Alex La Guma 1925-1985
(Born Justin Alexander La Guma) South African novelist, short story writer, and journalist.
The following entry presents an overview of La Guma's career through 1998. See also Alex La Guma Literary Criticism.
La Guma is best known for his fiction concerning racial oppression under the apartheid system in South Africa. In his novels and short stories, he conveys, as Nadine Gordimer says in her The Black Interpreters: Notes on African Writing (1973), “the sight, sound and smell of poverty and misery, so that the flesh-and-blood meaning of the colour bar becomes a shocking, sensuous impact.” Driven into exile in the mid-1960s, with his books banned in his own country, La Guma gained international recognition for his efforts to bring down white-minority rule in South Africa.
La Guma was born on February 20, 1925, in District Six, a working-class ghetto of Cape Town, South Africa. He was the son of Jimmy La Guma—president of the South African Coloured People's Congress and a member of the Central Committee of the South African Communist Party—and Wilhelmina Alexander La Guma, a worker in a cigarette factory. Like most members of their community, his parents were of mixed race, which meant that they were classified as “Coloured” under the governmental policy of racial segregation. He grew up in a politically aware household and, following his father, joined the Communist Party in the late 1940s and became a member of the Cape Town district committee before the Party was banned in 1950. He graduated from Upper Ashley primary school and attended Trafalgar High School. In 1942 he left high school without graduating, but completed matriculation examinations in 1945 as a night student at Cape Technical College and in 1965 was a correspondence student at the London School of Journalism. In 1954 he married Blanche Herman, a nurse and midwife. La Guma held several jobs, working as a clerk, bookkeeper, and factory hand, before joining the staff of the leftist newspaper New Age (Cape Town) in 1955. That same year, as a delegate to the Congress of the People, he came to the government's attention in helping to draw up the Freedom Charter, a declaration of rights. Along with 155 other delegates, he was arrested in 1956 and flown to Johannesburg on a charge of high treason. The last of the defendants was finally acquitted in 1960, after many appearances at the famous Treason Trial. By this time, however, South Africa was in crisis. In March of 1960 there was the Sharpeville Massacre, when white policemen shot down unarmed blacks demonstrating against the apartheid “pass laws” that required nonwhites to carry identification documents; subsequently, the African National Congress (ANC) and Pan-Africanist Congress (PAC) were banned, and a state of emergency was declared. La Guma was again arrested and detained for seven months. Then in 1962, he was banned under the Suppression of Communism Act, and finally, a year later he was placed under house arrest for five years. During this last period he was barred from leaving his house, communicating with friends, participating in politics, and practicing journalism. Prior to his arrest, however, La Guma continued to work as a journalist for New Age. Besides his news reports, he wrote a weekly column, Up My Alley, and in 1959 created a political cartoon strip called Little Libby: The Adventures of Liberation Chabalala. In 1966 La Guma began a period of self-imposed exile in London, England, where he remained until 1979, when he moved to Cuba. La Guma died on October 11, 1985, leaving behind fragments of his sixth novel and several short stories, as well as plans for his autobiography.
During the time leading up to his house arrest and then afterward while in confinement, La Guma wrote the majority of his short stories. Set in cheap cafés, prison cells, tenements, and backyards, they reflect the author's preoccupation with the effects of the color bar, whether expressed through the immorality act or liquor raids by police. “A Glass of Wine” (1960) tells of the unlawful courtship of a coloured girl by a white boy. In “Blankets” (1964) a young hoodlum, stabbed three times by an old enemy, returns in his delirium to earlier scenes of despair and deprivation. The novella A Walk in the Night (1962) details the chain of events that occur after a black factory worker is fired from his job for talking back to his white supervisor. Collectively, the stories form a powerful indictment of the evils of apartheid, particularly in relation to the coloured community of Cape Town. In these short stories, and in his journalism as well, one can find not only the language but also many of the themes and narrative devices that La Guma later employed in his longer fiction. Occasionally episodes were developed, and certain phrases, scenes, and anecdotes repeated. It was not uncommon for many black African writers of the time to move freely among different literary modes, bringing together elements of popular culture from such forms as pulp fiction, American gangster movies, and journalism. La Guma combines these elements to startling effect, developing a style of writing in these works based on what has been termed “Englikaans,” a dialect of Cape Town's mixed-race ghettos that blends Afrikaans with English. Like his stories, La Guma's novels expose the hopelessness and desperation of life under apartheid, not only for South Africa's black and coloured citizens, but for the whites who refused to live harmoniously and respectfully with their fellow human beings. All are portrayed as victims of a social system that ultimately robs them of their humanity. In And a Threefold Cord (1964) La Guma portrayed life in a Cape Town slum in all its squalor, with prostitution, alcoholism, violence, famine, unemployment, and illness accepted as part of daily life for the inhabitants. Published in 1967, The Stone Country examines conditions in the South African prison system; the hierarchical social system, racial segregation, and acceptance of brutality toward blacks make the prison a microcosm of South Africa as a whole. La Guma's most highly regarded novel, In the Fog of the Seasons' End (1972), is also his most autobiographical, concerning itself with the South African resistance movement. His final work of published fiction, Time of the Butcherbird (1979), is his most metaphorical, recounting the history of an Afrikaaner family as represented by a white racist landowner whose eventual death at the hands of a black activist is portrayed as fully justified.
While La Guma and other black African writers were initially the objects of high praise and adulation by critics worldwide for their unflinching portrayals of the conditions in which blacks have been forced to live in Africa, critical reception turned on them in the 1980s, when commentators began to question the aesthetic merit of their works beyond the bounds of social analysis. Ultimately, however, many critics continued to laud La Guma's artistic sensibilities, and he remains one of the most highly regarded South African writers of the twentieth century.