopter it is, or what it brings—what soldiers from the insane grab bag of “enemies” that centuries of bad faith have produced. Maureen Smales pulls off her shoes and runs—across thickets, across a river, across the path of startled cows—toward the helicopter:

She runs: trusting herself…alert, like a solitary animal at the season when animals neither seek a mate nor take care of young, existing only for their lone survival, the enemy of all that would make claims of responsibility.

The open end, then, of one South African domestic drama. It is a drama that has a lot to do with being a writer in South Africa. Perhaps, for white South Africa, there are indeed no defections, only flight; no “liberal” choices or responsibilities, only panic, finally, and primitive response to unknown but inevitable disaster. Perhaps Nadine Gordimer is informing the people “back there” (they are really the people over here) who read and admire her that she stays in South Africa, and keeps on writing, not in hope or duty but in pride, and that her feelings about South Africa are appropriately complicated. South Africa is her home. She was born into the drama, and she seems to be saying now that as both artist and homesteader she is committed to witness, committed to see her country through the disintegration of its household, and its hypocrisies and cruelties, and of whatever love once bound it.

This Issue

August 13, 1981