Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 773
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 of savagery and oppression, was soon thereafter taken up by larger publishing companies and made available throughout the English-speaking world.
In 1964 his second novel, And a Threefold Cord, was published in Germany. Written while La Guma was under house arrest, unable to leave his home or visit with anyone outside his family, it deals with the poverty of people living in a slum outside Cape Town. La Guma drew on his own experiences to write his third novel, The Stone Country, about conditions in a South African prison. This work, too, was published in Germany.
In 1966, one year before the appearance of that third novel, La Guma and his family left South Africa to take up residence in England. Upon his release from South African detention he had been offered a permanent exit visa, which, after much deliberation, he and his family accepted. Much as La Guma, the artist and the private man, hated to leave his homeland, he realized that as an activist he would be able to reach a larger international audience from outside South Africa. Thereafter, working with the International Anti-Apartheid Movement, he spoke throughout Great Britain, demanding international pressure for an end to apartheid.
For the first time, too, he was able to talk with other black African writers and political figures, many of them exiles as well. The publication of In the Fog of the Seasons’ End enhanced La Guma’s reputation as an artist and a political figure even further. This novel, based on his own work as an activist and on the civil rights struggles in South Africa, was widely reviewed and praised.
In 1969 La Guma was awarded the Lotus Prize by the radical Afro-Asian Writers Association, an organization dedicated to seeking the “dynamic unity between artistic ability and social reality,” and he held several offices with the group over the next decade. He visited the Soviet Union in 1975 with the Association and wrote about his experiences in A Soviet Journey. As a delegate to the World Peace Conference, he also traveled to Chile and Vietnam that same year.
All of La Guma’s remaining novels were written while he was in exile from his native land, but he continued to write about South Africa and its need for reform. Time of the Butcherbird deals with the South African government’s enforced resettlement programs, under which blacks were forcibly removed from their ancestral lands and relocated.
La Guma never returned to South Africa. At his death, he was living in Havana, Cuba, as the African National Congress representative to the Caribbean, using his influence to gain international support for an event he did not live to see—the dismantling of apartheid, and the election of a nonwhite South African president.