Justin Alexander La Guma (lah GEWM-ah) was one of the most important African writers during the second half of the twentieth century, when South Africa suffered under the oppressive system of racial segregation called apartheid. His novels and short stories, many of which were banned in his own country, were praised not only for exposing the truth about apartheid to an international audience but for being valuable artistic documents.
La Guma was born in a poor section of the large city of Cape Town to a “colored” family, a term used in South Africa for people of mixed race. Both his parents were active in the nonwhite civil rights movement in South Africa. When Alex La Guma was thirteen years old, he tried unsuccessfully to join the International Brigade to fight fascism in Spain. At the age of seventeen he offered to fight in World War II, but was again turned down. He read Marxist writers (but never finished high school), and eventually joined the Communist Party. By the time he was thirty he was a leader in the liberation movement. He helped organize a bus boycott, drafted a rights declaration called the Freedom Charter, and was arrested with more than one hundred other antiracists and charged with high treason.
In the late 1950’s La Guma began writing for the leftist newspaper New Age. His short stories, usually dealing with racial oppression, appeared first in African and then also in European literary magazines. After he joined the Colored People’s Congress, he was arrested more than once and held without trial. By law he was forbidden to participate in political activities, and his writings were no longer allowed to be published in South Africa, but in 1962 a small publisher in Nigeria published A Walk in the Night. The novella, which was immediately acclaimed for its vivid portrayal of urban life under apartheid and for its descriptions...
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