Nadine Gordimer and Moral and Racial Issues of Apartheid in South Africa

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This paper will describe how Nadine Gordimer was able to deal with, and publicize, the moral and racial issues of apartheid in South Africa.  Gordimer was able to create a literary timeline that conveyed the changes in apartheid in South Africa.  As a political activist and liberal white, she had an immense desire to help the nonwhites that were suffering in South Africa.

       I.            Introduction
Nadine Gordimer is a South African writer, political activist, and 1991 Nobel Prize winner for literature.  She joined the African National Congress (AFC) during the time when it was still an illegal organization.  As a liberal white trying desperately to fight apartheid in South Africa, she saw the AFC as her best hope in helping this political plight come to an end.  Gordimer has published a total of 14 novels and 11 short stories collections.

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    II.            Biographical Information

Nadine Gordimer, daughter of Isadore and Nan Gordimer, was born in Springs, South Africa in 1923.  She started writing at an early age.  She published her first stories in 1937, when she was fifteen.  Her first published work appeared in the Children’s Sunday Express in 1937.  When Gordimer was sixteen, she had her first adult fiction work published (Telegraph Media, 2003).

In 1960, her best friend was arrested.  This incident fueled her outrage and pushed her entry into the anti-apartheid movement.  She was soon thereafter knee-deep in South African politics (Wastberg, 2001).

Because of her deep ties to the anti-apartheid movements, the government of South Africa banned many of her works.  Her novel The Late Bourgeois World was banned for ten years.  A World of Strangers had been banned for twelve years (Steele, 2001; Caldwell, 1991).

The subject matter of most of Gordimer’s novels, as you will see, is the effect that the apartheid of South Africa had on its residents, both white and nonwhite (Holocombe, 2008).  Gordimer reveals the moral uncertainty and doubt-filled choices of her characters.

 III.            Novel Summaries

The following summaries have been provided by various people, in various professions.  The summaries are for four novels.  Each of these novels deals with the political and social aspects of the apartheid in South Africa, with love and relationships as undertones.

A.    The Late Bourgeois World
This novel, published in 1966, is centered on Liz Van Den Sandt, a white widower, whose deceased husband was involved in anti-apartheid activities.  After he failed in his activities, he commits suicide.  The story follows Liz as she struggles with the decision of whether she should get involved in the Black Nationalist movement of South Africa.  She has to tell her son about his father’s life, and death.  According to Mitchell (1966), she tells her son:

“…know he went after the right things, even perhaps if it was in the wrong way…He wasn’t content to leave bad things the way they are.  If he failed, well, that’s better than making no attempt.”

B.     A Guest of Honour
This novel, published in 1970, is centered on James Bray, who was a British colonial administrator.  Bray was an active participant in the black freedom movements, and, as such, was exiled from South Africa.  Ten years later, he is invited back, as a guest of honor, by the new president, to join in the celebrations of the newly found independence.  After discovering Edward Shinza, one of the president’s most important advisors, is missing, Bray learns that the independence, the two men worked together to gain, became a wedge between them.  Instead of taking the high road, from rags to riches, Shinza returned to the conditions he lived in before the independence took place (Lask, 1970).

C.    Burger’s Daughter
This novel, published in 1979, is centered on Rosa Burger and how she grows up in the shadow of her father, but is trying to develop her own self-identity.  As Rosa’s story unfolds, we learn her father, Lionel, is the real hero of this story.  He was an African doctor who joined the Communist party, but was still involved in the revolution.  He was sentenced to life in prison, where he dies (Sampson, 1979).

Rosa moves to France, where she is surrounded by criminals and lesbians.  She eventually gets married and returns to South Africa, years later.  The irony in the story is that she gets arrested and sentenced to isolation – in the cell her father once occupied (Sampson, 1979).

In summarizing this novel, Sampson (1979) stated:

“It is Miss Gordimer’s most political and most moving novel, going to the heart of the racial conflict in South Africa.  But it does not deal publicly with riots, tortures, or crusades: Its politics come out of its characters, as part of the wholeness of lives that cannot evade them.”

D.    July’s People
In this novel, published in 1981, involves Bam and Maureen Smales and their black servant, July.  The Smales family is forced to flee their home because of the violence that has erupted in South Africa.  They flee to July’s village where they become his responsibility, and further an unwelcomed burden (Tyler, 1981).

Maureen Smales discovers that the identity she thought she had was based on the family’s economic and racial privileges in South Africa.  Throughout the novel, she struggles to adjust and find her place in the village.  Feeling trapped and powerless, Maureen realizes that she cannot be the person she once was, nor can she be one of “July’s People.”  Maureen, in the end, cannot find a place in this new life, and flees the village, leaving behind her family (Tyler, 1981).

 IV.            Conclusion

Nadine Gordimer’s experiences in living with, and fighting against, apartheid in South Africa are conveyed in her works through her characters.  Garan Holocombe (2008) stated:

“In her work there is the affection for her homeland, its people, epic landscapes and potent past.  This is juxtaposed with the examination of the devastating psychological effects of political persecution on the lives of ordinary South Africans, and it is this which gives her work its moral force and imaginative richness…Gordimer has dramatized the history of her country.  She has addressed the violence of Apartheid, the duplicity, physic tension and pervasion of normalcy of the totalitarian state…her characters deal with exile, compromise, exploitation and alienation – themes Gordimer explores against the growth of black consciousness.”

Throughout her years of writing, Gordimer has experienced criticism on various levels.  She has, of most importance, been subjected to censorship by the government.  Jay Dillemuth (1997) stated:

“…Gordimer has drawn criticism both for her apparent lack of attention to feminism in favor of race issues and for the wholeness and unfashionable completeness of her novels – their plottedness, meticulous scene painting, and fully realized characters.  However, the searching symbolism and complexity of her narratives generally work against such judgments…A prominent feature of her writing is to give a number of different perspectives on a situation, in some cases most poignantly those of apartheid’s supporters, and in this way to represent the broader anatomy of a diseased politics.”


Caldwell, G. (1991). “South African Writer Given Nobel: Nadine Gordimer Chronicled Sorrows of Her Native Land.” Boston Globe, October 1991.

Dillemuth, J. (1997). “Nadine Gordimer: A Brief Biography.” Available at

Holocombe, G. (2008). “Nadine Gordimer.” British Council Online. Available at

Lask, T. (1970). “What the Revolution Wrought.” NY Times Online. Available at

Mitchell, A. (1966). “Climate of Fear.” NY Times Online.  Available at

Sampson, A. (1979). “Heroism in South Africa.” NY Times Online. Available at

Steele, J. (2001). “White Magic.” Guardian Unlimited. Available at,4273,4286023,00.html

Telegraph Media Group (2005). “A Writer’s Life: Nadine Gordimer.” Available at

Tyler, A. (1981). “South Africa After Revolution.” NY Times Online. Available at

Wastberg, P. (2001). “Nadine Gordimer and the South African Experience,” for the Nobel Foundation. Available at


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Nadine Gordimer and Moral and Racial Issues of Apartheid in South Africa. (2017, Jan 11). Retrieved from

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