Alex La Guma

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J. M. Coetzee (essay date 1974)

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Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 6820

SOURCE: Coetzee, J. M. “Man's Fate in the Novels of Alex La Guma.” In Doubling the Point: Essays and Interviews, edited by David Attwell, pp. 344-60. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1992.

[In the following essay, originally published in 1974, Coetzee evaluates La Guma's novels against literary criticism of the late 1960s that questioned the artistic merit of much African literature.]


By the late 1960s, in reaction against a degree of overestimation of African writing by the literary establishments of East and West, a skeptical reassessment of its achievement was in full swing among African intellectuals. The harshest critics were writers themselves. Thus Wole Soyinka:

The curiosity of the outside world far exceeded their critical faculties, and publishers hovered like benevolent vultures on the still foetus of the African Muse … The average published writer in the first few years of the post-colonial era was the most celebrated skin of inconsequence ever to obscure the true flesh of the African dilemma.1

And on South Africa in particular, Lewis Nkosi's judgment was:

With the best will in the world it is impossible to detect in the fiction of black South Africans any significant and complex talent which responds with both the vigor of the imagination and sufficient technical resources to the problems posed by conditions in South Africa.2

In the case of South Africa the outcome of the debate is crucial. So much of the intelligentsia is in prison or in exile, so much serious work has been banned by the censors, that the work of black South African writers has become a kind of émigré literature written by outcasts for foreigners. There can thus be no argument, as in independent Africa, that a vital if crude national school of writing will eventually both educate and be educated by its audience, for the work of the South African exile is deprived of its social function and indeed of the locus of its existence in a community of writers and readers. At his desk he must generalize the idea of an audience from a “you” to an indefinite “they.” A criterion of timelessness may come to seem the only one that can justify him, for his work promises to find a place for itself only by transcending the world and the age out of which it grows. If he has been exposed to the universities, then English academic criticism, with the tradition of Coleridge, Arnold, and Eliot behind it, may underpin his retreat with a critical ideology. Thus we find Nkosi censuring a writer (Bloke Modisane) for lacking a “power for so re-ordering and for so transmuting the given social facts that we can detect an underlying moral imagination at work.”3 If he cannot live by these consolations, the writer must cultivate stoicism and a literature of witness, seeing himself minimally: as the man who acts, in Sartre's words, “in such a way that nobody can be ignorant of the world and nobody may say that he is innocent of what it's all about”;4 with, all the while, an eye on his moral relation to his obsessive story: is he merely fondling his wound?


Alex la Guma was born in Cape Town in 1925. For much of his life he has been involved in resistance activities. He was one of the 156 accused in the notorious Treason Trial of the 1950s, and later spent years under house arrest and in detention. He left South Africa in 1966. His first novel, A Walk in the Night (1962), appeared in Nigeria and later in Britain and the United States. And a Threefold Cord (1964) and The Stone Country (1967) were published in East Berlin. In the Fog of the Seasons' End appeared in London in 1972.5

La Guma came to the novel via journalism and slice-of-life story-writing. The obvious influences on his style are American: the popular crime and low-life story, with behind it the naturalism of James Farrell and Richard Wright, and, further back, the protest novel of Upton Sinclair. The naturalistic-deterministic influence is plain in A Walk in the Night, with its large cast of negligible characters driven to their various fates by social forces beyond their understanding. In the next three novels we see protagonists exerting their will more and more to grasp their fate and eventually, we are given to hope, to master it. In this sense the novels become progressively more political. Nevertheless, Zola's ideal of a novel with the certainty, the solidity, and the practical application of a work of science can be discerned, if we look carefully enough, behind all La Guma's work. His novels are recognizably the product of someone who has served an apprenticeship in the short story: they come close to observing the unities of space and time, and their characters are largely from a single milieu, the Colored working class and underworld of Cape Town. Whites appear mainly as police officers and prison guards: The Stone Country specifically develops a metaphor of South Africa as a prison in which prisoner and jailer are bound to each other by Hegelian chains, and for the metaphor a nominal white presence is sufficient.6 Until the fourth novel black African characters are few and minor. La Guma does not offer a representative social panorama. For simplicity I therefore call his antagonists Black and White.


A favored mode among white South African writers has been tragedy (though Afrikaans writers have given much attention to the mythographic revision of history). Tragedy is typically the tragedy of interracial love: a white man and a black woman, or vice versa, fall foul of the law against miscegenation, or simply of white prejudice, and are destroyed or driven into exile. The overt content of the fable here is that love conquers evil through tragic suffering when such suffering is borne witness to in art; its covert content is the apolitical doctrine that defeat can turn itself, by the twist of tragedy, into victory.7 The tragic hero is the scapegoat who takes our punishment. By his suffering he performs a ritual of expiation, and as we watch in sympathy our emotions are purged, as Aristotle noted, through the operations of pity and terror. We leave the theater or close the book

                    with new acquist
Of true experience from this great event,
With peace and consolation …
And calm of mind, all passion spent.

Religious tragedy reconciles us to the inscrutable dispensation by giving a meaning to suffering and defeat. As tragic art it also confers immortality: Oedipus and Lear may be destroyed by the gods, but we resurrect them ritually on our stage. An annual Shakespeare festival is as ritually appropriate as Easter.

But necessity is blind, says Marx, only insofar as it is not understood. With Zola the novel becomes a laboratory in which man is the subject of the experiments and in which the new Marxian and Darwinian laws of fatality are traced. The laws of heredity and environment that send Clyde Griffiths to the electric chair are unfolded in an experimental novel by Theodore Dreiser called An American Tragedy. Clyde's fall still awakens tragic pity and terror in us, but it also awakens righteous anger and turns it upon society.8 To this extent naturalism politicizes tragedy.

There is a second major transformation of tragedy in modern times. In the drama of crime detection the inscrutable order of the gods has become a remote but benign temporal order ruled over by the police, the upstart hero has become the criminal challenger of the law, and the intelligence of the tragedian (the oracle, the Tiresias-figure) has been embodied in the detective investigator who sniffs out the tragic error (clue) and thence unravels the line of the criminal hero's tragic fate. This authoritarian moral inversion (the hero now evil, the gods good) holds our sympathy by an equivocation: the investigator is presented as a private eye or lone agent nominally distinct from the police gods, the criminal is invested with the trappings of diabolical power (minions, infernal machines, an underworld empire).

What religious tragedy, naturalistic tragedy, and the crime story have in common are the idea of a reigning order and the idea of fatality. What religious tragedy and naturalistic tragedy have further in common is the evocation of pity and terror. What is unique to religious tragedy is ritual catharsis. What is unique to naturalistic tragedy is its rebelliousness. What is unique to the crime story is its evocation of not pity and terror but exultation at the fate of the transgressor. The crime story has a reactionary political form; religious tragedy is apolitical or quietistic. The predominant example of religious tragedy in South Africa is Alan Paton's Cry, the Beloved Country. A young African comes to the city, falls among bad companions, kills a white, and is hanged. The fathers of the dead men console and learn to respect each other. The hero who bears the blows of fate is here doubled in the persons of the two fathers; we share their suffering as they share each other's suffering, in pity and terror. The gods are secularized as the pitiless justice of the law. Nevertheless, Paton's fable bears the invariant content of religious tragedy: that the dispensation under which man suffers is unshakable, but that our pity for the hero-victim and our terror at his fate can be purged by the ritual of reenactment.9


A Walk in the Night is a tragic story, but in what way?

A young black, Michael Adonis, is sacked for talking back to his white foreman. Angry, drunk, and barely responsible for the act, he kills a harmless old white. He sneaks away, seen only by a couple of loitering gangsters. A second young black, a smalltime thug named Willieboy, enters the dead man's room, is surprised there, loses his head, and runs away. A sadistic white police officer, Raalt, gets on his trail and guns him down. Adonis is blackmailed into joining the underworld.

The mainspring of the plot is retribution. The death of the old white is literally fatal: his room is a fatal nexus, he who enters is doomed. An offense has been committed against the secular divinity of the law, and the law, through its police agents, will exact its penalty. Who pays does not seem to matter—Adonis or his double Willieboy. Willieboy is the unlucky one, the one who is seen and remembered. The agent who goes after him happens to be in a murderous mood. Reading of Willieboy's death we feel the tragic emotions of pity and terror, pity for his youth and ignorance, terror because we too may be black, unlucky, or both.

Thus far the book seems to read like an inversion of the crime story (the hunter is in the wrong), that is, like a second inversion of the original tragic scheme (our sympathies remain with the hero defeated by the now secularized police-gods). If this reading were a complete one, its political meaning would be that man suffers under an inscrutable secular authority, but that the emotional turmoil created by our witnessing his suffering can be purged by the ritual therapy of art. However, the reading is not complete. The core of retributive tragedy is modified by two political criticisms of Adonis/Willieboy visible at the level of the structure of the novel.

1. Modes of life that do not capitulate to authority but are not predatory are portrayed in two peripheral characters. One is Joe, a harmless youth who lives by handouts and by scavenging along the seashore as the aboriginal coast-dwellers of southern Africa had done. Joe stands for an obsolete collectivist, communal ethic; it is he who tries to stop Adonis' drift toward the underworld (74). The second is Franky Lorenzo, a stevedore who lives in the tenement where the killing takes place and who stands up briefly against Raalt's bullying (62-63). Lorenzo's wife falls pregnant annually. He laments this, not realizing, as she obscurely does, that his people's strength lies in numbers and that a new generation may see a new dawn. Lorenzo stands for a proletariat as yet unaware of its powers.

2. Necessity is blind only insofar as it is not understood. The elements of a political explanation of the situation of Adonis/Willieboy are present in the novel, but the hero is blind to them. There are, for instance, elements of a global political perspective. The novel is set in 1950 or 1951. Adonis meets a man in a bar who refuses to listen to political talk (subject: “Whites act like that because of the capitalis' system”), dismissing it with the catchphrase “Those bastards all come from Russia” (17). This man refuses to admit any connection between white terrorism (a lynching in the U.S. South) and internecine black violence (a knife fight in the Cape Town ghetto). A few hours later Willieboy makes a drunken attack on three American sailors for crossing the sexual color bar, is beaten off, meets the man from the bar in a dark alley, and mugs him. The clues toward a political interpretation of this ironic sequence are there, but only the god's eye of writer or reader can see them.

We can penetrate further into the political meaning of the book if we ask what forces make for stability or instability in La Guma's ghetto.

The action of the book represents a violent disturbance, lasting about twelve hours, of a precariously stable social system. At the end of the action the system returns to an equilibrium perhaps marginally more precarious than before. This equilibrium is, however, of a peculiar kind, a stability only of the ghetto vis-à-vis the rest of the city, and maintained only by shutting the ghetto off from the city. The ghetto itself seethes with internal violence. Raalt's police companion clearly advocates the principle of closure: “I don't like any trouble … Let these hottentots kill each other off” (39).

What detonates the action is the victimization of Adonis by his foreman. He is enraged and takes out his rage on the old white. The killing occurs inside the ghetto, which thus fulfills its stabilizing function of absorbing the consequences of unequal black-white contact. There is an unsettling feature of the killing, however: the old man is a white living in the ghetto, where he should not be, as the normative second police officer again notes (61). He mixes the categories white and ghetto-dweller, thereby drawing Raalt into a confusion of roles: he becomes both godlike avenger of the law (white) and practitioner of street warfare (black). This alarms his orthodox companion, who sees him as a dysfunctional psychotic macho who will “do something violent to one of those black bastards and as a result our superiority will suffer” (39). His fears are well-founded. When Raalt shoots down Willieboy, the watching crowd threatens to unite and attack. To the police this is a moment of anarchy, to the crowd a moment during which the anarchy of the ghetto is overthrown. But the moment passes, the status quo ante returns: “They wavered for a while and then surged forward, then rolled back, muttering before the cold dark muzzle of the pistol” (86). The crowd disperses, the police drive away with the dying Willieboy. The book comes to a close on three night images: a cockroach emerges to lap up the vomit (victory for the predatory ways of the ghetto); the scavenger Joe makes his way to the sea and the “beckoning hands” of the seaweed (end of the old communal fellow-feeling); and Lorenzo's pregnant wife lies waiting for dawn feeling “the knot of life within her” (promise of the future) (96).

There is nothing tragic in the system of punishments we see here: it is simply oppression. Only when we get down to the level of individual lives does the question of fate reappear: why does an innocent man have to open a door on a corpse and then run into a cop with a grudge? Is there not an arbitrariness in the sequence that must either seem incredible to us or lead us back to the sources of a tragic view of life?

The old man dies because Adonis is sacked. Adonis is sacked with impunity because he is black and may not belong to a trade union. Willieboy dies because a black must die because Raalt's unfaithful wife cannot be punished with impunity because she is white. These are two of the causal chains we find in the book. A notable feature of such chains is asymmetry: a chain of violence may begin in the white city or the black ghetto, but it must end in the ghetto and its last victim must be black. Thus when a black woman is unfaithful, a black man kills a black man (the anecdote on 17-19); when a white woman is unfaithful, a white man takes out his gun and kills a black man (Raalt and Willieboy). Causal chains like these are visible to writer and reader but not to the ghetto. When two chains of causes converge on Willieboy and claim him as their double victim, what looks to the reader like a specific case of bad luck (the improbable but clearly definable convergence) looks to the crowd and to Willieboy himself like inscrutable bad luck, the way things are in the ghetto. That is, whereas the ghetto is still at a prepolitical stage in its conception of fate, writer and reader can see laws of fatality at work, can conceive of fate naturalistically. As to the question of the arbitrariness of the convergence, we should recognize that by calling a plot arbitrary we mean that it is conceived in the interests of neatness, imposing on the subject an aesthetic shape that does not fit. (If by calling a plot arbitrary we mean simply that it has a low statistical probability of occurring in “real life,” we stand for a degraded standard of the real.) But the plot of Willieboy's doom, action as meaning, follows only too closely the contours of political reality. The plot is not arbitrary but, in Georg Lukács' term, “extreme.” To Lukács the great achievement of nineteenth-century Russian realism was the discovery of

that extreme expression of clearly revealed social determinants which makes possible a true typicality, far beyond the mere average … The primary, essential means of transcending the average is to create extreme situations in the midst of humdrum reality, situations which yet do not burst through the narrow framework of this reality as far as social content is concerned, and which, by their extreme character, sharpen rather than dull the edge of social contradictions.10

What distinguishes the realism of A Walk in the Night from the “critical realism” of Lukács' great tradition (Stendhal, Balzac, Tolstoy, Thomas Mann) is that at the end of the book we are back nearly where we started. The realist assumes “change and development to be the proper subject of literature,” whereas a “basically static approach to reality” belongs to the naturalistic novel.11 This useful distinction allows us to pinpoint the major technical difficulty La Guma must have faced composing his novel, one which, it seems to me, he resolved inadequately. On the one hand, the urban Colored population of South Africa in the early 1950s, a time of rampant reaction, was politically fragmented, cancered with crime, and lacking in consciousness of the mechanisms of oppression operating against it. Any fictional account of the ghetto closing ranks against the police would have been a falsification of reality. On the other hand, the chaos of Willieboy's last day on earth rendered unmediated through Willieboy's eyes would have missed Lukács' “change and development” and issued in little more than the diffuse pathos of low tragedy. La Guma's solution, technical and epistemological, is to locate change and development not in the world of his characters but in his reader's synthesizing intelligence, as it puts together the elements of a pattern too scattered for the characters to perceive: the characters call it bad luck; the reader sees not fate but oppression.

An alternative La Guma may have contemplated would have been to develop Lorenzo, the man who tries to unify the tenement against the police and whose unborn child is linked with the dawn, as a central intelligence within the novel. For reasons of his own he did not. He chose a narrative point of view above the world of his characters, the point of view of a spectator watching people act out their lives (“I am my father's spirit, doomed for a certain time to walk the night,” recites the old man, an actor, to Adonis before he dies) (28) and savoring the bitter ironies of crime and punishment in a state in which Law and Crime overlap. For irony is all he can inject to compensate for the dullness of a world without consciousness, aptly imaged in the roach eating vomit in the dead of night. Toward his world La Guma feels much like the Flaubert who wrote, “I execrate ordinary life. I have always withdrawn from it as much as I could. But aesthetically I wanted … to get hold of it to the very bottom.”12 Paragraphs of A Walk in the Night are given over to fascinated catalogues of “ordinary life”—“massed smells of stagnant water, cooking, rotting vegetables, oil, fish, damp plaster and timber, unwashed curtains, bodies and stairways, cheap perfume and incense, spices and half-washed kitchenware, urine, animals and dusty corners” (48)—as though by inventorizing the world he could dispose of it. La Guma's first novel, despite its insight into the dynamics of power and its concern to unmask fate, displays a fastidiousness toward the material world that accords with the gulf it establishes between life and the intelligence that makes order of life. “A class can acquire class consciousness only if it sees itself from within and without at the same time,” says Sartre, writing about the relation between the writer and his class of origin.13 In his second novel La Guma confronts the task of apprehending life from the inside.


In And a Threefold Cord the Lorenzo figure is developed into the central character. He is named Charlie Pauls, a casual laborer with parents and brothers to support in a desolate shantytown on the outskirts of Cape Town. In the course of a few days Pauls takes three heavy blows: his father dies, his teenage brother kills a girl, and the children of the young widow he loves are burned alive. As he tries to make sense of his fate, his mind keeps turning to the words of the fellow worker who gave him his first political lesson: “If all the stuff in the world was shared out among everybody, all would have enough to live nice … People got to stick together and get this stuff.” Pauls's frightened auditor responds with the lesson of the master: “Sound almost like a sin, that. Bible says you mustn't covet other people's things … That's communis' things. Talking against the government” (83). But Pauls is now well on his way out of the dead end of every-man-for-himself, and the act of knocking down a white police officer is a further great step in his psychic liberation, setting free a humiliated rage that in the normal course of events would have been turned upon himself and the black community. The police wage the psychological warfare of the double bind; the black man must either stand silent while his woman is insulted or stand up for himself and be punished. Pauls cuts the knot by hitting the officer and escaping in the dark. His brother, on the other hand, is still caught in the labyrinth of introverted violence. Believing that his girlfriend has broken the taboo and slept with a white man, he kills her.

The white man in question is named Mostert, and as Pauls is a development of Lorenzo, he is a development of the murdered old actor. He runs a service station and junkyard across the highway from the shantytown—most of the shanties are in fact built with junk from his yard. He spends lonely days staring toward the shanties “past the petrol pumps which gazed like petrified sentries across the concrete no-man's-land of the road,” but remains “trapped in his glass office by his own loneliness and a wretched pride in a false racial superiority” (67). Pauls suggests that he come over one evening, hinting that he can find him a girl. He wavers, makes tangential contact on the outskirts of the shanty-town with the girl who is killed, and retreats.

Both boundary-crossings—by the actor in A Walk in the Night and by Mostert here—eventuate in crime and punishment. In neither case does the white cause the crime; but, willy-nilly, his alien presence precipitates the release of destructive rages that are part of the emotional structure of oppression. Both set in disequilibrium the finely balanced system of oppression and introverted black violence, and balance is restored only when Justice follows the chains of causes to their ends and executes Willieboy and Ronnie Pauls.

Throughout the novel it rains. Rain dominates the lives of the characters. Pauls visits Mostert to beg scrap to patch a leaky roof; his visit eventuates in his brother's death. The children are incinerated when they upset a stove that burns all day to dry out their shanty. Rain, and rain falling on dereliction, are the structural equivalent in this novel to the squalor of A Walk in the Night. The rain is a condition of life that exerts its oppressive weight equally on all the poor. It is a condition which has not lifted by the time the book ends but which, in the natural course of things, will. This allows the image of hope with which the book closes: “Charlie Pauls stood there and looked into the driving rain … He saw, to his surprise, a bird dart suddenly from among the patchwork roofs of the shanties and head straight, straight into the sky” (169).


In The Stone Country the Lorenzo-Pauls figure is further developed. His name is now George Adams, he is politically active, and he has just been picked up in a Security Police trap. We follow him through his first few days in the “stone country” of jail awaiting trial. Here he rediscovers the law of the jungle, which he hates because it reminds him of his slum childhood, and which he fights because of the anarchic individualism it fosters. By standing up to the prison guards and by sharing his food and cigarettes he manages to pierce the defensive cynicism of the prisoners, one of whom defends him against the prison bully, another of whom, a teenage killer, is moved from inhuman fatalism to the first stirrings of affection. Thus in his quiet way Adams introduces fellow feeling among this forgotten criminal population. Where La Guma's earlier protagonists were still learning, Adams is teaching.

Adams has two kinds of enemies: the thugs who run the network of terror in the prison, and the guards. The guards, though sadistic by temperament (124), remain aloof from the prisoners in day-to-day contacts. Only in the excitement of recapturing an escapee do they let themselves go in an orgy of violence. Custodial violence erupts at the borders of the stone country, where prisoners try to cross into freedom. As long as the borders are protected, the prisoners' introverted violence will do the guards' work for them. Thus the guards wink at the activities of the prison bullies but mark down Adams, who tries to channel the prisoners' emotion in an outward direction, as a troublemaker. Toward violence Adams' attitude is ambivalent. When he arrives the prisoners invest him with the spurious glamor of the saboteur and promote him to the prison aristocracy as “an equal, an expert from the upper echelons of crime” (39). But in his own eyes he is only an organizer, someone who has read and thought and gone to meetings and now “did what you decided was the right thing” (74). He is grateful to the prisoner who fights on his behalf, but also saddened: “What a waste; here they got us fighting each other like dogs” (74).

While Adams tries to bring unity, three prisoners in an isolation cell are sawing through their window bars. During the night they climb onto the roof. Here their precarious treaty breaks down and each makes his individual break for freedom. Two succumb to panic and vertigo and are retaken; the runt of the group escapes. “A threefold cord is not quickly broken,” runs the epigraph to La Guma's second novel.


The theme of La Guma's oeuvre clarifies itself further: the growth of resistance from the aimless revolt of individuals without allies or ideology (anarchy, crime) to the fraternal revolt of men who understand and combat oppression, psychological and physical. And a Threefold Cord reflected the dawn of a man's conception of himself as a political creature; in The Stone Country the first cracks in the chaotic, defensive individualism of the oppressed appeared and alliances began to sprout; In the Fog of the Seasons' End presents both the political conception of man's fate and the fraternal alliance as accomplished facts. The alliance is a proletarian one, though it has sympathizers among the bourgeoisie and intelligentsia; its ideology is an eclectic Marxism. Thus, although the novel has a main character who is continuous with figures from the earlier novels, it is, at the level of structure at which ideas and their embodiments enter into conflict, more appropriate to speak of a nascent collective resistance as the new protagonist.

Beukes is the name of the new Lorenzo-Pauls-Adams figure. He is a cell leader in the underground of the late 1960s, but old enough to have had experience of trade unionism and passive resistance. The novel follows him through a long day during which he distributes illegal strike leaflets. The following day, at a rendezvous with his immediate superior, Elias Tekwane, he is betrayed by an unknown informer. He escapes, wounded; Tekwane is captured and dies under police torture. Some days later we find Beukes engaged in organizing transport for guerrilla recruits. One of the volunteers, he discovers happily, is Isaac, a young man from his cell, also betrayed and also on the run.

The structure of oppositions among the three personages within the collective protagonist is complex. Tekwane has his faith put to the ultimate test; Beukes escapes, preserves his anonymity, but is threatened by loss of faith in himself and the movement. Tekwane dies, Isaac takes up the struggle. Isaac looks forward to armed resistance, Beukes backward to the old politics of rallies and speeches. But in their collectivity they have found a response to the humiliations of their personal life stories. Introverted rage and violence have been transformed into organized struggle. The street warfare of the ghetto exists only mutedly in the image of children holding up passersby with toy guns (61). The white enemy, on the other hand, has grown to live vicariously on the violence of news reports and gossip, and these reveal in particular the murderous contradictions of the introverted nuclear family. While the whites feed on fantasy, Beukes, up against the police, undergoes a reverse movement: “The torture chambers and the third degree [are] transferred from celluloid strips in segregated cinemas to the real world” (25). His very worst fantasies are realized; the fairy-godmother fantasy of the triumph of the weak and oppressed through the force of their faith has to be discarded. Chief among the virtues demanded of the revolutionary, he discovers, is the “granite” of the life and death of Tekwane. “These days one could not depend only on faith: the apparatus of the Security Police scraped away faith like strata of soil until they came to what was below. If they reached crumbly sandstone, it was splendid for them. It was the hard granite on which they foundered” (131).

The action of the novel catches Beukes, Tekwane, and Isaac at a time when danger forces them to confront their own fears. Thus Beukes, into whose soul the iron has not yet entered, undergoes nightmares of defeat in which his pregnant wife is disemboweled (children in La Guma stand for the future: the novel closes on an image of children in the sunlight). But the nature of the collective is to bring out the best in the weak. Beukes is fortified by his relation with the granite of Tekwane. Isaac suffers a whim of chance—his betrayal—but finds an avenue that enables him to turn it to positive action. Tekwane is taken to the limits of resistance under torture but there finds fortitude in hallucinated visions of the long history of African resistance. (And Beukes, passing a cast of a Bushman in an ethnographic museum, also recognizes an ancestor, “the first to fight” [14].)

Beneath this new optimistic writing the old fatal pattern can still be made out on the palimpsest. The young Tekwane comes out of Paton's Cry, the Beloved Country and Doris Lessing's “Hunger,” and is thereby saddled with a freight of tragic connotation, religious and naturalistic. The disaster of the collective sprouts from a mysterious canker, the traitor in its body. Beukes is saved from capture by luck (a stranger with a wound much like his is picked up). Nevertheless, Tekwane is finally not the tennis ball of the stars but a hero who engages his death in full consciousness of its meaning, and his killers are agents not of an inscrutable order but of a desperate regime whose end he sees: “You are reaching the end of the road and going downhill towards a great darkness, so you must take a lot of people with you” (6), he tells his torturers. Tekwane's suffering and death are unrolled in chapters that form a high point in La Guma's writing and whose achievement it is to demystify the torture chamber, inner sanctum of the terroristic state.


La Guma's achievement is to present a particularly lucid description of the resultants of white oppression in self-destructive black violence and to embody his novels a growing political understanding of the process in the consciousness of a developing protagonist. His four novels do not cohere closely enough to form a tetralogy, but read in sequence their political meaning is quite plain. They portray a Colored working class that initially has little consciousness of how its energies are redirected against it by its rulers as the anarchic force of crime. The representative of its best qualities grows from a puzzled stevedore to a laborer who has begun his psychic liberation, to a declassed activist, at first cautious, then freed for armed struggle by a heroic African example. Plotting and characterization are deliberate enough to leave the uncommitted reader perhaps resentful of La Guma's palpable design, but as social taxonomy the characterization must be acknowledged to be rich in insight.

However, style is the great betrayer. La Guma is the inheritor of the worst excesses of realism. In a paragraph like the following from A Walk in the Night—and hardly a page of this book passes without indulgence in the like—we see him straining after an effect no other than literariness itself.

The room was as hot and airless as a newly opened tomb, and there was an old iron bed against one wall, covered with unwashed bedding, and next to it a backless chair that served as a table on which stood a chipped ashtray full of cigarette butts and burnt matches, and a thick tumbler, sticky with the dregs of heavy red wine. A battered cupboard stood in a corner with a cracked, flyspotted mirror over it, and a small stack of dog-eared books gathering dust. In another corner an accumulation of empty wine bottles stood like packed skittles.


This is not only the interior of a certain room but an interior with the fingerprints of Literature all over it, an interior heavy with affect. The slums of A Walk in the Night, the shanties of And a Threefold Cord, the cells of The Stone Country, the depressed suburbs of In the Fog of the Seasons' End, are all rendered in this style. The style has a double signification. First, it is La Guma's Writer's Union card.14 But also, more specifically, it is a style in which a single emphatic gesture is repeated over and over; “… an old iron bed … unwashed bedding … a backless chair … a chipped ashtray … cigarette butts … burnt matches …”—everything named is named with its own gesture of repudiation. The signification of the passage is not a room and its details, but rather a room plus horror of the room. Similarly for the slums, the shanties, the cells, the suburbs. La Guma's world, so overflowing with things, is nonetheless not an objective world, for the things themselves are overflowing with the writer's subjectivity.

The same holds true for people. Four of the prison officials in The Stone Country are described in individual detail. Here are extracts from the descriptions. “His pink face was thin and hard as the edge of a pot-lid, and the eyes revealed no expression” (18). “He had … a puckered mouth that was merely a pink orifice, and little blue eyes, flat as pieces of glass” (22). “He had a plump, smooth, healthy pink face … the eyes were pale and washed-out and silvery, much like imitation pearls, and cold as quicksilver” (61). “He had a dry, brittle face like crumpled pink tissue-paper with holes torn in it for eyes” (68). Such repetition gives the guards away as not four distinct alien men but a single threatening figure. The threat is not in the figure, for the figure is threat. In the same way the slum, the shanties, the cells, the suburbs are La Guma's horror of them. Here there is no evolutionary development in La Guma. Each of his novels exposes us to a long-sustained shudder of revulsion—a revulsion that must confess in places to being merely fastidious. It is this posture of rejection, emblematized at the moment when George Adams pushes aside his prison food (56), that brings La Guma closest to the Flaubert who confessed his execration of “ordinary life.” The less interesting side of this posture is its expression of alienation from the material world. The more interesting side is a repetitiousness that becomes excessive and even obsessive, the testament of one man's horror of a degraded world.


  1. Wole Soyinka, “The Writer in the African State,” Transition, no. 31 (1967), 12.

  2. Lewis Nkosi, “Fiction by Black South Africans,” in Introduction to African Literature, ed. Ulli Beier (Evanston: Northwestern University Press, 1967), p. 211.

  3. Ibid., p. 212.

  4. Jean-Paul Sartre, What Is Literature? trans. Bernard Frechtman (London: Methuen, 1967), p. 14.

  5. The editions used in this essay are: A Walk in the Night (Evanston: Northwestern University Press, 1967); And a Threefold Cord (Berlin: Seven Seas, 1964); The Stone Country (Berlin: Seven Seas, 1967); In the Fog of the Seasons' End (London: Heinemann, 1972). La Guma published one more novel before his death in 1985: Time of the Butcherbird (London: Heinemann, 1979).

  6. Lewis Nkosi develops the same metaphor in the story “The Prisoner,” reprinted in African Writing Today, ed. Ezekiel Mphahlele (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1967). Comparing the two treatments, one can see that La Guma's allegiance belongs to an earlier literary generation than Nkosi's does.

  7. See Alain Robbe-Grillet, “Nature, Humanism, Tragedy,” in For a New Novel, trans. Richard Howard (New York: Grove Press, 1965), pp. 49-75. Robbe-Grillet's epigraph is from Roland Barthes: “Nothing is more insidious than tragedy.”

  8. “Pity is the feeling which arrests the mind in the presence of whatsoever is grave and constant in human suffering and unites it with the human sufferer. Terror is the feeling which arrests the mind in the presence of whatsoever is grave and constant in human suffering and unites it with the secret cause”; Stephen Dedalus in Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, pt. 5.

  9. The doubling of the hero complicates the structure. Each of the hero-victims acts as audience to the other, each is purged in and by the process of the other's suffering, and the reading audience is disenfranchised by having its catharsis embodied in the drama. This development is at least consistent with the nonparticipatory nature of book-reading.

  10. Georg Lukács, Studies in European Realism, trans. Edith Bone (London: Hillway, 1950), pp. 170, 171.

  11. Georg Lukács, The Meaning of Contemporary Realism, trans. John & Necke Mander (London: Merlin, 1962), pp. 34, 35.

  12. Gustave Flaubert, letter of October 2, 1856. Correspondance, ed. Jean Bruneau (Paris: Gallimard, 1980), II, 635.

  13. Sartre, What Is Literature? p. 75.

  14. Roland Barthes describes how the style of nineteenth-century French realism, with its “spectacular signs of fabrication,” came to be adopted first by the petit bourgeoisie as a favored style for their reading matter and later by socialist realist writers. See “Writing and Revolution,” in Writing Degree Zero, trans. Annette Lavers and Colin Smith (New York: Hill & Wang, 1968), pp. 67-73.


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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.

Biographical Information

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.

Major Works

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.

Critical Reception

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.

Robert Green (essay date spring 1981)

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SOURCE: Green, Robert. “A Chopin in the Ghetto: The Short Stories of Alex La Guma.” World Literature Written in English 20, no. 1 (spring 1981): 5-16.

[In the following essay, Green discusses the tension in La Guma's short stories between social determinism and humane idealism.]

A gang of burglars is planning a robbery in a pub in District Six, Cape Town. One of them, Harry, is captivated by the music coming from a nearby house, in particular by a Chopin nocturne, and he goes to listen for a while before rejoining his criminal colleagues. He is momentarily touched by Chopin, but not reformed; the music overpowers him, but ordinary life, crime as an escape from poverty and racial discrimination, soon reasserts itself.

This episode from one of the short stories of Alex La Guma, the coloured South African writer now in exile in London, illustrates the two most common themes in his stories: the brutalizing effect of apartheid and of poverty on people and places, and man's ability to survive the resulting impoverishment and indeed to erect some monument, however slight or evanescent, to his stamina. Thus in “Nocturne” the world of the pub and streets is demeaning, crippling and corrupting, yet at the same time, a young girl is there playing beautiful, dignified music. This combination of brutality and humanity might seem incompatible in some writers, but it causes no tension in La Guma's stories. The pessimist, determinist or Social Darwinist might claim that environment is all powerful, bending and fracturing the naked individual. The optimist or idealist, on the other hand, might assert that human nature is capable of rising above all onslaughts upon its integrity. As a humane socialist—he was a member of the Communist party until it was banned in 1950—La Guma provides a third account of the relations between the individual and a harsh, totalitarian world. In La Guma's stories such relations are, in effect, dialectical: the noxious power of the environment is rendered in full, unsparing detail, yet within the crevices of that cruel world love, charity, affection, and humanity still bloom. Like Bruno Bettelheim, another writer uncrushed by genocide, La Guma believes in man's power of “surviving” in the “abyss.”1 As a result of their intermingling of defeat and resistance, horrors inflicted and victories won, La Guma's stories show the dark without sensationalism, the bright without sentimentality. The convent girl playing the Chopin nocturne in the ghetto wins our credence because the bleak surroundings are so fully drawn; yet the latter's power is acknowledged when the burglar forsakes the girl's music to return to his friends in the pub.

The final effect of “Nocturne” is a delicate equilibrium between culture and crime, decency and depravity. The sordid streets are drawn briefly and economically:

Drab and haunted-looking people sat in doorways looking like scarred saints among the ruins of abandoned churches, half listening, gossiping idly, while the pinched children shot at each other with wooden guns from behind over-flowing dustbins in the dusk.2

At the same time the young girl playing her piano is an entirely believable creation. La Guma's choice of music to stand for the survival of culture within such poverty is itself of interest, for no music could perhaps be less “relevant” than a nocturne from the world of nineteenth-century European romanticism. Other voices have lately been arguing that European culture is of limited utility in Africa; La Guma's story implies that exploited people can find human sustenance in very unlikely places. There is no trace of betrayal or dilettantism in the young pianist's choosing to play European rather than South African music. Her rendering of Liszt, Tchaikowsky, Beethoven and Schubert is quite simply and unironically a monument to her ability to transcend her surroundings.

Like “A Glass of Wine” and “Out of Darkness,” “Nocturne” indicates that La Guma is not afraid of approaching sentimentality. In “Nocturne” he avoids this through the ending, in which the burglar pulls himself away from the music to rejoin his mates, and in the materialistic comment given Harry in the final sentence. Walking down the street with his associates, “he thought, sentimentally, that it would be real smart to have a goose [girl] that played the piano like that.” In one sense “sentimentally” is the right word here, for Harry's notion is unreal, impractical. Yet, paradoxically, the effect of this last sentence is in fact to jerk the whole story away from sentimentality, since the episode between Harry and the girl is now seen clearly for what it is—an intermission, a relaxation from the world of petty crime. The word “sentimentally,” then, only serves to confirm that this indeed is not the emotion generated by “Nocturne.”

This story is told by a spectator uninvolved in the action, and its only flaw is one brief, unnecessary and clumsy intervention: “It was the Nocturne No. 2, in E flat major, by Chopin, but Harry did not know that.” Perhaps we don't need to be told that a man who cannot pronounce “nocturne” would be unable to identify the piece the girl is playing. This awkward authorial intervention—found occasionally, too, in Hardy's fiction—is rare in La Guma, for one of his strengths is the displacement of himself from the text, the selfless management of the narrator's persona, the creation of an authentic voice for each story. Thus “The Gladiators” is narrated by one of a coloured boxer's “seconds,” and the language of the first few sentences establishes the persona of that tough, uneducated man:

You know mos how it feel when you waiting for your boy to go in and you don't know how he's going to come out. Well, we was feeling the same way that night. We had the bandages on and wait around for the preliminaries to make finish, smoking nervous like and looking at Kenny. He just sit on the table with his legs hanging down, waiting like us, but not nervous like, only full up to his ears with his brag. He's a good juba awright.3

The shady, sadistic world of professional boxing is authenticated by the voice of the narrator, his sporting idioms and grammatical errors.

Though this environment is perhaps almost as rough as the prison of “Out of Darkness,” the latter story is narrated by a quite different personality—an educated man, sensitive, alert to nuance and others' feelings, perhaps a political prisoner like George Adams of The Stone Country:

I could make out the dim shapeless bulge of his body curled up on the mat. He had entered the seventh year of his ten-year sentence for culpable homicide, and being shut up so long had unhinged him somewhat. He was neither staring mad nor violent. His insanity was of a gentle quality that came in spells. It was then that he would talk. Otherwise he was clamped up tight and retired, like a snail withdrawn into its shell. He was friendly enough, but it was the friendliness of a man on the other side of a peephole.4

The narrator's early description here of one of his fellow prisoners, Old Cockroach, evinces a sensitivity to feeling and environment not possessed by the earthy narrator of the boxing story. The narrator becomes curious about the older man and the story is climaxed by Old Cockroach's revelatory account of his enduring love for the worthless Cora. This story again is constructed around the contrast between the brutality of prison life and the survival of a gentle, idealistic, hopeless passion. The nameless narrator refrains from offering any kind of cynical comment on Old Cockroach's misdirected love, and his respectful, sensitive narration is further proof of man's ability to retain his decency despite all the external pressures in the prison.

Many years earlier Cora, a coloured girl light enough to pass as white, had rejected the adoring schoolmaster, who then killed a man who had criticized Cora as “a damn play-white bitch.”5 “Out of Darkness,” the title of this story, alludes to Cora's passage from the coloured to the white world. Like Morris in Athol Fugard's The Blood-Knot, Cora is fatally drawn, as a moth at night, towards the “light” of white society. The tragedy of this story, the schoolmaster's killing of Cora's critic, is generated by the tensions implicit in a racially divided country, for Cora's rejection of her lover had been motivated solely by the higher social and economic status attached to membership of white society. Many of La Guma's stories are similarly built around the human losses that attend apartheid, for, although this word is nowhere mentioned in his fiction, racial segregation is its keystone, determining all human responses in patterns of limitation, restriction, impoverishment and frustration. Man's separation from man on grounds of pigmentation alone is as central to La Guma's fictional world as is, say, the class stratification in Jane Austen. Furthermore, if apartheid determines human behaviour in these stories, it is also a shaping, controlling force on their form. In “A Glass of Wine,” for instance, a white boy is in love with a coloured shebeen-girl, their relationship virginal and innocent despite its sordid setting. An intoxicated customer teases the two lovers about their approaching wedding, too drunk or too insensitive to perceive the impossibility of the white boy's marrying the coloured girl. The story ends abruptly, as their love must, the conclusion reflecting the inability of the young lovers to marry and raise a family “across the colour bar.” The story cannot proceed because the lovers' relationship, too, is terminal. The fondness of black South African writers for the short-story form has been linked with the physical pressures on the writer himself, but the form of “A Glass of Wine” suggests that there is also a powerful analogy between the ellipses and discontinuities of the short-story form and the disruptions imposed by apartheid. “A Glass of Wine” must be a short story because the story of the two young people can only, in the context of the Immorality Act, be short.

There is a powerful impression of inevitability, too, in “Coffee for the Road,” in which an Indian woman, rich and sophisticated, strikes a crude white cafe owner before continuing with her car journey towards Cape Town. Under the petty restrictions of apartheid, the woman is unable to stop for rest or refreshment; tired and harassed by her children, she loses patience with the cafe owner's refusal to refill her thermos. At the inevitable road-block which awaits them the Indian driver and her children are turned back and escorted for trial. Again, as in “A Glass of Wine,” the story cannot continue past the police check. La Guma is careful to generate no trace of suspense in the remaining few paragraphs, the decelerating rhythm of the story being powerfully suggestive of the inevitability of arrest.

Similarly, several other stories deal with aspects of apartheid's effect on private life in South Africa. In “Slipper Satin” Myra, a coloured girl, has just been released from a jail sentence under the Immorality Act. Her white lover had committed suicide upon their discovery by the police. (This story indicates the potentially tragic outcome of the situation sketched in “A Glass of Wine.”) Her home and neighbourhood appear unchanged but Myra herself has altered, having become harder, tougher, coarser as a result of her stay in prison:

The bitterness inside her [was] like a new part of her being. She had finished with crying, and crying had left the bitterness behind her like the layer of salt found in a pan after the water had evaporated.6

The female neighbours and Myra's own mother, accepting the definitions implied by racist laws, call the girl, whose only crime has been to love the wrong man, a “whore.” Myra's sister requires eight guineas for a new wedding dress, and Myra promises to raise this money through, it is implied, prostitution. “Slipper Satin,” then, shows how a person's whole personality can be changed by the experience of arrest and imprisonment. In this story the environment has succeeded in shaping an individual into a quite new mould. The effect of the Immorality Act has been to transform a decent girl into a potential whore. The irony of this transformation is both mordant and implicit.

Racism is equally deforming in “The Gladiators,” in which the coloured boxer, Kenny, who was “sorry he wasn't white and glad he wasn't black,” is so contemptuous of his black opponent that in a few moments of overconfidence he allows himself to lose the fight.7 Once more an individual's racist perceptions, his acceptance of the state's stratification of value by colour, pervert his natural reactions. La Guma is indeed honest enough to accept that some coloured people effectively support the very system that decrees their inferiority. The attractions of whiteness are too strong for Kenny here, as for Cora in “Out of Darkness.” The final irony is that the crowd at the boxing hall don't care who wins, black or coloured, so long as they see blood spilled.

“A Matter of Taste” is a metaphor about freedom in South Africa. A white man, assisted by a couple of coloured railway workers, jumps a goods train bound for Cape Town, where he hopes to secure his passage to the United States. The white, though dirty and ragged, is able to leave South Africa; the two coloureds are left behind on the embankment. Earlier, discussing the kind of food they liked, the white had claimed this was all “a matter of taste,” to which one of the coloured men replied that what one ate was rather “a matter of money.”8 The story's dénouement, the white's departure into the night, only confirms the coloured's view that human behaviour is limited by economic pressures. The two coloured workers don't choose to remain as labourers in South Africa; their poverty imposes this life upon them, and this limitation is, in its turn, the consequence of racist laws about employment, education and trade unionism in South Africa. In this story, as in all La Guma's fiction, the balance between racio-economic determinism and individual resistance, between victimization and survival, has swung away from the individual's power of assertion. The long powerful goods train to which the white leaps seems to embody the monstrous juggernaut of apartheid, thundering through the night, hospitable to the white's ambition but deaf to any black aspirations.

“At The Portagee's,” a slighter story, makes a similarly deterministic point: two boys able to afford to buy soft drinks and feed the jukebox can stay in the restaurant as long as they wish; a poor man who merely wants sixpennyworth of fish is kicked out of the cafe. The violence meted out here to a man whose only crime is poverty is indeed endemic to most of La Guma's fiction. Key scenes in his novels—the human bonfire at the end of And A Threefold Cord, the internecine brutality of The Stone Country, the torturing of Elias, the political prisoner of In The Fog of the Seasons' End—describe murder and physical confrontation. However there is no evidence that such scenes are included by La Guma from base, sensationalist motives; no savouring, such as is evident in Western pulp fiction or in lesser Kenyan novelists, Mangua and Ruheni for instance, of violence for its own sake. The sobriety of La Guma's fiction attests, rather, to the fearful ordinariness of brutality in South Africa, whether that licensed by the state or the kind that erupts spontaneously from frustration and impotence.

“The Lemon Orchard” is a good illustration of La Guma's partiality towards the understatement of the harsh and the atrocious. Here a vigilante group of rich Afrikaner farmers is frog-marching a coloured school teacher to an isolated location in order to sjambok him for his “impudence” to two pillars of the white community. The racist contempt of the farmers for the educated coloured man is well conveyed, but the story stops short of the beating itself, ending when the group reaches the rural “amphitheatre” selected for the assault. La Guma chooses not to describe the lacerating blows of the sjambok or the psychological humiliation borne by the cultured, sensitive teacher. Instead, he emphasizes the beauties of the landscape, the bracing winter air and the perfume of the lemon bushes. “The Lemon Orchard” is the only evocation in La Guma's fiction of a rural setting:

They had come into a wide gap in the orchard, a small amphitheatre surrounded by fragrant growth, and they all stopped within it. The moonlight clung for a while to the leaves and the angled branches, so that along their tips and edges the moisture gleamed with the quivering shine of scattered quicksilver.9

This, the final paragraph, illustrates the basic dislocation within the story, and indeed within South Africa itself: the contrast between a magnificent physical environment and the bestiality of the inhabitants.

Shortly before this paragraph La Guma had accorded the night an immense organic presence:

The blackness of the night crouched over the orchard and the leaves rustled with a harsh whispering that was inconsistent with the pleasant scent of the lemon.10

The crouching night, like a leopard about to spring, may evoke the celebrated passage in Book I of The Prelude (1805/1806), where Wordsworth recalls the awesome physical presence of Black Crag, a peak overlooking Ullswater, and its effect on the young rower. The lemon orchard has something of the magisterial power of Wordsworth's lakeland landscape, but La Guma uses this not as a romantic embodiment of the power of nature, but as an implicit commentary upon the tawdriness of the human beings who besmirch the grove. The criticism of Afrikaner racism is thus implicit, the irony achieved by the disjunction felt between the romantic imagery and the human squalor.

A similar implicit, understated irony is at work in another story, “Blankets.” Here Choker has been wounded in a fight and is being transported to hospital in a non-white ambulance. He is unconscious but the “thick and new and warm” ambulance blanket evokes in him images of earlier scenes in his life—his first day in prison, childhood with his elder brother, married life with his wife. All these brief memories merge imperceptibly into each other, but are linked by the sensuous impression of the blanket that is a part of each image. The ambulance blanket—Choker's last, since the story implies that he is mortally wounded—is, ironically, the cleanest and warmest, for all the earlier blankets, in childhood, prison and at home, had been dirty and thin. Such is the degradation of Choker's life that even the facilities provided in the segregated ambulance are superior to those experienced before. In its manipulation of the chronology of Choker's memory and its mordant, buried irony “Blankets” is one of the most effective of La Guma's stories.

Most of these stories are spare, just a few pages long, their brevity contributing to their power. The writer himself never enters into the stories to inveigh directly against apartheid. Instead he allows his invented characters and episodes in the bars, prisons and homes of South Africa to speak for him. “A Walk in the Night,” the longest story in the volume of that title, is unique as La Guma's only attempt at the novella. A fiction that is, in a sense, an amalgam of the short story and the more leisurely novel, “A Walk in the Night” raises certain problems of interpretation. The short stories, on the one hand, are not difficult to read, for their form permits La Guma, if he wishes, to leave an ending open—as, for example, in “Tattoo Marks and Nails,” in which the identity of Ahmed's tattoo remains unresolved, or in “Blankets,” where the point of the story is unaffected by the reader's ignorance of whether Choker lives or dies. La Guma's three novels, on the other hand, arouse quite different expectations: that the fiction will embrace some kind of resolution and completeness, tying up all the loose ends and clarifying relationships established across the spokes of the text. Hence in The Fog [In The Fog of the Seasons' End] the development of the narrative finally links the two characters, Elias and Beukes, who at the outset had appeared disconnected. “A Walk in the Night” is more difficult to read than either the stories or the novels, because it doesn't quite satisfy either of the reader's two expectations—for brevity and the episodic, or for amplitude and coherence. It is worth examining this in more detail, for the problem of how it is to be read is central to the achieved meaning of “A Walk in the Night.”

At the beginning “A Walk” implies that Michael Adonis is its hero, situated in the same dominant place in the text as Adams in The Stone Country or Beukes in The Fog. The novella's first five sections—there are nineteen altogether—narrate the movements of Adonis soon after he has been dismissed from a sheet-metal factory for cheek to the white foreman. His “feeling of rage, frustration and violence, swelled like a boil, knotted with pain,” is powerfully conveyed and the reader's initial expectation is that the novella will attend to the development of this emotion until it is finally released at the end.11 The three criminals Adonis meets in the restaurant (section 1) are looking out for someone to make up a foursome in that night's robbery, and La Guma invites the reader to believe that the novella may well be concerned with this crime as its dénouement, as a catharsis for Adonis' legitimate anger and as the fiction's point of conclusion. Adonis' accidental killing of Doughty, the alcoholic Irish actor (section 4) provides, apparently, a digression to what the reader assumes at this point will be the central narrative line, the relationship between Adonis and the three burglars. These early sections, then, suggest that “A Walk in the Night” will tell a story of which Adonis will be the hero. The epigraph, from Hamlet, confirms such an expectation, linking, as it does, Adonis with the Ghost and hinting that the “foul crimes,” his unjust dismissal from the factory, will be “burnt and purged away.” The Hamlet quotation, so prominently displayed at the beginning of the text, implies that La Guma's story, too, will be an individual tragedy.

The progress of the narrative, though, frustrates this expectation, for it turns out that “A Walk in the Night” is more concerned with Denmark than with Hamlet; that the story is focussed on the community of District Six—itinerant white policemen, stranded white flotsam, struggling coloureds, streets, shops and apartments—than on any single individual. From section 6 onwards the primacy of Adonis in the story withers and the text becomes less and less centripetal, seemingly fragmented into a series of unrelated cameos, a group of embryonic short stories bereft of the centralizing narrative thrust of a novel. The formal principles of its construction seem less and less obvious as the novella proceeds.

This fragmentation of the narrative begins in section 6, with the sudden shift from Adonis to the white policemen cruising around District Six in their patrol car. Of the following twelve sections (7 to 18), five are narrated from Willieboy's point of view, one through Franky Lorenzo, three more through the white policemen, and only three (10, 13 and 15) from Adonis' point of view. The latter, the assumed hero of the first five sections, has been relegated to the status of simply being another stone in the mosaic, one of the many characters of all races whose lives momentarily touch one evening in Cape Town's District Six. By the end of “A Walk in the Night” the reader sees that the novella is about a community, the people of one particular place, more than about any single individual. This is confirmed in the final phase, section 19, which tersely summarizes the activities of the various characters after the death of Willieboy, shot for a murder he has not committed. Adonis, it is true, appears briefly in this section, when he and the gangsters set off for the break-in, but our earlier anticipation that La Guma will indicate the outcome of the robbery remains unsatisfied.

Most of La Guma's short stories are driven, as we have seen, by the narrative impulse to tell a story. Most end at a point different from where they begin yet anticipated at the outset. “A Matter of Taste,” for example, is bounded at the beginning by the white joining the two coloured plate layers and at the end by the former's departure as he jumps the goods train. The shape of this story, with its introduction, development and conclusion, satisfies conventional expectations for a short story. “A Walk in the Night,” though, is patterned quite differently, not lineally but spatially, as the story itself seems to move through the streets and bars of District Six, stopping to create characters who have no role to play in the plot—the cab-driver of section 3 who tells a story of a local crime passionnel before disappearing from the novella, or young Joe, “a wreck of a youth,” the beachcomber whose appearances in the story seem quite as random, as undirected as his own profession.

Randomness, the good (or, more usually, bad) fortune that brings together isolated lives and then quickly spins them apart, is really the subject of “A Walk in the Night.” The story's only, and slight, narrative thread is a collection of accidents and mistaken identities: Adonis accidentally murders an Irishman, Willieboy is mistaken for the murderer and then shot by a white policeman in irrelevant revenge on his troublesome wife. The fortuitous, the random and the contingent lie at the heart of the novella's content just as these same qualities define the tale's form, its circularity and jerkiness. La Guma, though, does not suggest that these mishaps result from the working of any supernatural or metaphysical force: there is no malignant extraterrestrial destiny at the back of “A Walk in the Night,” no President of the Immortals to sport with Adonis or Willieboy in the manner of Hardy's Tess.

Instead La Guma's story suggests that life's randomness directly results from the urban environment. The first few paragraphs of “A Walk” evoke the impersonal, anonymous feeling of the streets of Cape Town as Adonis alights from the train which has brought him in from his suburban factory:

The young man dropped from the trackless tram just before it stopped at Castle Bridge. He dropped off, ignoring the stream of late-afternoon traffic rolling in from the suburbs, bobbed and ducked the cars and buses, the big, rumbling delivery trucks, deaf to the shouts and curses of the drivers, and reached the pavement.

Standing there, near the green railings around the public convenience, he lighted a cigarette, jostled by the lines of workers going home, the first trickle of a stream that would soon be flowing towards Hanover Street. He looked right through them, refusing to see them, nursing a little growth of anger the way one caresses the beginnings of a toothache with the tip of the tongue.

Around him the buzz and hum of voices and the growl of traffic blended into one solid mutter of sound which he only half-heard, his thoughts concentrated upon the pustule of rage and humiliation that was continuing to ripen deep down within him.12

These early sentences feel more like New York of Saul Bellow or the London of Angus Wilson than any African environment. Or, to recall an earlier parallel, they aim at evoking an impression similar to the celebrated descriptions of London in Book VII of The Prelude. Part of the “great city” yet also alienated from it, Wordsworth there recorded how often amid the unnumbered throng had he said “Unto myself, ‘The face of every one / That passes by me is a mystery.’”13 These two lines might have stood alongside the Hamlet quotation as an epigraph to “A Walk in the Night,” which, in both content and form, establishes the vast, un-African, antlike quality of life in one of Africa's larger cities.

La Guma's Cape Town reads as if it were an American or European city, save in one notable respect. Although Wordsworth, in The Prelude, is as hard pressed to find verbal forms for the outlandishness of London as Dickens in Bleak House, a turbulent energy pulses through the London of Dickens or Wordsworth as through the Western cities of much twentieth-century literature. In “A Walk” La Guma's environment, oddly, mixes anonymity with the regimented inertia of people under a totalitarian regime. Cape Town is a Western city without the driving energy. Individuality, ambition, hope, optimism have all been throttled in La Guma's city. Here everyone, irrespective of race, is a victim: even the white policeman is the harried, frustrated victim of his own wife. La Guma's poor come in many shapes, sizes and colours, their defeated status defined by class, not race alone. In these circumstances the rolling of a joint, a dagga cigarette, is described in minute detail (p. 76), because it is only through such private, ritual acts that the external world may briefly be stilled.

“A Walk in the Night” is La Guma's fullest, harshest picture of the miseries of urban life, the grim marriage of urban impersonality with totalitarian repression, for the poor in South Africa. As such it is rightly placed at the head of his volume of short stories for it does establish the context in which the lives of urban blacks are played out. But the rest of his stories hint that perhaps “A Walk in the Night” wasn't intended to portray the whole truth. The Hamlet epigraph suggests that all the novella's characters inhabit some bleak limbo, condemned to “walk the night” until apartheid has been “burnt and purged away,” yet several of the short stories testify to the survival of human dignity despite hideous external pressures. Notable here are the insouciance of Ahmed in “Tattoo Marks and Nails,” the brave dignity of the schoolmaster in “The Lemon Orchard,” the tender affection of the lovers in “A Glass of Wine,” or the delicacy of the pianist of “Nocturne.” La Guma's shorter fiction generates an admiring respect for his survivors, and a feeling of helpless despair for his victims. Perhaps it is no surprise that this mixture also characterized one of the classic Victorian statements about urban and race victimization—Engels' Conditions of the Working Class in England, 1844.


  1. Bruno Bettelheim, Surviving and Other Essays (New York: Alfred Knopf, 1979).

  2. “Nocturne,” in Quartet: New Voices from South Africa, ed. Richard Rive (London: Heinemann, 1965), p. 113.

  3. “The Gladiators,” in A Walk in the Night and Other Stories” (London: Heinemann, 1974), p. 114.

  4. “Out of Darkness,” in Quartet, p. 33.

  5. “Out of Darkness,” p. 38.

  6. “Slipper Satin,” in Quartet, p. 68.

  7. “The Gladiators,” p. 114.

  8. “A Matter of Taste,” in A Walk in the Night, p. 128.

  9. “The Lemon Orchard,” in A Walk in the Night, p. 136.

  10. “The Lemon Orchard,” p. 135.

  11. “A Walk in the Night,” in A Walk in the Night, p. 12.

  12. “A Walk in the Night,” p. 1.

  13. William Wordsworth, The Prelude, ed. J.C. Maxwell (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1975), Book VII, 11. 628-29 (1805 version).

Principal Works

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Little Libby: The Adventures of Liberation Chabalala (cartoon) 1959; published in journal New Age

A Walk in the Night (novella) 1962; revised as A Walk in the Night and Other Stories (novella and short stories) 1967

And a Threefold Cord (novel) 1964

The Stone Country (novel) 1967

Apartheid: A Collection of Writings on South African Racism by South Africans [editor] (essays) 1971

In the Fog of the Seasons' End (novel) 1972

A Soviet Journey (travel essay) 1978

Time of the Butcherbird (novel) 1979

Memories of Home: The Writings of Alex La Guma (short stories and memoirs) 1991

Jimmy La Guma: A Biography (biography) 1997

Abdul R. JanMohamed (essay date fall-winter 1982-83)

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SOURCE: JanMohamed, Abdul R. “Alex La Guma: The Literary and Political Functions of Marginality in the Colonial Situation.” Boundary 2 11, nos. 1-2 (fall-winter 1982-83): 271-90.

[In the following essay, JanMohamed examines the ways in which La Guma's fiction reflects the socioeconomic and spiritual effects of colonialism on native peoples.]

The life and fiction of Alex La Guma perfectly illustrate the predicament of non-whites in South Africa and the effects of apartheid on them. His formative years were spent in a society that is still colonial and characterizes the black man as the incarnation of evil and the continent as the “heart of darkness.” Fanon's description of such a society has still not been superseded:

The colonial world is a Manichean world. It is not enough for the settler to delimit physically, that is to say with help of the army and the police force, the place of the native. As if to show the totalitarian character of colonial exploitation the settler paints the native as a sort of quintessence of evil. … The native is declared insensible to ethics; he represents not only the absence of values, but also the negation of values. He is, let us dare admit it, the enemy of values, and in this sense he is the absolute evil.1

The absolute negation of the very being of colonized people breeds a counter negation: “on the logical plane, the Manicheism of the settler produces a Manicheism of the native. To the theory of the ‘absolute evil of the native’ the theory of the ‘absolute evil of the settler’ replies.”2 This manichean organization of colonial society has reached its apogee in the “Republic” of South Africa, where the perpetuation and elaboration of “apartheid,” the policy of racial segregation and exploitation, has become the major concern of government and where the abusive term for the African, “kaffir” (infidel), implies a profound, metaphysical otherness. Given D. T. Moodie's convincing demonstration that the theological roots of apartheid ideology lie in Calvinistic notions of predestination, original sin, and in its highly polarized views of salvation and damnation,3 Fanon's characterization of colonial society as a manichean organization is by no means exaggerated. In fact, the colonial mentality is dominated by a manichean allegory of white and black, good and evil, salvation and damnation, civilization and savagery, superiority and inferiority, intelligence and emotion, and self and other. It is a society replete with profound contradictions and antagonisms.

La Guma's reaction to this society, his participation in anti-apartheid politics, and his subsequent imprisonment and exile provide him with a first-hand knowledge of the aspirations, frustrations, and deprivations of the disfranchised and enslaved segment of the South African population. Due to the racial basis of all South African social organization, his political and social experience can be viewed as generic to the extent that all non-whites are treated as interchangeable objects by the Afrikaner regime. Thus La Guma is able to articulate this generic experience of the disfranchised South African in two ways. The substance of his novels depicts the poverty, squalor, arbitrary justice, imprisonment, and political oppression of the blacks and “coloured” (i.e. racially mixed people) as well as their attempt to fight apartheid, while the structure and style of his writing reflect the spiritual attenuation of life that results from socio-political disfranchisement.

Born in Cape Town in 1925, Alex La Guma has been surrounded and formed by the acrimonious, antagonistic political atmosphere of the South African society.4 He became aware of politics not through literature but through the fact of his political exclusion on racial grounds and through a radical family tradition. Jimmy La Guma, Alex's father, was a noted leader of the non-white struggle against apartheid and a member of the central committee of the South African Communist Party. His entire life was dedicated to the formation of various trade unions and political organizations that attempted to overcome white supremacy. Alex himself joined the Communist Party when he was quite young and became a member of its Cape Town District Committee until it was banned in 1950. Thereafter, he participated in the preparations for the Congress of the People, a non-racial political convention held in Johannesburg in 1955, which drew up the freedom charter, but for his dedication to democratic rights, he was arrested, along with 155 other men and women, and charged with attempting a violent overthrow of the government. The ensuing Treason Trials lasted five years before the defendants were acquitted and allowed to return to their normal lives. However, even before the trial was over the government arrested 20,000 people of various races throughout South Africa during the state of emergency that followed the Sharpeville and Langa massacre of those protesting against the Pass system. La Guma, who was jailed along with the others during the emergency, was once again arrested in 1961 for planning a strike to protest the inauguration of the Verwoerd Republic.

The government responded to Alex La Guma's increasing prominence in anti-apartheid politics by systematically harassing and isolating him. To counter the growing violence against apartheid, the government passed the Sabotage Act which permitted the Minister of Justice to place anyone under house arrest by a simple decree. Among the first casualties of this Act, La Guma was confined from December 1962 onwards to his own house for twenty-four hours a day for five years. The Sabotage Act also allowed the government to isolate him further by prohibiting the reproduction of his statements in any form. Following the passage of the thirty-day no-trial act, La Guma was taken from house arrest and put into solitary confinement but eventually released. Thereafter, he continued to live in isolation in South Africa until he managed to escape to London in September 1966, where he has lived since.

La Guma's writing career began in 1956 when he joined the staff of a progressive newspaper, New Age, for which he wrote striking vignettes about life in Cape Town. However, when he was forced to abandon journalism in 1962 because shortage of funds forced the newspaper to reduce drastically its staff, La Guma became completely isolated from his community; his house-arrest precluded any reemployment and participation in the social and political life of his country, and because he was a banned person, all his novels were published outside South Africa. A Walk In the Night (1962) was published in Nigeria, And a Threefold Cord (1964) and The Stone Country (1967) in Berlin, In the Fog of the Seasons' End (1973) in New York, and Time of the Butcherbird (1979) in London.5

His novels graphically depict various facets of South Africa's disfranchised population: his first novel draws a portrait of the precarious and alienated life in the slums of Cape Town; his second records the dignified attempt of shanty-town dwellers to survive amidst hunger, apartheid, and the winter; The Stone Country depicts life in a South African jail; his fourth and best novel, upon which this paper will focus, describes a few days in the life of a man working in the political underground; and the latest novel depicts the poverty to which rural black South Africans are consigned and their powerful desire to seek revenge for their oppression. In spite of their diversity, all these novels have one fundamental factor in common: the marginality of life for the non-white in South Africa. Although not all his novels take up the theme of marginality, they inevitably end up commenting on and indirectly depicting the material, social, political, and spiritual poverty to which apartheid relegates the darker, “inferior” people. Thus La Guma's novels constitute a transformed, fictive version of his own marginality, which initially consists in his social and political disfranchisement and then is followed by his enforced internal isolation and later “voluntary” external exile. His personal experience of exclusion from a full and free life is only a more dramatic version of the generic exclusion experienced by all non-white South Africans. His novels, then, represent the effects of the manichean bifurcation imposed by apartheid.

The predicament of non-white South Africans manifests itself in La Guma's fiction primarily and most forcefully in the dialectic opposition between his assumption that each individual has the right to live a decent life and his depiction of the actual deprivation of that right. The first term of the dialectic is usually tacit, whereas the elaboration of the second term constitutes the bulk of La Guma's fiction. The individual's right to self-fulfillment—the right to elect his own government, to live where he wants, to receive adequate compensation for his labor, to shape his children's education, to marry whomever he wishes, etc.—is not generally articulated in the novels because La Guma, assuming its universal theoretical acceptance, chooses to focus on its absence by describing in detail the abject deprivation of the black people's lives. The absence of the first term and the ineluctable presence of the second in La Guma's novels also accurately reflect the actual conditions in South Africa: the vast majority of non-whites in that country, though perfectly aware of their disfranchisement and their aspiration, are not in the habit of articulating the demand for their rights. Only when a character is actively and systematically engaged in pursuing his rights, as In The Fog of the Seasons' End, does the author allow him to elaborate the first term of the dialectic.

The second major condition of South African life that underlies all of La Guma's fiction is the nature of the non-white individual's racial experience. While each black, “coloured,” or Indian person in South Africa is intuitively aware of himself as a unique being, the white society that controls him recognizes and treats him only as a generic being, as a “kaffir,” as an interchangeable unit of a homogeneous group, and, in moments of extreme hostility and deliberate rejection, as a “thing.” Thus his experience of self as an individual is constantly accompanied and negated by experience of self as a generic being who, in spite of his individual qualities, is inevitably condemned to poverty, pseudo-humanity, and an absence of dignity and pride. His life is constantly characterized by a sense of oppression and inferiority because even if he does not believe himself to be deficient he is politically and socially unable to reject the inferiority that is imposed on him. This feeling is also accompanied by a pervasive sense of guilt caused by his enforced acceptance of a subjugated status and by his awareness that from the white viewpoint he is guilty of various crimes and attributes simply because of his race. Thus in a practical sense the South African non-white, like the Indian untouchable, experiences his generic condemnation as a hereditary quasi-ontological fact.

The opposition and tension between the experience of self as a significant individual and as an insignificant unit of a condemned caste as well as the dialectical opposition between the assumption of self-fulfillment and the actual deprivation lead to a profound alienation of the individual that La Guma's fiction tries to remedy by defining various communities within which his characters can find an optimal and fecund balance between personal freedom and communal obligations. The societies that he creates range from those that are held together by arbitrary circumstances to those that are shaped by the pursuit of definite political goals, but in comparison to normal communities the ones in La Guma's fiction remain politically, socially, economically, emotionally, and legally marginal. Furthermore, the life of each person in these societies is rendered even more precarious by internal conflicts and contradictions between individual freedom and communal demands and between the sacrifice of viable but limited present communities for those of the political underground or the potentially more comprehensive ones of the future. La Guma's fiction explores these experiences of deprivation, alienation, and marginality, and its major imperative is the search for viable communities that do not exploit their constituents.

La Guma's style is also a product of these social tensions and contradictions. His novels verge on naturalism: often his heroes are entirely at the mercy of an authoritarian society and an oppressive environment. The politically unaware characters of his early novels are condemned to suffer the fate of people without initiative or resources, whereas his later heroes, involved in organizations attempting to overthrow apartheid, seem capable of changing their environment. However, whether the protagonists are victims or rebels, La Guma makes their experiences available to us through a careful and detailed description of the specific and concrete immediacy; rarely does he discuss poverty or lack of freedom in abstract terms, nor does he spend much time in articulating the consciousness of his characters. He confines himself to placid and factual descriptions of concrete human behavior and the material surface of society. Yet these calm descriptions are deceptive since the concrete objectivity masks a powerful and explosive hostility of the characters as well as of the narrators. This aspect of La Guma's style is best illustrated by an example from A Walk in the Night, his most violent novel.

Michael Adonis, the protagonist of the novel, has just been stopped for no particular reason by two white policemen who proceed to search him. In spite of his anger and humiliation, Michael knows that instead of looking into their eyes, which would be construed as a challenge to their authority, he should focus his attention on “some other spot on their uniforms.” This realization is immediately followed by a detailed, qualified description of one of the policemen's hands:

The backs of his hands where they dropped over the leather of the belt were broad and white, and the outlines of the veins were pale blue under the skin, the skin covered with a field of tiny, slanting ginger-colored hair. His fingers were thick and the knuckles big and creased and pink, the nails shiny and healthy and carefully kept.

(AWTN [A Walk in the Night], pp. 10-11)

Just as Michael avoids the recognition of his humiliation and represses and controls his rage by focusing on the minute details of the policeman's exterior, so the quasi-naturalistic style of La Guma masks the seething rage and frustration of the non-white experience in South Africa. The strategy that Michael uses to repress the emotions involved in the confrontation with the police is also employed by the narrator to avoid the elaboration of Michael's emotions. Just after Michael has been fired from his job, the narrator describes him as follows:

Around him the buzz and hum of voices and the growl of traffic blended into one solid mutter of sound which he only half-heard, his thoughts concentrated upon the pustule of rage and humiliation that was continuing to ripen deep down within him.

The young man wore jeans that had been washed several times …

(AWTN, p. 1)

The mention of rage is followed by a minute description of Michael's jeans and clothing. Thus the concrete and detailed surface of the novels is a deliberate mode of controlling the feelings of the characters and the narrators: rage and violence are violently suppressed by the calm, naturalistic objectivity of the prose.

Although the tension between the experience of self as a unique individual, a subject, and as a member of a caste, a generic object, pervades all of La Guma's fiction, his first two novels clearly focus on the latter experience. In fact, what he depicts here is a political form of seriality deliberately imposed on and internalized by the non-whites. (Put simply, the members of a “series” are human individuals who are forced to possess an inorganic character and to join one another only in their status of individuals-as-objects.)6A Walk in the Night represents such seriality in the interchangeability of individuals, in the easy transference of emotions, in the repeated transformation of victim into oppressor, and in the utter lack of political initiative among the residents of the slum. These people suffer a collective impotence due to the systematic suppression, negation, and destruction of their being by the apartheid regime. The underlying sense of fatality manifests itself in the ironic plot that relies entirely on coincidence and chance for its development: the degree of its arbitrariness almost negates the very idea of plot. Superficially, it demonstrates the characters' inability to control their lives and shape their destinies. However, a more subtle though still arbitrary causality underlies the circumstantiality: the characters are linked by the transference of hate and violence, which is facilitated by the individual's acceptance of himself as a generic being. The initial murder and series of assaults, which are sudden transferences of hostility down a hierarchy of powerlessness, culminate in a suspenseful and tense depiction of a deliberate, brutal, and callous murder of an innocent victim by an Afrikaner policeman. By presenting the latter victim as a scapegoat whose murder purges the violence of that evening and by showing him as the final recipient of diachronic as well as synchronic transferences, La Guma stresses the helplessness and insignificance of the individual-as-an-object.

La Guma opposes and balances the resultant despair with the desire to belong to a viable community which will recognize a black man's individuality and treat him as a complete rather than marginal being, as a subject rather than an object. A Walk in the Night simultaneously depicts the need for and the absence of such a community: the characters are only subconsciously aware of their need for such a society, whereas the novel itself only provides unworkable alternatives. Michael unhesitatingly rejects the first possibility, a genuine moral Christian fraternity, because it is too saintly and self-abnegating in the violent and unjust world of the novel. The second alternative, a gang of thieves, which is a community to the extent that it defines mutual responsibilities and dependencies among its members, is presented by La Guma not as a choice but rather as a fate for the hero.

La Guma thus forces his hero to choose between two incompatible communities. The white, economically productive, and “legitimate” society, from which the hero has just been ejected for insubordination, is diametrically opposed to the black, parasitic, and illegitimate underworld of the gang. Either the hero can belong to the former by accepting his subservient, enslaved status, or he can share the general quasi-ontological guilt of his caste by actually becoming a criminal. Thus to the deprivation and degradation that apartheid imposes on non-whites La Guma only replies in kind: to arbitrary persecution the characters respond with equally arbitrary and emotional violence; to apartheid's exclusionist legal and economic policies they can only reply with crime and theft. La Guma does not allow his characters or narrator to transcend the terms defined by apartheid. Thus the plot as well as the emotional, conceptual, and political structures of the novel are metonymic: all relations and developments are based on contiguity. The plot proceeds through coincidence, and the generic nature of race relations allows one individual to be substituted for another without any significant alteration in the original intention or function of an act or event.

The “naturalism” of this novel, then, is a logical extension of its acceptance and representation of seriality as the major experience of life. As we saw earlier, La Guma uses the description of external surface in order to repress the seething, angry reaction against apartheid. Yet the emotions are all reactive: none of La Guma's characters evidence a coherent project in life; they are constantly at the mercy of events. Similarly, none of the alternative solutions offered by the novel have any originality: they have all been predefined by the manichean allegory. La Guma's reliance on description, rather than narration, on contiguity, rather than causality or desire, as principles of novelistic organization, and on emotional and cognitive categories prearranged by the manichean bifurcation indicate that the external world is felt to be alienated from human activity—society is viewed as a static, if oppressive, thing-in-itself. Human will and initiative have been crushed. Naturalism is here the product of a radical shrinking of human potentiality.

La Guma's next novel, And a Threefold Cord, where the human will begins to emerge in a rudimentary form, clarifies this characteristic of his naturalism. The plot of this novel is virtually nonexistent: it simply consists of Charlie Pauls's constant attempts to repair his family's house in a dilapidated shantytown while various disasters befall his friends and family members. In the process of this “activity” he begins to perceive the need for unity in the face of apartheid. Judged purely by this plot, the novel is a weak and paltry affair. However, it is saved from such a fate by the excellence of its descriptive passages which are clearly more important than the narrative. The novel is best appreciated as a prose painting: La Guma's brilliant and deliberate, at times precise, at times evocative and almost fond descriptions of the atmosphere, the shantytown, the Pauls's house, and the constant rain, which menacingly brackets the lives of people, better depict the oppressive conditions of existence than do the actions of the characters. And A Threefold Cord thus divides itself into two unequal segments. On the one hand, we have the excellent descriptions of the physical environment, the impoverished conditions, and the stoicism and dignity of the characters; on the other hand, we have the simplicity and poverty of the theme which is essentially expressed as a slogan—“we should unite” or simply “unite.” These differences are reducible to an unusual opposition and tension between the richness and precision of the indicative segment (or mood) of the story—the description of physical environment and human dignity—and the vagueness and simplicity of the imperative segment (or mood) which has neither an articulated subject nor a well-defined complement or object—it exists simply as an exclamation, as a vague but urgent desire. However, the desire cannot be mediated by human activity because apartheid policies completely deprive the people of any control over their lives. Thus in his relation to the socio-historical and natural environment man exists as a spectator in this novel. And it is this attitude of the alienated, impotent spectator that defines the essence of La Guma's naturalism. The style as well as the socio-political and ontological stance represented by this novel are in turn reflections of, or certainly influenced by, an actual and specific historical moment: La Guma wrote this novel while he was confined under constant house-arrest, which indubitably made him feel impotent and rendered his past and future quite uncertain and indefinite.

However, La Guma's succeeding novels define in clearer and sharper manner the nature of the political imperative for non-white South Africans imprisoned by apartheid. His next novel, The Stone Country, an allegory set in a prison, examines how quite minor demands for political rights made by one prisoner affect the rest. By deliberately choosing as his political “agitator” a mild-mannered, non-intellectual man who gradually transforms the prisoners by treating them as dignified subjects of their own life and world and who demands similar respect for himself from the guards, La Guma shows how the demands for equality, for respect and responsibility for oneself and others, and the desire for vengeance can coalesce to overthrow apartheid and to form a viable alternative community. Yet he does not allow himself to romanticize these changes into a utopian view of revolution. Rather, through reversals in the rebellion, he implies that neither can one overturn apartheid's entrenchment in violence nor can a new enduring community be established by sudden and dramatic changes: freedom from apartheid can only be achieved by steady, incremental efforts of the whole community. After being placed in solitary confinement for insubordination, the hero is returned at the end of the novel to the main part of the prison, where presumably he will start agitating again. The novel thus implies an open-ended struggle.

For La Guma, freedom seems to depend on the recognition of political and communal necessity. Since the prison represents the absence of liberty, the imperative and indicative aspects of this novel are inextricably intertwined. A description of the prison, a definition of the restriction it imposes on the inmates, is a necessary first condition for a description of the prisoners' goals and their struggle against bondage. The imperative to regain control over one's destiny is the obverse side of the necessity for describing and defining the oppressive conditions of society. Imprisonment and rebellion, deprivation and the struggle for a decent life, are in perfect opposition in this novel: each one can be defined only in terms of its antithesis. The dialectical tension between oppression and the desire for freedom as well as the coalescence of the indicative and imperative aspects of this novel, which together define the basis of its excellence, are accompanied by another major change. The life of George Adams, the “agitator,” is even more marginal than that of Michael Adonis or Charlie Pauls, but it is so voluntarily: George chooses to be involved in anti-apartheid politics, for which he is imprisoned, and he chooses to be insubordinate, for which he is put in isolation. His control over his own destiny marks the end of the naturalistic tendency in La Guma's fiction, and his deliberate choice of a particular form of marginality, his subordination and sacrifice of personal freedom and self-concern for a larger communal interest, marks the beginning of a new phase.

La Guma's fourth novel, In the Fog of the Seasons' End, extends and clarifies the different preoccupations of his earlier novels. What had previously been an opposition between the assumption that individuals have a right of access to certain basic forms of self-fulfillment and the deprivation of this right, with the major stress falling on the latter, now becomes an overt and explicit struggle between the colonized non-white and the colonizing white sections of the South African population: the initial overt statement of the issues involved in this fight, in the form of a brief debate between a political prisoner, Elias, and a Major in the secret police, is followed by the story of a sustained struggle between the police and one cell of an underground revolutionary movement which is attempting to depose the South African government. Yet since the depiction of this struggle necessarily involves some cloak-and-dagger scenes, La Guma cautiously avoids sensationalism by understating the drama, by making his characters weary rather than elated, and by ironically equating the precarious conditions of the fight to the unreality of “gangster” and “western” films, which will restore one to the normal world of complex reality at the end. He is perfectly able to eschew a romantic view of revolution, for by the end of the novel one is left with a feeling of an arduous and precarious struggle that will probably kill all the protagonists and continue into the next generation.

The debate between the Major and Elias, the latter a relatively important leader of the underground, states the classic arguments of the proponents and opponents of apartheid. The Major claims that because blacks are inherently incapable of governing themselves the benevolent white government is providing them with jobs, houses education, etc., but that Africans like Elias, forever dissatisfied and ungrateful, are being misled by clever priests, lawyers, Communists, and Jews, and that in turn they are corrupting other blacks. The Major finds African demands for better education an absurd impertinence:

I have heard that some of your young people even want to learn mathematics. What good is mathematics to you? You see, you people are not the same as we are. We can understand these things which are best for you. We have gone far to help you, do things for you. Yet you want to be like the Whites. It's impossible.

(FSE [In the Fog of the Seasons' End], p. 4)

The African presumption to equality arouses the Major's wrath, which he expresses in the description of his duty: “It is my duty to destroy your organization. Already you people are on your knees; soon you will be on your bellies. Soon we will stomp you out altogether” (FSE, p. 5). The Major's antipathy and adamant beliefs collide with Elias's equally strong sense of bitterness and desperate pride. For Elias the South African government is nothing but a source of injustice and exploitation:

You have shot my people when they have protested against unjust treatment; you have torn our people from their homes, imprisoned them, not for stealing or murder, but for not having your permission to live. Our children live in rags and die of hunger. And you want me to co-operate with you? It is impossible.

(FSE, pp. 5-6)

These equally uncompromising positions are in fact only the intellectual manifestations of a complex political and military struggle which has been underway in South Africa since the middle sixties and a small segment of which is depicted in this novel. La Guma's narrative, a complex series of retrospections and juxtapositions that depict the lives of people involved in various underground operations, simultaneously presents the different forms of deprivations, the political and paramilitary fight to depose the government, the price paid by the individuals involved in this struggle, and the new kinds of communities that are formed in the process. A separate consideration of each of these areas will inevitably distort the series of juxtapositions and retrospections that create a formal pattern perfectly consonant with the secretive, discontinuous, anxious, and uncertain experiences of the underground protagonists.

In the process of furnishing details about the background of various characters, La Guma builds up in this novel the most thorough portrait of deprivation thus far. He presents the economic exploitation of the non-whites as the pervasive and fundamental fact of South African society. According to the apartheid doctrine, whites always have preference over other races: “coloured” workers are displaced from their jobs in order to make room for whites; residents of “coloured” and black sections of towns are moved en masse whenever whites desire to appropriate those areas; black widows of miners are awarded a total of £40 in compensation, whereas white widows receive £15 per month for the rest of their lives. The life of the rural African is plagued by starvation and disease. If he is lucky enough to immigrate to the city, like Elias, he finds himself condemned to live in racially and sexually segregated workers' quarters that are combinations of prisons and slums. He then has to work at underpaid menial jobs that sap all his strength and leave him a broken, penniless man.

Although the anti-apartheid movement seeks to alleviate this material lack, the characters in the novel seem more aroused by the social and political injustices they suffer, for these are the avenues through which they are controlled. Through a deliberately stylized, hypothetical ritual in which an African everyman is interrogated and given his pass, La Guma shows the nature of bondage that this system imposes. The pass completely controls a person's movements and employments—he even needs permission to leave a job. La Guma characterizes this modern form of slavery as follows:

When African people turn sixteen they are born again, or even worse, they are accepted into the mysteries of the Devil's mass, confirmed into the blood rites of a servitude as cruel as Caligula, as merciless as Nero. Its bonds are the entangled chains of infinite regulations, its rivets are driven in with rubber stamps, and the scratchy pens in the offices of the Native Commissioners are the branding irons which leave scars for life.

(FSE, p. 80)

Elias's initial acquisition of the pass provides a specific instance of the humiliation caused by this ritual and bondage: since the officials do not believe that he is seventeen, they force him to take off his trousers and, judging by his genitals, they peg his age at twenty. This degradation seems to haunt Elias for the rest of his life.

This kind of debasement is a generally effective means of controlling the black psyche—it is a part of the strategy of dehumanizing the African: in this novel the worst insult that whites hurl at a native is to call him a “thing.” However, the apartheid regime tries to control the Africans in a more thorough and doctrinal manner through their education: a colored teacher complains to Beukes, the protagonist, about being forced to teach his students that the present order in South Africa is pre-ordained, that it is useless, even sinful, to struggle against it, that the Boer War was a holy crusade, that the theory of evolution is a heresy, and that modern psychology is a cardinal sin (FSE, p. 86). However, instead of reading such propaganda, the students are surreptitiously studying theories of guerrilla warfare. Caught between manichean oppositions, the students receive a paltry education.

When the South African government's political control over the non-white population became absolute during the sixties and when all the overt parliamentary and civil channels for black political aspirations were systematically blocked, the African had no choice but to develop a clandestine opposition that would attempt to depose the government by force. This shift to covert political and military activity is echoed in this novel by Elias's gradual involvement in the underground after he is dismissed from his job for participation in a strike, and by Issac's similar change in allegiance after he witnesses the indiscriminate whipping of blacks during the course of a national strike. An important landmark in this shift was the Sharpeville massacre, which La Guma depicts, once again in a stylized manner, as a confrontation between rather festive Africans who have gathered simply to return their passbooks and the highly suspicious and nervous police who see the gathering as part of a diabolical plot and consequently kill indiscriminately. The absence of political rights for nonwhites culminates in the ability of the police to imprison a man indefinitely on mere suspicion of crime or political activity. La Guma represents this epitome of political deprivation through Elias's arrest and torture, which begins with a security agent urinating on his face and progresses through severe beatings that culminate in the application of electric shock to his legs and genitals.

La Guma thus presents a highly charged manichean political situation: the exploitation and humiliation suffered by the Africans arouse in them a violent hatred which the narrator depicts through Elias's repeated fantasies of killing his oppressors and through Issac's constant doodling of guns on scraps of paper. Yet once more La Guma eschews a romantic view of black rebellion by showing that Beukes's political motives are mixed and his commitment somewhat uncertain: Beukes perseveres because “… sometimes … he understood why, often because there was nothing else to do” (FSE, p. 49). Beukes's rebellion due to the lack of an alternative not only stresses the realism of a reluctant uprising but also represents a political transformation of the fatalism that characterized A Walk in the Night. Whereas Michael Adonis has no alternative but the acceptance of his socio-political predicament, Beukes has no choice but to rebel against apartheid society: what was earlier viewed as a quasiontological situation is now understood as a political necessity to fight. Thus the goal of the underground movement is now clearly stated in the pamphlets that Beukes is distributing.

The vast bulk of the novel is dedicated to the depiction of how Beukes as well as Elias and Issac play their parts in this embryonic revolution. Beukes's function, distributing pamphlets to sub-agents, recruiting new members for the movement, and smuggling some volunteers out of the country for guerrilla training, provides the plot and the drama of the novel. In order to avoid the vigilance of the security police, he is constantly on the move—changing his name, shunning his own home, traveling only at night whenever possible, and sleeping at different people's houses. When we first see Beukes, he has just spent two nights in a gully because he has been unable to use the house of a fearful friend. He then continues, with the help of a sympathetic taxi-driver, to his next resting place, and the next day he begins to distribute the leaflets, first visiting a school teacher, then an Indian garment worker, and finally arriving at his last contact, Issac, only to find that the latter is absent because the security police are chasing him. The day after the pamphlets have been distributed to the public, Beukes meets Elias in the house of an unknown person to discuss the transportation of some guerrilla volunteers. In the ensuing police raid Elias is captured, and subsequently tortured to death, while Beukes manages to escape with a flesh wound. He successfully takes a chance in being treated by a colored doctor, who turns out to be sympathetic to the underground, and then proceeds to his next rendezvous, with the driver who will smuggle recruits to the north, and discovers delightfully that one of the volunteers is his good friend Issac. The novel ends with Issac leaving the country and Beukes returning to his precarious work.

The narrative of these seven or eight days is so discontinuous that it matches perfectly the abnormality, marginality, and precariousness of the protagonists' experiences. The abnormality of Beukes's life can be measured by his sytematic avoidance of his home: during the course of the narrative he can only think with a mixture of anxiety and pleasure about his wife and child, but he can never see them because he is afraid that the security police might be waiting outside his home or that he might lead them to his family, which exists in the narrative only as a poignant absence. His constant fear is another index of his marginality: he is almost paranoid about footsteps in corridors and people whom he mistakes for security police; he makes elaborate detours to avoid any policemen and always attempts to become anonymous by mixing with crowds; and he moves about at night and hugs the shadows of buildings in the daytime whenever possible. The nature of Beukes's work prevents him from enjoying most of the normal aspects of his life and distorts his personality: it leads to an emptiness, a “hollowness of abandonment” (FSE, p. 147), that renders him as marginal as Michael Adonis. He is sustained by the belief in his struggle, but the uncertainty and remoteness of the goal are disheartening. La Guma reveals the oppressive weight of this marginality through the reaction of Issac who, after successfully evading arrest by the security police, realizes that he can no longer function effectively in the underground since his identity is known. His choices are now simple: he must fight openly, within or from outside the country, or he must succumb to arrest, torture, and death. Thus the freedom from the secretiveness and marginality of the underground produces a feeling of elation and liberty in him.

Yet La Guma's portrayal of the burdens of marginality is profoundly ironic. Issac, like all of La Guma's other non-white characters, resents being regarded as an object, a “thing”: he wishes to be treated as a subject. But like Beukes, once he joins the underground he avoids recognition since anonymity is so important to his work. Thus the desire to be recognized as a subject will never be fulfilled so long as the manichean doctrine of apartheid is not entirely discarded. The irony of this position is that he can only overcome involuntary marginality, to which he is consigned by the political system, by choosing another form necessitated by the clandestine nature of his struggle. By opting for voluntary marginality the oppressed South African finds a form of liberation in the recognition of his own imprisonment.

In this novel the South African (colonialist) society and the underground movement become locked in a fatal manichean struggle. The apartheid regime, by destroying the old African communities, by forcefully dissolving any new groups that black individuals attempt to form (trade unions, political parties, etc.), by prohibiting integration into white society, and by preaching a doctrine of superiority and inferiority, completely atomizes black society and renders the individual radically marginal. Beukes and his friends attempt to counter this destructive control by forming a community the sole purpose of which is the violent overthrow of its oppressor and the survival of which is entirely dependent on its success in doing so. In the Fog of the Seasons' End, then, marks the apogee of the manichean struggle in colonial society. However, in the process of depicting this struggle, La Guma poignantly portrays the painful growth of a precarious community.

As we have already seen, the characters pay a high price in personal marginality and the sacrifice of normal family life for the generation of this new community. Elias has no family, Issac leaves his parents and siblings behind when he goes off for guerrilla training, and Beukes pines for his wife and child whom he dares not contact. Thus a new organization can be formed only at the expense of human warmth and companionship. In addition to these sacrifices, membership in the underground community confers its own rewards and exacts its own price. The mutual care, concern, and respect within the group are a marked departure from the sense of victimization and abandonment experienced by La Guma's previous characters. Within this ambience the individual is perceived by others as a dignified subject for the first time: Issac breaks his initial appointment with Beukes in order not to lead the police to his friend; Beukes is overjoyed to see at the end of the novel that Issac has avoided arrest; and during the police raid Elias makes sure that Beukes escapes even if he himself is captured. Thus the individual begins to sacrifice himself for other members of the community. When Elias is being tortured, Beukes's fate depends entirely on Elias's courage and perseverance. This burden of responsibility for others weighs heavily on both men, for many lives depend on them, and they often wonder about their ability to withhold information under torture. As Beukes clearly realizes, his work obliges him to trust his life to those above and below him in the underground hierarchy, yet he can never be sure that one of them is not an agent of the security police. Thus the burden of responsibility for others is balanced by an absolute, radical dependence on others, both of which create a community that is an understandably distorted version of the obligations and supports of a normal society and that lifts the individual out of his status as a helpless object of apartheid society.

The liberation of the individual-as-subject, his acceptance of full responsibility for his and the community's destiny, results in a more constructive awareness and deliberate use of his past and a more definite projection of values and goals into the future. Elias's personal past, like that of most of La Guma's characters, is full of poverty, degradation, sickness, and bitterness. Yet because he has grown up in the countryside he has been exposed through folklore and myth to the oral history of his ancestors who fought against the initial Afrikaner and British invaders. He deliberately uses his image of their dignified and heroic challenge to the colonizers in order to sustain his moral strength while being tortured by the security police. Thus for the first time La Guma uses the African past, which is more powerful because it is a mythic past, to sustain a character's dignity and belief in his present task and the future community. La Guma similarly employs children to create a sense of posterity that will inherit the real benefits of the present sacrifice and struggle. In spite of both his family's and his own dangerous predicament, Beukes is happy that he has had a child, for the child's potential freedom sustains Beukes's beliefs and endeavors in the present. The school children who are reading manuals of guerrilla warfare provide a more definite link to future continuation of the struggle. The novel ends as Beukes, after waving to Issac and two younger men leaving for guerrilla training, turns to “the children [who] had gathered in the sunlit yard” (FSE, p. 181). In this novel the desire to overthrow the South African government, to create a new community, and to accept the responsibility for one's life leads to a new awareness of and participation in one's own history. Political awareness and struggle allow the characters to become agents of their history. Past, present, and future are understood and defined in terms of the single most important imperative—the African control of African destiny and culture.

In the Fog of the Seasons' End is a very tense novel finely balanced on the equilibrium of its contradictions and tensions produced by the opposition of social and personal forces. The novel juxtaposes different scenes from the lives of the three main protagonists, contrasting past happiness with present anxiety, past humiliation with present hatred, scenes of torture with reminiscences of love, the lives of frivolous people with those of the dedicated. It balances captivity and torture against freedom and elation, hate against love, and fear against hope; it sacrifices one form of community for another, the family for the underground, one desire for another; it pits the continued Afrikaner domination, subjugation, and enslavement of Africans against the black people's attempt to depose the apartheid government; it locks the whites and blacks in a fatal manichean struggle without room for compromise; and it mythologizes the African past for present consumption and then sacrifices the present for a future freedom. The presentation of these tensions and contradictions through swift juxtapositions and flashbacks is perfectly consonant with the discontinuous experience of the characters which, as Beukes says, is like “being on a ferris wheel” (FSE, p. 174).

From a purely formal viewpoint the novel initially appears to be circular. It opens with a prologue describing the torture of Elias by the secret police, and after a series of flashbacks that constitute its bulk the novel ends with two chapters that are located on the same temporal plane as the prologue—the penultimate one depicts the continued torture of Elias and the final one shows Beukes dispatching volunteers for guerrilla training. Thus the “real” present of the beginning and end brackets the immediate past consisting of the activities that lead to the real present. Both these temporal planes are in turn irregularly punctuated by retrospections of varied lengths that take us into the distant past of the major characters. The discontinuity created by these temporal juxtapositions is enhanced by scenic, sociological contrasts such as the one between Elias's torture, on the one hand, and the depiction of a black nanny worrying about the possible diaper-rash of her white charge, on the other hand. Finally, the disjunctive quality of the novel is intensified by the manner in which various minor characters connected with the guerrilla cell are presented: in the present they are portrayed with striking specificity and concreteness, but in keeping with the secrecy of clandestine guerrilla contacts their pasts are allowed to remain completely unknown and their futures are left as intriguing loose ends. All these formal devices produce not a circular but a helical novel, the apparent circularity of which is, on another plane, a perfectly straight line. The formal characteristics of the novel, then, accurately reflect the lives of the guerrillas, who deliberately espouse marginality, discontinuity, and indirectness in order singularly and coherently to pursue and reach their goal in the shortest possible time under the given circumstances.

These formal characteristics not only reflect the mundane, tactical experiences of the guerrillas but also reveal the development of a more profound ontological understanding. When Elias is being tortured he is aware that because of the nature of his clandestine activity he is, and always has been, poised on the edge of extinction. This clear perception of death, of one's radical finitude, leads the guerrilla to a certain anxiety about his being and potentiality. While he firmly dedicates himself to a definite goal in life (the violent overthrow of the apartheid system), he is aware that the rest of his life will remain an open-ended existential struggle, that the concrete potentiality of the self will only manifest itself through praxis. Thus, for instance, Elias and Beukes often wonder how they will behave under torture, whether or not they will betray the cell. While characterization reveals these insights, the temporal structure of the novel, that is, the series of retrospections embedded in and often provoked by the characters' present concerns, shows that for them history, the scrutiny of their past, is also a product of personal political praxis. Whereas in the first two novels accidents (historical contingencies) are oppressive because they lead not to the actualization of potentialities but to an attenuation of control, in the next two novels the characters arrive at moments for political action by understanding past oppressions and contingencies, and in turn they later incorporate these moments into an articulate awareness of history. It is because of this comprehension of the unending, cyclical nature of political struggle and their own history that the guerrillas now project themselves with anxiety and care into the future.

This projection, accompanied by a transformation of the individual from seriality to group consciousness, is entirely free from egocentric motives. Instead of the oppressor-victim-oppressor transferences that characterize serial relations, we have in this novel a liberation of the individual through the group: since the freedom of the individual is now dependent on and bound with the freedom of other cell members, each person gives through the group the power, recognition, respect, and freedom that he receives through the same group. Through this form of rebounding reciprocity the self recognizes its freedom in the communal political action in which it has become involved. Thus freedom is defined as responsibility and dependence, while authentic being emerges as being-for-the-other.

This specification of self defines the essential nature of La Guma's realism. For Georg Lukács a realistic novel is one which manifests in its detail and structure an ontological, dialectical conflict between self-as-an-individual and self-as-a-social-being.7In the Fog of the Seasons' End allows us to extend this definition because it transcends the dialectical conflict: in this novel the self-as-an-individual discovers his being in his existence for others, in his existence as a social-being. Thus the realism of this novel is simultaneously manifested in its mimetic accuracy, in its representation of the dialectical conflict, and most significantly in its revelation of authentic being through a transcendence of the dialectical conflict. And the transcendence is the product of a meditation, an exercise in phenomenological reduction, that also determines the form of the novel. The pain, torture, and imminent presence of death at the beginning and end of the novel bracket out the possibilities of the mundane, manichean world and permit a consideration of the significance of the immediate and distant past and of the authentic self and its concrete possibilities. In direct opposition to his naturalism, which reflects the shrinking of human potentiality and the stance of the impotent, alienated spectator, La Guma's realism represents the expansion of potentiality and the effects of action. Just as the guerrilla, taking his destiny into his own hands, manipulates his socio-political environment, so does the author reveal meaning in this novel through the manipulation of narrative events rather than a complete reliance on description. It is significant that the only vestiges of naturalism in In the Fog of the Seasons' End are the two stylized passages describing the ritual of obtaining the pass card and the Sharpeville massacre of Africans protesting against the pass; that is, both passages deal with the system that is used to impose the serialized, quasi-ontological racial status on the African. Both these descriptions represent the viewpoint of the hypothetical African, of the serialized, oppressed everyman. The fact that the rest of the novel consists of manipulation of the narrative about specific individuals implies that La Guma now sees seriality and its representation, naturalism, as realms from which the individual has emerged. In contrast to the predominantly indicative mood of his naturalistic fiction this novel evidences the ascendance of a modified imperative mood: although the imperative still consists of commitment to political action, it is modulated by a constant interrogative meditation about the nature of freedom, community, and the self. Politicization, then, results in an increasing awareness and transcendence of the limitation of the original quasi-ontological status.

This ability of La Guma's protagonist to take control of his own destiny represents a dramatic coming-to-consciousness not only of the social conditions in South Africa but also of the only way out of those oppressive circumstances. Initially deprived of all sociopolitical control over his own life, the black South African is confined to the extremely narrow existence of an “object” to be used for the benefit of the apartheid regime: he is relegated to the realm of abject marginality. Within these narrow limits he has only one choice: either he can acquiesce in his treatment as a marginal object or he can deliberately choose to become a marginal subject as Beukes does. His choice of the latter implies that freedom for the oppressed man lies in his recognition of his own marginality, in his awareness of his social condition. Thus the ideological function of La Guma's novel is reflexive: it brings to consciousness that absolutely necessary condition for the liberation of the black South African—his coming-to-consciousness. However, La Guma's latest novel, Time of the Butcherbird, too intent upon advocating armed rebellion, allows the interrogative meditation to be entirely overwhelmed by the imperative mood. Althought it movingly portrays the rural black South African's plight and the inevitable death of innocent people caught in an embryonic war, it is guided by and appeals primarily to the oppressed South African's desire for personal vengeance. Such a desire is perfectly understandable, and it may have important political and military functions, but it tends to displace entirely the more complex meditations and insights of the previous novel. As a consequence, the ideological function of Time of the Butcherbird becomes simpler: it straightforwardly advocates and valorizes heroic participation in an armed war.

That marginality and political awareness should play such significant roles in the content, structure, and direction of La Guma's fiction is not at all surprising. In a society founded on massive political disfranchisement political liberation will inevitably become the primary preoccupation of practical life and literary endeavor: in a state where the police, without the slightest concern for your “feelings,” can break into your bedroom at will in order to check the skin color of your lover, it must be virtually impossible to write novels about the passionate power of love or the delicacies of refined human sensibilities. As Nadine Gordimer repeatedly points out in her fiction, in such an ambience personal passion and the very act of making love are fraught with significant political implications.8 Clearly, for La Guma and his intended audience the political novel is more relevant and important because in a manichean society that constantly lives in a state of siege the “horizons” of authentic being are more readily revealed through political action and its contemplation than through the consideration of personal relations in a socio-political vacuum. In this atmosphere La Guma's fiction-as-socio-political-praxis, with its constant preoccupation with political reality and the various forms of marginality, leads to an awareness of history, furnishes direction and specific goals, reveals the authenticity of previously alienated being, and allows the individual once more to control his destiny.


  1. Frantz Fanon, The Wretched of the Earth (New York: Grove Press, 1968), p. 41. For a detailed psychological study of this Manicheanism see Fanon's Black Skin, White Masks (New York: Grove Press, 1967).

  2. Fanon, The Wretched of the Earth, p. 93.

  3. D. T. Moodie, The Rise of Afrikanerdom: Power, Apartheid, and the Afrikaner Civil Religion (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1975).

  4. The following biographical information about Alex La Guma is derived from Brian Bunting's introduction to And a Threefold Cord (Berlin: Seven Seas Publisher, 1964). Because of the nature of his work for the South African liberation movements, no substantial information about La Guma is available since this introduction.

  5. Alex La Guma, A Walk in the Night (Evanston, III.: Northwestern University Press, 1967), And a Threefold Cord (Berlin: Seven Seas Publisher, 1964), The Stone Country (Berlin: Seven Seas Publisher, 1967), In the Fog of the Seasons' End (New York: The Third Press, 1973), and Time of the Butcherbird (London: Heinemann, 1979). All further references to these novels will be abbreviated as AWTN, AATC, TSC, FSE, and TB respectively and incorporated in the text.

  6. For a comprehensive definition of seriality see Jean-Paul Sartre, Critique of Dialectic Reason (London: NLB, 1976), p. 253-69. For an elaboration of his theories of group formation and “rebounding reciprocity” that are used in this essay, see pp. 374-404.

  7. See Georg Lukács, Realism in Our Time: Literature and the Class Struggle (New York: Harper and Row, 1964), p. 75.

  8. This is implied in all of Nadine Gordimer's novels, but it is most explicitly present in The Lying Days (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1953), Occasion for Loving (New York: The Viking Press, 1960), The Late Bourgeois World (New York: The Viking Press, 1966), and Burger's Daughter (New York: The Viking Press, 1979).

Adewale Maja-Pearce (essay date June 1984)

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SOURCE: Maja-Pearce, Adewale. “The Victim as Hero: Alex La Guma's Short Stories.” London Magazine 24, no. 3 (June 1984): 71-4.

[In the following essay, Maja-Pearce explores La Guma's handling of the victims of apartheid as characters in his short stories.]

It seems odd, on the face of it, that Africa has produced more novelists than short-story writers. One would have imagined the African condition to be perfectly suited to a literary form which, in the words of Bernard Bergonzi, ‘deals with life's victims, the insulted and injured, the forlorn and alienated’,—in a nutshell, the history of modern Africa. And the case for the short story, as opposed to the novel, is further supported by the absence of a stable social order against which the novelist can set his characters: it was out of such order and stability that the great European novelists of the 19th century were born; it is the absence of it that is the strength of the short story, as America demonstrated during the same century.

Alex La Guma and Bessie Head from South Africa; Luis Bernardo Honwana from Mozambique; and the young Zimbabwean, Dambudzo Marechera, seem to me the four most successful black short-story writers in Africa today. Interestingly enough they all come from countries where blacks are, or until very recently were, the most victimized on the entire continent. And it is this condition that all of them explore.

La Guma, the oldest of them, is also the most satisfying. His stories, which all deal with the victims of apartheid, are written in a spare, simple prose which relies heavily on dialogue to depict situations of incredible brutality. Inevitably they remind one of the stories of Hemingway, and his victims are almost as inarticulate, but with one difference: La Guma himself never brutal. Behind his rage, which is never stated but which is always unmistakably there, unspoken, as much a part as the lives of his characters as the shabby clothes they wear and the cheap booze they consume, lies compassion—a quality, one often suspects, to be lacking in Hemingway. La Guma never forgets that his characters are human beings. As such he never manipulates them but always allows them to be themselves.

In what is probably his finest story, ‘Slipper Satin’, a young coloured woman, Myra, has just finished serving a four-month prison sentence for having sexual relations with a white man. On her return home she is leered at by the men, whispered about by the women and called a whore by her mother. She meets her sister, Ada, who is engaged to be married in a few days' time. As they talk Myra learns that Ada is unhappy because she cannot afford a dress she has set her heart on for the party which is to be held the day before her wedding. Myra makes up her mind to get the dress for her; since she has already been branded a whore she may as well become one if it will enable her to make her sister happy:

She thought, Adie is going to be happy. She wanted Adie to be happy and she told herself that Adie would have that slipper satin dress she wanted, as a present from her. She could earn eight guineas easily.

And that is the end. A woman of great nobility and beauty—‘She was tall and brown and good-looking, with the fullness of lips, the width of cheekbone, the straight nose and firm chin, and the blue eyes that she had inherited from the intermarriage of her ancestors generations past’—has been destroyed by a sick society, but none of this is overtly stated. La Guma lets the injustice speak for itself; the society is condemned only by implication so that when Myra turns to her mother and says,

It wasn't any disgrace, Ma. It's no disgrace to love a man, no matter what colour he is or where he is or where he comes from. He was nice and he wasn't what you call a white loafer. He would have married me if he could. He always said so.

We are shocked by the simplicity and the truth of her words. It suddenly seems shocking, as indeed it is, that love between a man and a woman, a common enough occurrence and the basis, after all, of life itself, should result in so much ugliness. La Guma's triumph is precisely that he has succeeded in shocking us, something he wouldn't have been able to do had he allowed his rage to take over. The result would have been the shrillness of tone that one comes up against only too often in the work of his compatriots. And by allowing the story to reveal itself, by in Nadine Gordimer's words ‘(presenting) men and women who don't talk about apartheid; they bear its weals, so that its flesh-and-blood meaning becomes a shocking, sensuous impact’, we are given to understand much else besides. Myra's mother, for example, unable to grasp the simple truth of her daughter's words, is revealed, as are the others who so casually condemn her, as a greater victim than Myra herself. In condemning her daughter she has unwittingly accepted the morals of a dangerously unbalanced society: she, along with all the others, are as sick as the ruling white minority. Yet her mother is not presented as an evil person, merely limited and confused. This is the basis of La Guma's compassion, which is rooted in his desire to understand rather than judge. And his compassion, because it is impersonal, extends to the whites as much as it does to the blacks, who are also victims. In the same story we are told that Myra's lover, after the raid by the police which resulted in her imprisonment, committed suicide. Here La Guma is saying, in the subtlest way possible, something of great importance: if you insist on constructing a wall to keep others out you have only succeeded in building a prison to keep yourself in. The inexorable logic of such madness dictates that you will also suffer.

This particular theme is given greater treatment in another story, ‘A Glass of Wine’. Two men, one of them the narrator, sit drinking in a shebeen one evening. A white boy enters. He is shy and uncertain of himself but he is in love with the coloured girl who works there. The narrator's friend, who is drunk, teases the boy playfully, and then departs with the narrator, who is sober enough to understand the tragedy. Once outside, the narrator berates his friend for teasing the lovers:

‘You and your wedding,’ I told him as he went up the street. ‘You know that white boy can't marry the girl, even though he may love her. It isn't allowed.’

‘Jesus,’ Arthur said in the dark. ‘Jesus. What the hell.’

And that is all. We know the rest; it doesn't need to be stated. La Guma knows, because he is a good short-story writer, just how much he can leave to the reader's imagination: that the short story more than the novel is a collaboration between the writer and the reader. The short-story writer, practising a completely different form, merely puts us on the road and points us in the right direction. This is what Frank O'Connor means when he says: ‘… the storyteller differs from the novelist in this: he is much more of a writer, much more of an artist …’

This isn't to say that La Guma is without faults. In straining for effect he sometimes falls into sentimentality, as in the story ‘Nocturne’. Three men are sitting in a bar planning a robbery. One of them, Harry, is captivated by the sound of a piano playing Chopin's Nocturne. When the arrangements have been made the other two depart while Harry crosses the road to the house where the music is coming from. He enters a room and finds a young woman alone at a piano and he asks her to play the piece again. She does so. When she has finished he realizes it is time to go. His accomplices are angry with him because he is late; but even as they set off on their way,

Harry was still thinking about the girl who played the piano, and that he didn't even know her name. He whistled quietly. Knock something, she had said it was. Funny name. He thought, sentimentally, that it would be real smart to have a goose that played the piano like that.

But the story doesn't work. His intention is to show that even a hardened criminal, the result of his status as victim, is susceptible to beauty; but the situation he presents us with isn't quite believable. His attempt to forestall the reader by using the word sentimental himself in the last sentence is some recognition of the fact. But sentimentality is the price a writer like La Guma pays.

It seems unfair, then, in the light of the above, to call La Guma's stories ‘protest writing’, as did Robert Green of his collection, A Walk in the Night, when it first came out in 1962, even though he admitted that it was also ‘one of the most exciting books to have come out of Africa in recent years’. Lewis Nkosi's judgement seems to me much nearer the mark. In an essay, ‘Fiction by Black South Africans’, he remarked:

… what distinguishes him … is his enthusiasm for life as it is lived. He has the artist's eye for the interesting detail; his stories … are sagging under the weight of real people waging a bloody contest with the forces of oppression …

In other words protest writing is precisely what his stories are not. His refusal to subject literature to protest is what makes his achievement remarkable, and more so for a writer who has stated unequivocally enough (in a speech to a conference of African writers in Stockholm in 1965) his commitment to the cause of liberation:

The South African artists finds himself with no other choice but to dedicate himself to the movement which must involve not only himself but ordinary people as well. So that I say that in our society we are prepared to run guns and to hold up radio stations, if it is necessary. I say this because I believe that … all human activity which does not serve humanity must be a waste of time and effort.

By his fidelity to the truth of the human condition, Alex la Guma demonstrates his faith in the power of literature to change the world.

Further Reading

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Green, Robert, and Agnes Lonje. “Alex La Guma: A Selected Bibliography.” World Literature Written in English 20, no. 1 (spring 1981): 16-22.

Lists publications of La Guma's short stories, interviews, and essays in magazines and periodicals; published versions of his lectures and addresses; and secondary texts, some with annotations.


Field, Roger. “Art and the Man: Alex La Guma's Comics and Paintings.” Critical Survey 11, no. 2 (1999): 45-63.

Argues that La Guma's paintings and comics should be considered alongside his works of fiction and journalism because of the light they shed on his experimentation with narrative and representation.

Scanlon, Paul A. “Alex La Guma's Novels of Protest: The Growth of the Revolutionary.” Okike: An African Journal of New Writing, no. 16 (November 1979): 39-47.

Discusses La Guma's first and last novels to analyze the literary development of his revolutionary evolution.

Tremaine, Louis. “Ironic Convergence in Alex La Guma's Time of the Butcherbird.Journal of Commonwealth Literature 29, no. 2 (1994): 31-44.

Examines La Guma's narrative technique for intersecting the lives of black and white South Africans in Time of the Butcherbird.

Yousaf, Nahem. “Making History: Politics and Violence in Alex La Guma's In the Fog of the Seasons' End.Journal of Commonwealth Literature 34, no. 1 (1999): 115-34.

Argues that In the Fog of the Seasons' End is La Guma's most aesthetically and politically important work because of the author's embrace of both his characters' and South Africans' open and direct rebellion against apartheid.

Additional coverage of La Guma's life and career is contained in the following sources published by the Gale Group: African Writers; Black Literature Criticism; Black Writers, Eds. 1, 3; Concise Dictionary of World Literary Biography, Vol. 3; Contemporary Authors, Vols. 49-52, 118; Contemporary Authors New Revision Series, Vols. 25, 81; Contemporary Literary Criticism, Vol. 19; Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vols. 117, 225; DISCovering Authors Modules: Novelists; Encyclopedia of World Literature in the 20th Century, Ed. 3; Literature Resource Center; Major 20th-Century Writers, Eds. 1, 2; and World Literature and Its Times, Vol. 2.

William Carpenter (essay date winter 1991)

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SOURCE: Carpenter, William. “‘Ovals, Spheres, Ellipses, and Sundry Bulges’: Alex La Guma Imagines the Human Body.”1Research in African Literature 22, no. 4 (winter 1991): 79-98.

[In the following essay, Carpenter discusses La Guma's metaphorical language about the human body as a way of exploring what it means to be human.]

Observations on La Guma's figurative language tend to occur haphazardly in the midst of more general discussions of his work. Individual figures are interpreted, usually in terms of the social relations fostered by apartheid, but attention to the figures as such is limited to praise for his “memorable similes” (Wanjala 209), which have been described as “both arresting and yet artistically functional” (Roscoe 240), or is simply absorbed into an admiration for his “painter's eye” (Whitman 113) and the “controlled manner” with which he can “accurately depict a moment of intense activity” (Ngara 93) like “the exquisitely described fight” in The Stone Country (JanMohamed 247). Critics are understandably more concerned with the meaning of La Guma's fiction in its broad outlines or with his “revolutionary vision” (as Samuel Asein calls it) than with the contribution of a few rhetorical devices to that meaning. Michael Wade offers the beginnings of a critical account of La Guma's figures when, in an effort to demonstrate “the complexity and integrity of his aesthetic,” he includes “the metaphorical association of Michael Adonis with the sea” in “the complex web of structural design” running through A Walk in the Night (165, 180). But Kathleen Fatton was the first to describe metaphor as an integral component of La Guma's fiction. Like Wade, she sets out to show “the complexity and integrity” of La Guma's aesthetic, and she does so by elucidating the “metaphoric constructs” she finds built into each of the novels (Fatton 45). She might have followed the method developed by Dover Wilson and Cleanth Brooks in their work on Shakespeare or by Jean-Pierre Richard in his on Mallarmé; that is, she might have explicated La Guma's networks of figures as if his novels were clandestine lyric poems. But instead she found that his “metaphoric constructs” contradict his naturalistic representations. About A Walk in the Night, for example, she says, “La Guma tells a story which presents within its narrative frame a series of metaphors which reveal thematic movements in opposition to the tragic plot of the novel” (42). Later, she adds, “The metaphors are distinct and separate entities [that] intervene in the literal segments of the narrative in order to import to it a different meaning” (115). The final figures in Time of the Butcherbird, she concludes, give the reader a “glimpse into a land from which the curse of apartheid has been lifted” (220).

Her analysis offers a ground-breaking theoretical model of La Guma's fiction, giving figurality its full weight and assimilating the tensions it generates to a striking contradiction between narrative and metaphor. But La Guma's figures overflow the limits imposed on them by this model. Some serve the purpose Fatton articulates; others, in accord with a more naive conception of the role of figure in narrative, intensify or interpret the impressions made by the characters or the setting; still others present an inquiring, imaginative meditation on human beings in society. Reviewing Time of the Butcherbird, Scarlet Whitman speaks of the “dialectic between experience in real life and its transfiguration into the fantasy situation of storytelling”: this is a helpful formulation, for the imaginative meditation carried out on the figurative plane is by no means limited to hopeful prophecies (110). The “fantasy situation” invites La Guma to imagine the human condition as a condition of the human body in South Africa at the organizational levels both of the person and of the social group. The living human body inspires his narrators with wonder, horror, and sympathy. It also provides a sometimes questionable foundation for future society. His most vivid figures depict social and imaginative modifications of the human body, and taken together, they constitute an exploration of the basis for all social life. In the course of his career, however, he increasingly renounces his fascinated contemplation of the body and concentrates on the basis of the individual's commitment to the group—what Abdul JanMohamed sees as the self-as-individual's discovery of his being in his existence for others (258). Applying to La Guma JanMohamed's recognition of the importance of the “subjective, noetic qualities” of colonial fiction (277), however, I prefer to regard this tendency as a deepening interrogation of the communal “scene of representation.”2

I would like to look at La Guma's figurative treatment of the human body not as a contradiction of his naturalistic narrative but as a digression from it into a free meditation on what it means to be human.3 This meditation partly reflects his Marxist analysis of the physical brutalization of poor nonwhites as a result of their economic exploitation, but what is more often at issue is a subjective alienation from the human world. J. M. Coetzee penetrated to this alienation when he summed up La Guma's work as “a testament of one man's horror of a degraded world” (“Fate” 23). Horror, though, is not the whole story. In conformity with a loosely Marxist historical dialectic, La Guma depicts both degradation and the sense of collective identity that emerges in response to it. But as one critic remarks, “there is notorious disagreement about the essence of Marxism,” and “La Guma's brand of it is not clear” (Roscoe 234). La Guma is also drawn to moments that reveal the persistence of human solidarity in hostile environments, a persistence that is nothing less than a miracle; in fact, it gives the word “miracle” a new meaning.

According to La Guma, human beings live first of all in the natural world. He is unsentimental about this world, which subjects us to flood, drought, and starvation. Nevertheless, he recognizes specifically human modes of existing that allow people to accommodate themselves to their harsh environment. Practical and ideological solidarity, for example, should enable individuals to share labor, pleasure, and self-denial in self-conscious community. Unfortunately, South African racism prohibits this solidarity and systematically turns human beings into ghosts, beasts, machines, or stones, virtually erasing their fundamental human identity. In A Walk in the Night, La Guma examines the degradation of human beings by juxtaposing two sets of metaphors: metaphors of death, disanimation, and decay and metaphors of struggling life.

The metaphors of death belong to his adaptation of Shakespeare. The men in the pub where Michael Adonis stops take on “the vague forms of wraiths in the morning mist,” while out in the street, people resemble “wasted ghosts in a plague-ridden city” (Walk [A Walk in the Night] 14, 19). Mister Doughty, reminiscing to Michael Adonis about playing Hamlet the elder (like Shakespeare himself) on the London stage, sadly reflects, “That's us, us, Michael, my boy. Just ghosts, doomed to walk the night” (26).4 Defined by white racists as kaffirs and deprived of self-respect by virtue of their exclusion from the economic community, the residents of District Six, as La Guma imagines them, lose their status as living physical organisms. La Guma's narrator, whether seen as hovering “above the world of his characters” (Coetzee, “Fate” 19) or as “the reporter he was” in the late fifties (Abrahams 64), translates the denigration and exclusion of nonwhites into a vision of them as immaterial shades.

Figures of disanimation and decay, more vivid and pervasive, include Joe's “ageless” face, “like something valuable forgotten in a junkshop” (8), and Hazel's with her mouth “as stark as a wound” (20). Chips, the manager of the pool hall, has eyes “as gritty as weathered sandstone” and “as shiny as the ends of cartridge shells” and a face with “the look of having been roughly split by a meat cleaver and then forgotten” (39). Mr. Doughty breathes “with the sound of a saw cutting into wood,” moves “like a great crab”; “wisps of dirty grey hair clung to the bony, pinkish skull like scrub clinging to an eroded rock” (22, 23). But La Guma imagines the Afrikaner police as the most vividly disanimated of his characters with their faces “carved out of pink ice,” that is, not only hard and cold but bloodlessly translucent; their eyes are as “bright as pieces of blue glass” or as “expressionless as the end pieces of lead pipe” (58), and their guns are “like appendages of their bodies” (55). Their hearts were “merely valves and wires” (55). There is not only a “fastidiousness toward the material world” here, but also an amazement at the protean signification of the disanimated human form (Coetzee, “Fate” 20). Other readers have noted La Guma's treatment of eyes, Wade describing them as “the betraying windows of gnomic lore” (239), Gikandi as “indicators of how the regime perceives those it has brutalized” (128). Surely these eyes are “overflowing with the writer's subjectivity,” telling us more about his narrating subject's imagination of the physical presence of the human person than about the psychology of his policemen (Coetzee, “Fate” 20). In “the fantasy situation of storytelling,” the human face becomes capable of every transformation. The magic wand of disanimation touches every character, not the Afrikaners alone. Here is a free imaginative marginality of another kind from that discussed by JanMohamed.

In his metaphors of struggling life, La Guma shows the complexity of imagination that helps define his rank as a writer. Biological life in District Six is an ambiguous riddle, a strange and desperate fermentation as fascinating to him as the features of his disanimated characters. He describes Michael Adonis's burgeoning hatred as both an infection and a pregnancy, thus linking opposing aspects of biological life in a network of related figures, the key link of which, at the center of ambiguity, is the “knot.” Compressed, hard, and twisted, the knot figures the primitive materiality of human matter, captivating La Guma's attention in the midst of a dreamlike unreality. Michael Adonis sees “little knots of youths” outside the cafe; Mister Doughty's hand resembles “a tangled skein of dirty cord,” while Franky Lorenzo's arms are “thick and corded with veins and muscles” (7, 25, 33). When ghosts lay claim to life, it is in the form of these involuted, protective concentrations.

What is so striking about La Guma's images of the body of life is the fact that they are so close to his images of disease. There is a mutual contamination of reproduction and disease, for example, and it begins when we first see Michael Adonis “nursing a growth of anger” that is also a “pustule of rage” (1). After his encounter with two Afrikaner policemen, “the feeling of rage, frustration and violence swelled like a boil, knotted with pain”; but soon “the little knot of rage reformed inside him again like the quickening of the embryo in the womb,” and we see him in his room “nursing the foetus of hatred inside his belly” (11, 15, 21). When he comes to term, he gives birth to destructive violence: after killing Mister Doughty, his mind is as “jumpy as a new-born child” (43).5 In a related image, we see Chips's “round, flabby belly that protruded like a pregnancy over his belt,” but the life that he and Michael carry is diseased, a product of racial hatred. The equivalence of knot and foetus in Michael's case thus contaminates the foetus stirring in Grace, the “ascetic saint” (34), suggesting a path of fruitless violence for her unborn child. But to grasp the meaning of Grace's pregnancy, which La Guma makes into the focal point of his study of the human body in South Africa, we must first look at his other figures of biological life.

The “Coloureds” share District Six with other living things: “bacteria and mold … insects and vermin, maggots and slugs, 'roaches in shiny armor, spiders like tiny grey monsters carrying death under their minute feet or in the suckers, or rats with dusty black eyes with disease under the claws or in the fur …” (32). But near this waste land of disease, a product of poverty, lies a purer ecology, the ocean, which is linked to human life through Joe, a precursor, possibly, for Coetzee's Michael K. Appearing in the District “like a cockroach emerging through a floorboard” (8), Joe stands outside the social order, although he also has a tenacious moral integrity and “a strange passion for things that came from the sea”—a fact that leads Coetzee to see him as a strandlooper (“shore-runner” or “beachcomber”), a vestige of pre-invasion Southern African coastal gatherer societies (“Fate” 19; “Responsibilities” 9). Joe urges Michael Adonis not to join Foxy and the other “skollies” (hoodlums): “They break into places and steal, and I heard they stabbed a couple of johns. Christ, I don't want to see you end up like that, Mike. Hell, a man'd rather starve” (71). In Joe's mind the idea of being “a man” predominates over material needs. He refuses to prey on his fellow human beings, especially those he knows. In this respect, he is unlike Foxy and his friends, who have done something to “Mrs. Kannemeyer's daughter,” a phrase that suggests a recognized position in community relations. Joe represents, as Coetzee remarks, a lost “communal fellow-feeling” (Fate” 19).

La Guma associates Joe's fellow-feeling with the sea and the bounty of nature. But the sea is figuratively the people, whose solidarity is thus represented as a fact of nature. The voices in the pub have “the sound of surf breaking on a beach” (19). At the scene of Mister Doughty's death, the murmur of the crowd “subsided to the muttering sound of distant breakers whispering against rocks” (Walk 43). The disanimated population is reanimated and even unified in this figure. The crowd speaks “as a single political body” (Fatton 45), and when it stops speaking, the silence falls “like a shroud,” as if life were speech and silence mere ghostly solitude (43). Later, after Willieboy has been shot, a communal and anonymous dialogue of outrage and resignation is interrupted by another, unpredicated image of this animate ocean: “The mutter of dark water eroding the granite cliffs, sucking at the sand-filled cracks and dissolving the banks of clay” (83). The human body, degraded and dead in individuals, comes to life in the newly self-conscious group, muttering and “sucking at” the weak spots in the inhuman stone fortress of the state.6 In this Girardean moment, community emerges in shared linguistic responses to a sacrificial event, which thus brings the community to life in communal self-representation.

On the last page of the novel, La Guma associates his principal figures with Grace's unborn child in a comprehensive ideogram for South African life. The series of images presents the District's complex life by juxtaposing separate but simultaneous events. The series thus assumes the same kind of consciousness of the community as a whole that was represented by the figure of the ocean. First: A cockroach, prepared to inherit the earth, cautiously crosses the floor of Mister Doughty's room to “gorge itself” on “spilled liquor and vomit” (91). The cockroach is a figure of filth and decay, but through its association with Joe, who first appeared “like a cockroach,” it also represents survival by scavenge rather than community-destroying predation. Second: John Abrahams, the broken man who tries to cooperate with the police, represents the hopeless effort to accommodate the demands of destructive authority at the expense of community solidarity. In the third image, La Guma makes Joe the lyric poet of biological life, a poet with a nostalgia for beauty that may well be the source of the elegiac sadness that haunts La Guma's landscapes of injustice and devastation:

In the morning he would be close to the smell of the ocean and wade through the chill, comforting water, bending close to the purling green surface and see the dark fronds of seaweed, writhing and swaying in the shallows, like beckoning hands. And in the rock pools he would examine the mysterious life of the sea things, the transparent beauty of starfish and anemone, and hear the relentless, consistent pounding of the creaming waves against the granite citadels of rock.

“Beckoning” and “comforting” suggest the possibility that he will find his lost mother. “Smell,” “wade,” and “dark fronds … writhing and swaying” add a sensual promise to the maternal one, though both are present in the examination of “the mysterious life of the sea things.” These attractions are displaced onto the social sphere: the “pounding” of the ocean, which is the people in their awakened solidarity against the hostile “citadels of rock,” suggests that the destruction of the repressive state will provide profound erotic gratification. This image might appear to be based on a surprising superimposition of desires, but if damaged social relations haunt La Guma's imagination, a revitalized community holds out the promise of renewal. Surprisingly, Coetzee sees Joe as “drifting toward suicide” and the cockroach as a sign of “the victory of the predatory ways of the ghetto,” but Coetzee is a sensitive reader, and the tormented quality of La Guma's figures may indeed indicate curious links between Eros and death in his “fantasy situation” (“Responsibilities” 9; “Fate” 19).

In the last image Franky Lorenzo, another embodiment of solidarity and endurance, is snoring peacefully, while “beside him the woman, Grace, lay awake in the dark, restlessly waiting for the dawn and feeling the knot of life within her.” The diseased and struggling “knot” is now dense with potentiality. Will Grace bear a cockroach, scavenger, lover of the sea like Joe? A traitor like John Abrahams? An honest laborer like her husband? A “pustule of rage,” like Michael Adonis, “doomed for a certain term to walk the night”? Images of disease, poverty, rage, erotic hope, and the “natural” solidarity of the exploited overdetermine the final image of physical human life in the novel. The “knot of life” presents a fundamental conflict in the narrative between the fantasy of disanimation and the fantasy of social renewal.

And A Threefold Cord focuses on the ethical and material poverty of South Africans living in shanty towns. The “threefold cord” of the title comes from Ecclesiastes 4: 9-12, which La Guma uses for his epigraph: “and a threefold cord is not quickly broken.” The “threefold cord” echos the image of the knot in A Walk in the Night and confers an ethical significance on biological life, fundamentally rope-like in its predilection for social aggregations and generational continuities. However, the story's predominant images of human matter do not suggest the tautness or hardness of the knot as we saw it in the first novel, although Charlie Pauls has “bunched and knotted” muscles like Franky Lorenzo and feels a “knot of desire inside him … like a blooming flower” (26, 62). In writing And A Threefold Cord, La Guma was preoccupied with figures of natural cruelty and human degradation. The winter rains, “the structural equivalent in this novel to the squalor in A Walk in the Night” (Coetzee, “Fate” 20), reverse the beneficent connotations of nature in the first novel and provide “a cosmic setting symbolically alienated from its human inhabitants” (Asein 79). La Guma imagines the rain as an invading army, anthropomorphizing it as he did the sea but as an inimical, rather than as a generous being. His imagery of degradation becomes extravagant, even obsessive, as he sees the inhabitants of the shacks are transformed into animals or machines. In the end, however, Charlie self-consciously allies himself with a human community and opposes the violence of the environment.

The larger scope of And A Threefold Cord allows La Guma to present a wider range of human types than he did in A Walk in the Night. What he discovers, however, is that the disanimation and decay that afflicted District Six also affects the pondoks, or shanties. The white policemen are still appalling with their faces of “smoked beef” and “red stone” and their eyebrows “like fat maggots curling and uncurling,” but La Guma mainly concentrates on the species of humanity that has been bred by poverty. At best, people remind him of animals. Charlie approaches Roman and his gang “like a fox inspecting a trap” (45), and their confrontation is that of “a mongrel snarling over a bitch against a rival” (48). Roman's companions are “dogs around a dustbin,” Ronny Pauls yelps “like a hurt dog” when he slashes Susie Meyer with his knife, and George Mostert, the lonely and dispossessed white, putters around his failing service station like “a stray dog sniffing at a familiar scent” (66).

But even the craven vitality of dogs gives way before the creeping paralysis of metal, wood, and stone. Dad Pauls's face becomes “an outlandish mask hurriedly and roughly cut out of brown, seamed wood,” while his “old chest whispered and wheezed like a tea kettle, the body-frame shaking like a mechanical toy” (34). No sign of feeling or individual personality remains. Roman's gang is “a motley collection of scarecrows, stuffed with the straw of poverty” (46), and the local children have “arms like the loosely joined parts of a construction set” (53). The most ghastly portrait of all presents a “squalid parody of a female … as if a shopwindow dummy had first been abandoned for a year in a sewer, then … crudely stuffed with odds and ends, dressed in a gown of sewn up dishrags, and finally, with the use of some faulty clockwork, made to walk” (53). In this world of automata, human beings have sunk to the level of things, and things have risen, animated and diseased, to devour their human masters. Even Charlie has a chin like “the toe of an army boot” (22), while the Pauls's shack groans in the wind “like a prisoner on the rack” (41), and the other shacks huddle together “as if to suck warmth from each other's dugs” (42). The rubbish dump, which “mirrors the condition of the whole slum” (Roscoe 248), looks “like the back of a decaying monster, its scales of rotting paper, wood, offal, tin cans and indescribable filth heaving and twitching in the stiff, damp breeze” (Cord 45).

This degradation of the human fails to destroy the reproductive process, which displays the same ambiguity that La Guma had attributed to it in A Walk. Charlie's sister, Caroline, is “a machine” that “had been wound up to perform some automatic function”; yet Charlie sees her, “great with pregnancy,” as containing “some sort of insoluble mystery” (73; cf. “the mysterious life of the sea things,” Walk 91). Roman's wife is no more than “a rag doll, torn and savaged by a mongrel who had finally pawed the dust out of it”; yet “miraculously, life clung on in the woman's womb. … [S]he gave birth as smoothly as a grease-gun gives grease: you simply push the plunger and the grease comes out” (104). The mixed vocabulary of mystery and mechanism lends a grotesque beauty to the fecundity of these punished females. The mystery is the future of the children themselves: will they be thrown on the rubbish heap to be eaten by stray dogs, or will they survive to learn that they belong to a community?

La Guma asks how such a debilitated people can ever recover a sense of solidarity. He responds to the dilemma in three ways, but all three responses are actually the same one: shared symbols of community are the basis of solidarity for human beings no matter how degraded they might become. When Charlie strikes a policeman, his act does not strike a responsive chord among the other dwellers of the pondoks. Nevertheless, La Guma envisages a future collective defense against the state taking shape among the children who are playing war games. Jorny Pauls revels in Ronny's murder of Susie Meyer and in the likelihood of his being hanged, exhibiting a naive and terrible hardness that La Guma perhaps thought might be useful in guerrilla warfare. The episode ends with a image of a “lone carnation” growing among the detritus like “hope blooming in an anguished breast” (154). La Guma uses the metaphor of the carnation to turn the boys' thoughtless cruelty, a “natural” growth of their life in the violent slums, into a tenacious moral beauty with the potential to effect revolutionary change. The flower is “a scarlet bugle,” as “red as blood and life,” calling the boys to fight with Umkhonto we Sizwe. At this point, solidarity exists only in the eyes of the narrator and the reader, though the band of brothers playing in the garbage might possess it without knowing that they do.

The recovery of solidarity takes place among the characters themselves in spoken discourse, another form of shared symbol. Charlie fights to defend his brother, though he dislikes pointless brawling; listening to an agitator, he begins to see that the whole community, and even all the wretched of the earth, are his family, too. He consummates this acceptance of a shared identity by asking Freda to marry him: “people most of the time takes trouble hardest when they alone. … Hell, I reckon people was just made to be together” (168). In Charlie's perception of the community and his membership in it, La Guma presents his solution to the degradation of the pondoks.

As in A Walk in the Night, the vehicle of community is language, in particular language that formulates the value of solidarity—the language of the Biblical epigraph, the language of Charlie and his mother, and the language of the “elephantine” Missus Nzuba, who says, “We got to yelp each other” (110). These three characters, incidentally, have a biological vitality that either expresses itself in acts and words of love, while many of those around them, debilitated by alcohol and hatred, seek only oblivion or pleasure. La Guma suggests that the strongest are not broken by poverty, while the weak become evil or subhuman. For all of them, ethical discoveries must compete with the corrosive environment.

After Charlie's proposal, the invading rain becomes beneficent, falling “steadily, like heartbeats” (169). A kind of transcendence emerges when Charlie Pauls sees, “to his surprise, a bird dart suddenly from among the patchwork roofs of the shanties and head straight, straight into the sky” (169)—a spondaic intensity echoed in the “far, far away” of Elias Tekwane's final vision. Writing on A Walk in the Night, Michael Wade observes “the redemptive and redeeming possibility of full political awareness” (190); according to him, the bird's flight represents a connection established between Charlie and a dimension of permanent truth above the clouds. Apparently free of the fantastic disgust that haunts the “knot of life” at the end of the earlier novel, it nevertheless, like the knot, makes its appearance on a “scene of representation” opened by the gathering of the community at a sacrificial spectacle, in this case the accidental burning of Freda's shack. The image of the bird evokes the presence of the neighbors in front of the shack, which had collapsed “with a flapping sound as of a thousand cranes taking off in flight” (158). The fiery death of her two young children is the price paid for solidarity and hope. This tragedy brings the living together in an awareness of shared calamity that will never let them forget their calling to unity and their susceptibility to costly errors. The bird darting into the sky symbolizes Charlie's self-conscious act of solidarity in the presence of the community, and it includes the lost children who make this solidarity both necessary and possible. La Guma's fantasy of degradation, perhaps incinerated with Freda's shack, is altogether absent at the end, for it has been replaced by the fantasy of renewal through communal self-consciousness.

In La Guma's third novel, The Stone Country, the title tells half the story: the stone of the prison represents a dead land. The men of the prison, guards and prisoners alike, are themselves well on their way to becoming stone. Geometry rather than biology rules the novel's imagery. The human physicality that remains has largely assumed the attributes of animals or machines. Only the “womb-like blackness of the Hole,” the special punishment cell, provides an allusion to processes of biological generation, so prominent in the earlier novels. The predominant natural element is neither the sea-water of A Walk in the Night nor the rain of And A Threefold Cord, but a fierce wind.

Among La Guma's prisoners are jackals, apes, hyenas, wolves, roosters, vultures, and sheep; fingers resemble grapnels or withered twigs, minds are like machines, muscles like sjamboks (leather whips) or knotted hawsers, and eyes like midnight in winter. Among those who run the prison, there are people with “frigid eyes,” eyes like “pieces of glass,” a mouth “like the cut of an axeblade,” lips like squirming caterpillars, and faces like potlids, frying pans, papier ´mché, roast beef, crumpled paper, and puddles of boiling lava. The guards are perhaps closer to a purely mineral life than the prisoners. La Guma has used this technique before, and his style occasionally petrifies into a hard-boiled conventionality. The similes in his third novel often show less invention than metonymic variation, to the point where the figural function itself is paralyzed. The Kid is compared to a prisoner of war, which scarcely constitutes a comparison at all.

Yet there are moments of compelling imagination. In his fascinated, obsessive portrait of Butcherboy Williams, La Guma confronts the unresolved case of Roman in And A Threefold Cord. Butcherboy is a monster, a concentrated embodiment of degradation, and a Caliban-like patchwork of contradictory discourses. Bestial and “paleoanthropic,” he has sworn himself to the service of death (like the “skollies” of A Walk in the Night) in an expression of solidarity with exploitative violence: “He was half-naked, revealing an ape-like torso covered with tattooed decorations: hands holding hands, a skull-and-crossbones, a Union Jack, a dripping dagger, and various other emblems consistent with his barbarism” (Stone [The Stone Country] 31). Horrified, La Guma reaches for a nineteenth-century anthropology in which biological and cultural evolution are indistinguishable. Even the awkward phrase “consistent with,” used to gather the incoherent tattoo marks under the abstract rubric of “barbarism,” betrays a defensive reaction to the vision. Later readers hear of his “brontosaurian snores” (36) and see “his vast body slouched, ugly and brutal as a Neanderthal, the eyes savage as a wild boar's” (53). La Guma uncharacteristically imagines this brutality as a deficiency in biological and historical development, as if primitive human societies had no capacity for restraining violence. The apeman that racists see in nonwhite South Africans exists after all. “Twentieth century man forced back to the cave,” George remarks as he inspects the graffiti on the wall of his cell (12).

Dinosaur, wild boar, ape, caveman, barbarian: La Guma soon finds another imaginative explanation for Butcherboy's malevolence—the poor hygiene endemic to South African poverty:

George Adams looked aside and up into the blood-flecked, gorilla eyes and the heavy, red, rubbery lips peeled back to reveal broken, stained, and mossy teeth like desecrated tombstones, grinning out of the bludgeoned and badly-repaired, stubbly face. … The harsh carious breath fanned him, and George Adams was reminded of overturned dustbins in the grime-slippery lobbies of mouldering tenements and the smell of latrine buckets in hot cells.


Butcherboy thus becomes the product of materialistic determinism. But the corrupted, inflated flesh of Butcherboy's “vast body” surely carries more significance than the uncleanliness of poverty. Nor can one call him “the symbol of the most hideous and threatening aspects of apartheid” (Fatton 133) or the representative of a “primitive, violent government” (JanMohamed 248). How poorly he compares with “the tall, knife-blade form of Yusef the Turk” with his “sleek handsome head” and “even dentures, white as new enamel in the swarthy face” (66)! What enables one man to remain humane, courageous, and self-respecting while another grows bestial and cruel? How can the Pauls family produce both a Charlie and a Ronny? District Six a Willieboy and a Joe? Butcherboy's “arm ropy with muscle, and fingers thick as cable” and legs “knotted like tree-stumps” give him the fundamental vitality of Charlie Pauls and Franky Lorenzo—a vitality that should have blossomed into a sense of protective solidarity. Instead, he becomes the soft ruin like Roman. “The most hideous and threatening aspects of apartheid,” in Fatton's phrase (133), belong to a fantasy of degradation in which the human form is an enveloping fecal corpse that lies beyond the capacity of language to contain and only responds to the appeal of force.

There is another line of imagination in the novel. Human faces often appears as paper, suggesting that La Guma regards them as being more fragile and brittle than when he described them in terms of ice, beef, and stone. The Super has a face of “crumpled paper” (68), while Solly, the human marionette, is a grotesque human text, “a smudged and tattered, crumpled memo-sized, yellow duplicate of a man, with eyes like smeared plus signs in the wrinkle folds of his face, a mouth like a blurred dash flanked by deep-cut parentheses” (30). The Casbah Kid, “not being able to indulge in any sort of intricate thought,” has a mind like a “scrap-book” that he can leaf through at will: “Now and then some special scene would worry him, as if the page had accidentally become folded or crumpled, causing a bulge in the book …” (128). In each case, the human body has become waste paper, a by-product of bureaucratic processing, but also a sign of the failure of communication between prisoners. These paper figures might have their source in La Guma's years as a bookkeeper, but contextually they present human degradation as linguistic degradation. In the larger context of La Guma's career, waste paper represents his own writing, cut off by his banishment from readers in his own country.

Fatton sees The Stone Country as an artistic failure: “The allegorical form of the novel precludes the effective interaction of narrative and metaphor since the narrative itself is the vehicle of the metaphor” (137). She suggests that it “reveals La Guma's temporary loss of confidence in the ultimate possibility of the individual activist to have control over his own destiny, let alone to affect that of others” (142). But the novel also encourages an opposite reading. La Guma explores a worst-case scenario and discovers that the vestiges, the fading coals, of solidarity are still present in, for example, Yusef's proud self-sacrifice to an ideal of solidarity among a self-selected elite, or George Adams's notion of the self-conscious ethical community in which he seeks to include the other prisoners. Together such impulses justify hope for a renewal of the stone country to be brought about by the communication of an ethical vision, a renewal for which allegory is an appropriate vehicle.

The vestigial community of the prison is symbolized by the wind. Full of the prisoners' violence, the wind hoots, roars, whoops, whistles, claws “like a frenzied woman” (157), and screams “like an evil spirit” (160). Anthropomorphized, like the sea in A Walk in the Night, into a metaphor for solidarity, “the wind hissed and shrilled against the unresisting stone” (138). In the final chapters the wind attacks like an avenger, an angel of the Apocalypse revealing a “solidarity of the underworld” that may or may not join in the national struggle against racial oppression. If George Adams could effectively communicate his vision of solidarity to the prisoners, the “evil spirit” of their solidarity could destroy the stone country. The potential revitalization of degraded human beings is represented by a character who physically resembles the ruined Butcherboy, but who bears the same relation to the wind as Joe bears to the sea in A Walk in the Night:

A man, a newcomer who had arrived the previous day, now set his bowl aside, leaned forward and made soft, crooning bird sounds, extending a ragged arm towards the pigeons. He was dressed in tattered jacket, patched trousers and disintegrating shoes, and he had a flabby body and a flabby, liquor-bloated sagging face, like a half-filled penny balloon. The unshaven, pouchy mouth smiled and his soft, gentle calling came strangely from it.

Then, as everybody watched, the pigeons rose on fluttering wings to settle on the ragged arm and shoulders, so that the man, rising to his feet, looked like some strange mythological being, half-feathers-half-human.

The man crooned to the birds and reached out a cracked, blunt finger to stroke the pearl-grey, blue-green backs with the touch as gentle as light. The pigeons pushed and shuffled over the arm and shoulders of the man and he stood there, whispering to them, like some soiled and ragged Saint Francis.


A repulsive fleshy mass like Butcherboy or Roman, a heap of filthy rags like Joe, the man nonetheless carries the “half-mythological” Franciscan message of the solidarity of living things—just as George carries the message of human solidarity. Most importantly, he carries the message that communication is the basis of human solidarity. The pigeons represent solidarity and speech, solidarity achieved through speech.

The message is strange, inexplicable, miraculous, but it is also at the center of the collective “scene of representation,” where the “ritualistic” fight (Jan-Mohamed 247) and the partially successful escape attempt also take place. The scene allegorizes the novel's central truth. Speech can carry solidarity, as George Adams carries it, as Yusef (whose name has both Islamic and Hebraic connotations) also carries it, into a hostile environment; speech produces community, not mere crumpled paper. The difference between Butcherboy and the derelict saint, between horrifying degradation and community, is the sense of solidarity that is conceived in and as language. La Guma makes no excuses for invoking Saint Francis and the Holy Spirit to present the miraculous, “half-mythological” survival of solidarity, with its “touch as gentle as light,” in a country of stone. The Holy Spirit, as he sees it, is manifested as human communication in an otherwise monstrously degraded world. In the following passage La Guma skillfully balances his allegory with the realistic specificity of the pigeon fancier's command of technical detail and use of Cape Coloured dialect:

“Good homing pigeon weigh about sixteen ounces,” the ragged man explained with authority. “You know they can go up to ninety-seven miles a hour? And that, weather permitting, they can travel from five hundred to seven hundred miles in a day? That's between daybreak and nightfall, min' you. Ja, pals, you ask me. I know mos about pigeons, man.”


The religious vocabulary Wade uses to discuss A Walk in the Night applies a fortiori to The Stone Country. Political awareness is more highly developed in this novel, for it is founded on a deeper horror of degradation and an imagined renewal that is both pragmatic and universal. But political awareness alone is not “redemptive and redeeming.” This awareness must be communicated to those who have forgotten their humanity.

In the Fog of the Season's End presents degraded human bodies in familiar forms: there is no need to demonstrate further La Guma's inventiveness in imagining brutalization and disanimation. Whites, Coloureds, and Blacks are all represented in terms of inanimate things or animals. In view of the climactic murder of the activist Elias Tekwane, however, it is worth mentioning some of the images of dismemberment sprinkled throughout the novel. The police take Elias apart in the basement of the station; La Guma, in anticipation of this, sees dismantled bodies even in ordinary objects. The parking meters in Cape Town's business district, for example, resemble “regiments of armless robots” (1); the shreds of a canvas deck chair are “dehydrated entrails” (28), and a pair of overalls hang “like a headless traitor on display” (45). Among the torn advertisements in the township, “a dismembered hand emerged from a label for plum jam, and a mouth smiled under a speedboat” (141). Even the police major, reminiscent of Missus Nzuba, “seemed to be constructed of a series of pink ovals” (3). Such images add to the “symbols of shattered life” and the “consciousness of fragmentation” noted by Gikandi (133).

La Guma sees the violence of the state primarily as violence against the human body. He uses the assaulted human body as a figure for the Resistance itself.7 In the years following Sharpeville,

The movement writhed under the terror, bleeding. … It crouched like a slugged boxer, shaking his spinning head to clear it, while he took the count, waiting to rise before the final ten. … The leaders and the cadres filled the prisons or retreated into exile. Behind them, all over the country, tiny groups and individuals … still moved like moles underground, trying to link up in the darkness of lost communications, and broken contacts. Some of them knew each other and wrestled to patch up the body. … Little by little the raw nerve fibres and tired muscles of the movement established shaky communication with centres abroad.


We sense La Guma straining to retain a sense of the bodily unity of the movement, a unity that is buried in the subterranean darkness of his mole simile, which brings in an idea of communication through invisible penetration—which is as close as La Guma comes to a sexual image of revolution.

This continuous destruction of human bodies culminates in Elias's murder; but at this point, the destruction becomes an affair of an individual body and soul rather than an impersonal epidemic of state terror. The abstract and ritualized opening scene is replayed as the martyrdom of a man with a definite past consciously suffering for his people. The attack against his body becomes is the attack against his achieved identification with his people and its political consequences in his activism. His death, however, also represents a culmination in La Guma's imaginative and artistic development. La Guma's imagination of degradation is assimilated to Elias's own consciousness of his body, which under the violence of the detectives becomes an object of horror: his “puffed eyes” and “skinned shins,” “swollen lips” and “legs pierced by nails” recall the inhabitants of District Six, the pondoks, and the prison (169). His bludgeoned body dissolves at the touch of the detectives' electrodes into “a thousand worms” that “writhed under his skin and broke through the surface of his flesh, each one of them screaming in the black darkness”; his face becomes “a shabby mask … puffed into swollen blankness, like the face of a drowned man” (172-73). But Elias deliberately opposes this bodily degradation with images of community. He chooses to occupy his mind with memories of the people for whom he has engaged in political struggle—Mdlaka, old Tsatsu, his mother. This act of will is then answered by an involuntary vision that reinforces his deliberate choice:

His silence, his resolve, now seemed to take on the form of a force within him: the amalgam of pain and brutality atomized into the gathering ghosts of his many ancestors which seemed to insulate him from the pain. Pain was there, yes, but somehow something apart, a satellite revolving the planet of his being, his mind, which was full of the faraway ululations, the rattle of spears on shields, the tramp of thousands of feet.


As Ngara observes, “The armed ancestors whom Elias sees in his hour of death will indeed come to fight, but in the form of guerrillas armed with modern weapons” (97). In a fusion of Christian and African motifs, Elias dies, thirsting and “pierced by nails,” so that Peter, Michael, and Paul (formerly Isaac) can escape over the border to fight “in the name of a suffering people” (180). The conflict between a sickening materiality and an ideal of human solidarity was staged in the ritualistic fight between Butcherboy and the Turk in The Stone Country; in In the Fog of the Season's End it occurs on the stage of a single consciousness.8 Fatton notes Elias's “total transcendence of all physical reality” (180), the word “mastery” might be more appropriate than “transcendence.” Elias controls his own degraded body with images of identity and communal solidarity; and when the resources of his will are exhausted, a deeper imagination takes over and fulfils his act of will with the ultimate representation of solidarity, the image of the ghosts of his ancestors. In dramatizing Elias's victory, La Guma also dramatizes his own artistic control over his lively, sometimes obsessive, imagination of degradation. The dedicated pragmatism of the characters, in which pain and fear are subordinated to the practical tasks of organizing the struggle, reflects La Guma's artistic dedication, in which the imagination is subordinated to the effective communication of a moral and political vision.9

La Guma's principal interest in Time of the Butcherbird lies in the interactions among Afrikaners, black Africans, and the English elements of South African society. Meulen, Murile, and Edgar Stopes are typical representatives of their social groups, and La Guma makes each of them, formally speaking, an Elias—a focalized consciousness dwelling on the memories that have defined its position in the world. The novel ticks like an allegorical clockwork, each character's story carrying him inexorably toward the fatal confrontation that will decide the destiny of South Africa. The artistic control dramatized in Fog [In the Fog of the Season's End] is beautifully maintained. As a result, no undisciplined imaginative horrors enter the picture. The “beef-red face, writhing with pounding blood” of Meulen's father (64); Stopes's mother-in-law “with the clashing teeth of a movie dinosaur” (39); and “the wheezing sound of a broken pump” (75) made by Murile's dying brother, all images of dehumanized human bodies, are wholly assimilated to the personalities of the characters that remember them. La Guma subordinates his imagination of the human body to the reflection of South African society in the consciousnesses of his characters. His imagery is thus less sensational and more coherent as an expression of his vision of South African society.

The novel opens with an image of sacrificial bodily desiccation. The “dispossessed,” to whom the book is dedicated, are being dumped on an empty plain where two roads come together “like scars of a branded cross on the pocked and powdered skin of the earth” (1). One person's “horny fingers” identify him or her with this parched landscape, just as Murile and Madonele are identified with it later. Madonele has “a skeleton-thin body that looked tough, nevertheless, dried and stringly and lasting as jerked meat …” (17), and Murile, “a slight smile forming on his peeling lips,” recognizes the durability of the desert vegetation: “They last forever, these trees, left alone, they last forever” (15). Physical persistence becomes a metaphor for moral persistence. For example, Murile sees himself in an ant “who knows he has somewhere to go,” but he has forgotten the collective moral persistence of his people, a persistence which he might also have observed in the ant and the trees. His feeling of solidarity with his people has decayed, and its resoration is one of the novel's plot-lines. He shares tobacco with Madonele, but tells him, “There is no home now. … I don't want to talk about those times” (19). Madonele's rejoinder echos Elias's death-scene: “Should we forget our ancestors too?” The land and the people are threatened by drought; physical desiccation brings the people to the brink of moral death, the failure of communal solidarity.

As La Guma imagines them, the Afrikaners are as deeply rooted in the land as the black Africans. Kroner has hair “like the roof of a rondawel hut,” and pictures of the commando ancestors, with “the look of dressed-up ghosts” (23) line the walls of his bar. Oupa Meulen mirrors Madonele's physical durability; he is “bloodless and tough as biltong, the jerked meat he had lived on for most of his early years” (67). Toughness and blood symbolically link the Africans and the Afrikaners. There is also a close parallel between the orators in each community, for both Mma-Tau and Dominee Visser counter the drought by speaking to their people's pride in their blood. Mma-Tau speaks of “the blood of rage in the veins … of an invaded and despoiled people,” and claims that “law and guns have no blood” (47). Against the attitude of her capitulating brother, she invokes “the blood of the warriors of old time” (48). Similarly Visser attributes the drought to “blood pollution and the lowering of the racial level” (106). However, the differences between these two orators are obvious; one is calling for rebellion in the name of justice and a national humanity, the other for repentance in the name of obedience to a wrathful but parochial God. The parallel blood imagery establishes a dramatically effective rivalry.

The final shedding of Meulen's (and Stopes's) blood by Murile will evidently fertilize the Waste Land, make the desert flower, and bring the dead back to life:

behind him Edgar Stopes saw the look of anger, then the flash and heard the blast, and the next thing there was a slither and a heavy thump together with a wet slap across his cheek which was made by one of Hannes Meulen's ears as his head was blown off, and the whitewash of the passage wall was suddenly decorated with a blossom petalled with blood and brain and pieces of bone and fragments of teeth like pomegranate pips.


La Guma habitually renders the human body in metaphorical terms: “pink ice” or “black currant jelly” are vehicles for the hard or soft, protean and problematic human body. In Time of the Butcherbird the human body itself becomes metaphorical, the vehicle for ideas of solidarity, survival, and renewal. The imagery of the body is entirely controlled by a consciousness self-consciously dedicated, like Elias's, to the communication of community. The blood of hate and rage will revive the dry desert of bodies and peoples; monstrous, unjust, racist bodies and peoples will be banished by the humanism of the she-lion Mma-Tau.

As with many writers, La Guma's artistic mastery developed at the cost of his imaginative intensity. Few readers would trade the crackling urban nightscape of A Walk in the Night for the flawless mechanism of Time of the Butcherbird. La Guma's imagination of the human body, of the body degraded and disanimated or revitalized by self-conscious solidarity, adds a dimension of subjective response to his narratives—narratives that consequently offer an honest interrogation, alternately horrified and hopeful, of the social potentialities of human beings. This interrogation ceases when La Guma masters imagination with an artistic and moral conception of the supremacy of consciousness, particularly consciousness of community and communication, over the physicality of the body. The spontaneous romantic naturalist gives way to the dedicated sacramental allegorist. However, the development of La Guma's imagination should not be considered an advance from forceful, even indecent obsession to mastery of artistic decorum. Njabulo Ndebele places an early story of La Guma's in the context of a Black South African aesthetic of “spectacular demonstration.” This aesthetic appeals directly to ideas already held by the audience and requires no thoughtful interpretation: “seeing is meaning” (147). Through the obvious and exaggerated features of the story, “Coffee for the Road,” La Guma strives to provoke in his audience an immediate and intense recognition of it own situation. This spectacular aesthetic does not account for the ambiguity of the human body in La Guma's imagination, but it does indicate a purpose behind the relentless intensification of imagery in the earlier works. The interrogation of the body we have explored is thus perhaps merely a side-effect of the amplification and repetition of the “spectacular.” Ndebele goes on to say, however, that “the culture of the spectacular … has run its course” (150). He then examines the emergence of complex analytical subjectivities in the narratives of younger writers, subjectivities that he regards as a potential foundation for the “growth of consciousness” needed “to build a new civilization” (157). La Guma participates in this development and anticipates it. In his images of the human body, as in his narratives generally, the aesthetics of spectacle opens a space for the exploration and growth of consciousness. His final two novels exhibit the same close study of consciousness that Ndebele praises in Siluma, Matlou, and Maseko. As JanMohamed concludes, “La Guma's project … demonstrates the systematic, if painful, emergence of the subject, the transformation of the slave into an individual who is the master of his personal destiny (though not yet of his world)” (276).


  1. I would like to thank Prof. John Jordan of University of California, Santa Cruz, for looking over an earlier version of this paper and the editors of RAL for suggesting usefully different perspectives on the topic.

  2. In his Origin of Language, Eric Gans postulates the “scene of representation” as the origin of significance, language, ritual, and the aesthetic. The term reflects Gans's efforts to modify the theory of culture propounded by René Girard in Violence and the Sacred and Things Hidden Since the Foundation of the World. Gans fixes the origin of culture in a gesture proffered by the members of the proto-human group in the presence of a collectively significant object, rather than in the object itself. The original gesture, for Gans, is then the origin of language, not the body of the original arbitrary victim, as in Girard. La Guma is also interested in scenes where a new collective consciousness takes shape. I discuss this in a forthcoming article in English in Africa.

  3. Narratology has little to say about the novelist's use of simile and metaphor. Citing Roman Jakobson, Gerald Prince notes the function of metonymy in the representation of narrative causality, but in his own narratology, simile and metaphor would be merely “stative events,” events that describe states, rather than actions, within the context of the narrative; the ability of such a state to modify the context of meaning for other events, even to hint at the meaning of all the events in the narrative, is not recognized (Dictionary 52; Grammar 29). Shlomith Rimmon-Kenan's survey of narratology is equally silent on this topic. Peter Brooks's description of “Freud's Masterplot,” however, in which we are said to read “toward the recognition and retrospective illumination of the text as total metaphor,” would allow us to see metaphors and similes as titillations of our narrative desire, reiterative metonymies of this final “total metaphor” (Brooks 108).

  4. Michael Wade insightfully describes Mr. Doughty as the decayed representative of an Anglocentric tradition that, now past its glory, attempts to hand over the wealth of its past creations to a recipient not prepared or equipped to accept it (187).

  5. Fatton notes that the know of rage becomes an embryo in the pub, where the taxi driver introduces the Marxist perspective on South African racism (Fatton 53). Another reader sees a pun on the word “term,” which can mean both the end of a pregnancy and the period of time during which the ghosts are doomed “to walk the night” (Makotsi 27).

  6. Vernon February examines racial stereotypes as an inevitable and perhaps even an essential component of African writing, even in a writer like La Guma, “whose compassion for people was well known”; February remarks that “the image of blue as a symbol for cruelty is as well established as that of black as a symbol of evil for whites” (35). From a superficially Girardean point of view, La Guma's Afrikaner is a monstrous Other, the devil incarnate (The Violence and the Sacred). Only in his last novel does the black South African slay the dragon and heal the Waste Land. But a close examination of La Guma's figures shows monstrosity to be ubiquitous. Fatton cites JanMohamed's remark that “La Guma does not allow his characters or narrator to transcend the terms imposed by apartheid” (JanMohamed 238; qtd. in Fatton 36). This statement is not strictly true, since La Gumas's novels always include a voice that advocates a universal humanism, which is thus presented as one of the first principles, along with communal solidarity, behind the struggle against apartheid.

  7. In describing Nzuba as a physical human body, La Guma makes use of an exuberant, jocular rhetoric whose tone is perhaps meant to correspond with her generous vitality: “Given: a huge black currant jelly that had been moulded into a series of connected ovals, spheres, ellipses, and sundry bulges representing head, torso, arms, and legs. Attire this jelly in a vast dress, washed out and then once more soiled with grease and spilled food … Result: Missus Nzuba” (110). Maria in In the Fog of the Season's End and Mma-Tau in Time of the Butcherbird are also big African women who embody such generous, and from novel to novel increasingly courageous, vitality.

  8. George Mostert's office in And A Threefold Cord is filled with old paper, and the brother-in-law's face is “marked with a blurred anonymity, like a rubber stamp which has moved on a paper, leaving an illegible smudge” (Cord 88).

  9. The criticism of Fog focuses on its protagonists' pragmatic approach to their struggle: “a more mature type of character emerges who is able to think outside himself and reason out the situation in South Africa pragmatically” (Kibera 60); “the concrete potentiality of the self will only manifest itself through praxis” (JanMohamed 258); “gnosis must eventually yield to praxis” (Gikandi 132). Praxis is the bridge between the “subjective, noetic” quality of the novel JanMohamed explores so persuasively and the effective political action La Guma's readers are often eager to endorse. But the novel is primarily about the subjective basis of effective action, as dramatized in Elias's self-sacrifice, not about the transition from a subjective to a pragmatic phase of being. Pain fails to destroy Elias's will because he can maintain his subjective identification with his people and their cause. The degradation of his body is not a shattering horror to him because it is a recognizable episode in his people's century-long war against the invaders. JanMohamed's Sartrean analysis, fusing a science of the subject with a science of society, accounts for the structure and texture of La Guma's novels better than Gikandi's, Ngara's, or Futcha's more narrowly ideological readings do, and in some ways better than Roscoe's and Nkosi's anti-ideological readings. He neglects, however, the religious element of political commitment as La Guma sees it, an element to which Wade has called attention.

Works Cited

Abrahams, Cecil. Alex La Guma. Boston: Twayne Publishers, 1985.

Asein, Samuel Omo. “The Revolutionary Vision in Alex La Guma's Novels.” Phylon 39 (1978): 74-86.

Brooks, Peter. Reading For The Plot. New York: Random, 1985.

Coetzee, J. M. “Alex La Guma and the Responsibilities of the South African Writer.” Journal of the New African Literature and the Arts 9-10 (1971): 5-11.

———. “Man's Fate in the Novels of Alex La Guma.” Studies in Black Literature 5.1 (1974): 16-23.

Fatton, Kathleen B. “The Novels of Alex La Guma: The Representation of a Political Conflict.” Dissertation, Univ. of Notre Dame, 1984.

February, Vernon. And Bid Him Sing. London: Kegan Paul International, 1988.

Futcha, Innocent. “The Fog in In the Fog of the Season's End.Ngam 1-2 (1977): 78-92.

Gans, Eric. The Origin of Language. Berkeley: U of California P, 1980.

Gikandi, Simon. Reading the African Novel. London: James Currey, 1987.

Girard, René. Things Hidden Since the Foundation of the World. Trans. Stephen Bann and Michael Metteer. Stanford: Stanford U P, 1987.

———. Violence and the Sacred. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins U P, 1977.

Green, Robert. “Alex La Guma's In the Fog of the Season's End: The Politics of Subversion.” Umoja III. 2 (Summer 1979): 85-93.

JanMohamed, Abdul. Manichean Aesthetics. Amherst, Mass.: U of Massachusetts P, 1983.

Kibera, Leonard. “A Critical Appreciation of Alex La Guma's In the Fog of the Season's End.” Busara 8.i: 59-66.

La Guma, Alex. And A Threefold Cord. Berlin: Seven Seas Publishers, 1964.

———. A Walk in the Night and Other Stories. Evanston, IL: Northwestern UP, 1967.

———. In the Fog of the Season's End. London: Heinemann, 1972.

———. The Stone Country. London: Heinemann, 1974.

———. Time of the Butcherbird. London: Heinemann, 1979.

Makotsi, Jimmi. Notes on Alex La Guma's A Walk in the Night. Nairobi: Heinemann, 1985.

Ndebele, Njabulo S. “The Rediscovery of the Ordinary: Some New Writings in South Africa.” Journal of Southern African Studies 12.2 (Apr 1986): 143-157.

Ngara, Emmanuel. Art and Ideology in the African Novel. London: Heinemann, 1985.

Nkosi, Lewis. “Fiction by Black South Africans.” Introduction to African Literature. Ed. Ulli Beier. London: Longman, 1979. 221-227.

Parker, Kenneth, ed. The South African Novel in English: Essays in Criticism and Society. New York: African Publishing Company, 1978.

Prince, Gerald. A Dictionary of Narratology. Aldershot, U.K.: Scolar P, 1988.

———. A Grammar of Stories. The Hague: Mouton, 1973.

Rimmon-Kenan, Shlomith. Narrative Fiction: Contemporary Poetics. New York: Methuen, 1982.

Roscoe, Adrian. Uhuru's Fire. Cambridge: Cambridge U P, 1977.

Wade, Michael. “Art and Morality in Alex La Guma's A Walk in the Night.The South African Novel in English. Ed. Kenneth Parker. London: Macmillan, 1978. 164-191.

Wanjala, Chris Lukorito. “Fossilized Black Martyrs.” Teaching of African Literature in Schools. Eds. Eddah Gachukia and S. Kichamu Akivaga. Nairobi: Kenya Literature Bureau, 1978. 201-215.

Whitman, Scarlet. “A Story of Resistance.” African Communist 77 (1979): 110-13.

Balasubramanyam Chandramohan (essay date 1992)

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SOURCE: Chandramohan, Balasubramanyam. “The Coloureds of Cape Town.” In A Study in Trans-Ethnicity in Modern South Africa: The Writings of Alex La Guma, 1925-1985, pp. 52-105. Lampeter, Wales: Mellen Research University Press, 1992.

[In the following excerpt, Chandramohan explores La Guma's portrayal of black South Africans.]

One of the aims that La Guma had in taking up creative writing was to fill the gap that he felt existed in the portrayal of the Coloured community in South African literature.1 The gap arose as a result of the preoccupation of South African writers with the events of the expanding frontier of the Cape Colony which was dominated by the White-African military and cultural conflict. The preceding conflict, the Khoisan resistance to White inroads into their territories though heroic, Shula Marks demonstrated,2 was less bloody and lasted for less time as compared with the White African conflict. Consequently, the interest in Khoisan ways of life was relatively less. Even the little interest that the Khoisan resistance aroused was dominated either by outright racial denigration, as in the observations of many travellers,3 or by a Rousseauite ‘Noble Savage’ formula as evidenced in the writings of Thomas Pringle.4 These stereotypes, February points out, were transposed to the portrayal of Coloureds5 who, similar to the defeated Khoisan, did not pose any military threat. Thus, the literary portrayal of the Coloureds was overshadowed by the interest in the White-African conflict. A realistic portrayal of the Coloureds of Cape Town remained a gap in South African literature in English, a gap that La Guma sought to fill.

Another reason for the neglect of the Coloureds was the preoccupation of South African writers with the ‘pure’ races of White and African. The idea of miscegenation as something sinful or at least abnormal, prevented writers from taking up the Coloureds seriously as normal human beings worthy of celebration in literature. The Coloureds were, Rabkin describes, ‘tribeless in a tribalised society’.6 Even liberal humanist writers such as Olive Schreiner did not escape the obsession with the ‘pure’ races. Nearly sixty years after the emancipation of slaves, in her Thoughts on South Africa Schreiner noted:

[…] the slave has been set free, the Half-caste has multiplied, and now forms a more or less distinct section of society. […] Nevertheless, socially his position remains much what it was. Without nationality, tradition, or racial ideals [..] robbed of racial self respect […]. The Englishman will swear to you on the word of an Englishman, and the Bantu on the word of the Bantu, but no Half-caste ever yet swore on the honour of a Half-caste. The world would break into crackling laughter did he do so: The honour of a Half-caste!’7

The antagonism to racial intermixture was even more explicit in the writings of Sarah Gertrude Millin. In her creative works the Coloureds emerge as ‘God's Step-children’ and the ‘pure’ Africans and ‘pure’ Whites are given a measure of nobility. In her novel Adam's Rest Millin uses the character Miriam to voice her views on various issues, particularly on the question of racial intermixture. Commenting on ‘half breeds’ to Janet, another character in the novel, Miriam says:

There must be something wrong at bottom. Look at their ancestry. It means a bad type of white man and a bad type of a black woman to begin with. You know yourself, Janet, decent Kaffir women have nothing to do with white men. So that's one thing. Besides it doesn't matter what it is. I can't work it out, but I have a feeling about colour as if it were a catching disease—perhaps it is—and I don't want to be near it.8

One of the problems that the Coloured writers encountered in such a situation of neglect and ascribed ontological sinfulness was gaining a place of honour and self-respect for the community and themselves. They were pitted against a literary tradition that portrayed Coloureds as willingly accepting the sinfulness, or at least the insignificance, of their existence. The Coloured writers, or any writer attempting a realistic portrayal of the Coloureds, had to swim against the current of negative stereotypes augmented by Millin through her novel God's Step-children.9 Calchas, a Khoi character in the novel, admits her ontological sinfulness to the Reverend Flood, an Englishman who intends to prove that all human beings are the children of God. The conversation between Reverend Flood and Calchas, which reveals a conflict of the attitudes that the Coloured writers had to choose between, proceeds as follows:

‘We are all God's children’, he said.

‘But is God Himself not white?’ asked Calchas.

And, as the Rev Andrew Flood hesitated for a reply, she made a suggestion:

‘Perhaps, we brown people are His stepchildren’.10

The Coloureds had, broadly speaking, two options to counter the negative image. One was to assert their group identity within the racial hierarchy of South Africa; and the other was to develop a trans-ethnic identity for all South Africans within which they could find an equal place. The choice in self-identity was influenced by the relative numerical dominance of the Coloureds in the different parts of South Africa. In a survey conducted by Edelstein,11 when questioned on the the name they would like to be known by, a proportionally larger number of respondents in Johannesburg prefered the name ‘Coloureds’ in comparison to the number who prefered that name in Cape Town. The most prefered name of the Coloureds of Cape Town was ‘South African’. The findings of the Theron Commission12 confirmed the trends noticed in Edelstein's survey. John Western too noticed this tendency among the Coloureds:

The sense of a specifically Coloured identity among those persons so classified was at its weakest in Cape Town, as opposed to other areas where Coloured persons constituted a minority group in their immediate environment.13

La Guma's preference for a trans-ethnic identity is a part of the general preference for such identity among the Coloureds of Cape Town.

The choice between ethnicity and trans-ethnicity that confronts the Coloureds is largely a consequence of their marginal position, a position of privilege within an overall context of disadvantage based on colour. They have been traditionally accorded by successive White-run governments certain privileges that were denied to the Africans and Indians. The urban Coloured community in Cape Town, for example, was not segregated by legislation until the passing of the Group Areas Act in 1950. Further, the Coloureds benefited most from the ‘Colour blind’ Constitution of 1853, as most of them lived in the Cape. While Africans were removed in 1936 from the common voters' list the Coloureds retained direct political representation till 1956. Similarly the Coloureds were not subjected to legal restrictions on their sexual partners till 1950 when the Immorality Amendment Act made it punishable for them to have sexual relations with Whites. Africans were denied the freedom of choosing their sexual partners after 1927 under the The Immorality Act, No. 5 of 1927 which prohibited sexual relations outside marriage between Africans and Whites. The Coloureds were admitted to various skilled jobs, and permitted to have trade unions, while the Africans were barred from doing so. Further, unlike the Indians, the Coloureds had residential rights in all the four provinces of South Africa. Through various legislative measures that gave ‘concessions’ to the Coloureds, while denying a similar status to Africans and Indians, the Coloureds acquired a position of marginality caught between the privileged Whites and under-privileged Africans.

The marginal position occupied by the Coloureds has led to two contrasting attitudes over questions of ethnicity. The Federal Party, which represents one extreme ‘is convinced that parallel development is the only logical approach to problems besetting our [Coloured] people’.14 It argues that the community would benefit from consolidating the marginal position it occupies in the racial hierarchy of the country. Some others, such as La Guma, wanted a closer union with other racial groups to replace the existing racial hierarchy with a non-racial society. La Guma's political activities, journalism and creative writings reflected his concern for trans-ethnicity which he saw as the way forward for South Africa. In his article ‘Culture and Apartheid in South Africa’ La Guma argued:

The democratic revolution in South Africa implies […] a new community of people of all racial groups, African, White, Coloured, and Asian, being given the opportunity of creating a single, unified nation.15

In his creative works La Guma explored the problems of the Coloureds from a trans-ethnic perspective. He emphasised the common problems of racial disadvantage that the Coloureds share with other Black ethnic groups, and decried attempts at asserting Coloured racial ‘superiority’. His notion of trans-ethnicity was linked to a universality of opinion that he sought in his writings. In his interview with Robert Serumaga La Guma said:

As a writer I try to achieve a universality of opinion and ideas because I believe that writers are not confined to one set of particular compartments […] even if one has to write within a milieu, a particular environment, or portray a particular environment. I believe that universal ideas can still be expressed within that milieu, within that environment so that your writing does not become confined. Although your stage may be set in a particular environment, your ideas and your writing are not confined.16

In order to achieve the universality of opinion La Guma widened the scope of his artistic concerns beyond a narrow interpretation of Coloured ethnic interests. In his writings he dramatised the problems, or ‘troubles’ as some of his characters17 call them, of the Coloureds more in terms of poverty and less in terms of an ethnic group. Coloured ethnicity is under-played and seen merely as a background against which various cycles of man's inhumanity to man take place. La Guma uses different textual strategies to go beyond the specificities of the particular ethnic environment and projects a vision of a trans-ethnic society for all human beings. In this chapter the interlinkages between ethnicity and trans-ethnicity in La Guma's works are explored with a view to assessing whether or not the author succeeded in his twin objectives of putting the Coloureds on the literary map of South Africa and of projecting his universalist vision.

Most of La Guma's works about the Coloureds were written while he was inside South Africa. Between 1957, when he started publishing, and 1966, when he left South Africa, La Guma wrote several anecdotes of individual interest, and short stories that highlight the social consequences of racial legislation. The novels he wrote during this period, A Walk in the Night,18And A Threefold Cord,19 and The Stone Country,20 provide an extended treatment of the life of the Coloured people. The focus in these writings is on the Coloured people and their relationship with other racial groups. The novel A Walk in the Night focuses primarily on the life of the Coloured community. The social relationships between the Coloureds and Africans are emphasised in And A Threefold Cord. La Guma's third novel The Stone Country is set in a prison. The prisoners are segregated on the basis of race and, consequently, George Adams, the Coloured protagonist of the novel, spends much of his time in the Coloured section of the prison. But the background to his arrest and imprisonment is trans-ethnic political activity, a theme pursued in La Guma's next novel, In the Fog of the Season's End,21 as well. The political dimensions of trans-ethnicity which The Stone Country and In the Fog of the Season's End deal with are examined in the following chapter.

La Guma's attempts to portray the community of poor people as the collective hero of his works overshadows his concern with the Coloured community as an ethnically specific group. Within the Coloured community he selects the economically deprived sections and observes how they are able to interact with the poor of the other racial groups and establish a viable community that can withstand the pressures of poverty and racial disadvantage. Instead of focusing on individual heroes, as Peter Abrahams and Rive do, La Guma concentrates on the social community of the poor united by ‘a threefold cord’. Collective action, instead of individual heroism, is suggested as the solution to the problems facing the social community in A Walk in the Night and And A Threefold Cord. Trans-ethnic humanism in La Guma's works revolves around the notion of the community of poor caring for each other in times of crisis.

La Guma's attempts to speak on behalf of the poor Coloureds represents an attempt to transcend his class origins. Within the Coloured community La Guma hails from a privileged social/economic position. His father, Jimmy La Guma, was a prominent trade union leader in Cape Town. Alex La Guma received the ‘handsome pocket money’ of ten cents per week,22 a luxury a vast majority of the Coloured parents could not give to their children. Another indication of the relatively privileged background of La Guma is that he attended Trafalgar High School. The prestige attached to the school among the Coloureds of Cape Town is recounted in Richard Rive's account of his personal experiences of growing up in District Six. Rive says:

Once I was older I joined an exclusive, upper class ‘Coloured’ athletics club. At first the members, all fair-skinned were worried about my dark complexion, but relented because not only was I a mere junior but I attended Trafalgar High School.23

In order to acquaint himself with the lives of the poor of District Six, and to do political work amongst them La Guma underwent ‘slumming’ by taking up low-paid jobs in factories. Attempts at ‘slumming’ were not unusual among the Coloured writers of Cape Town in the 1950s. Richard Rive, for example, recollects in his autobiographical work Writing Black an occasion when James Matthews, a fellow writer, took him to a cinema hall to introduce him to the lower classes who frequented that cinema hall.24 In his portrayal of the poor Coloureds La Guma tries to overcome the differences in socio-economic origins by adopting a sympathetic approach to their problems, without being overbearing or piously moralistic.

Most of the short stories of the Cape Town phase deal with the effects of ethnic categorisation operating both in legislation and in the social attitudes of some people in South Africa. La Guma highlights in each of his stories one or two specific examples where the characters' suffering is linked to the racially segregatory legislation of South Africa. Some of the characters in his fictional works internalise the value system of racial separation and suffer as a consequence. La Guma's work, in general, is aimed at explicating the social situation in which a narrow emphasis on ethnicity leads to pain, suffering and, in some cases, to death. The anger and frustration at the debilitating social conditions remain muted and unorganised, as in the case of Adonis in A Walk in the Night.

Most of the Coloured characters of La Guma's works are portrayed as victims of racial and economic disadvantage. Unable to face the problems arising from these two disadvantages several characters turn to crime. By articulating arguments of environmental determinism La Guma portrays these characters in a sympathetic light. He tries to rehabilitate the literary image of the ‘skolly’, the Coloured petty criminal, without either approving of his criminality or glorifying, or sensationalising his actions. La Guma shows that even in those people who turn to criminality there is an element of human sensitivity which attracts them, as in the case of the Coloured criminal in ‘Etude’, to the great cultural achievements of humankind. In the story a Coloured girl in a Cape Town slum, possibly in District Six, is shown playing Chopin's Nocturne and a petty criminal drops into her house to listen to her music. Even though he does not know the name of the tune, he enjoys it thoroughly before rushing off to keep his appointment with his ‘pals’ planning to rob a factory.

La Guma's sympathy towards the criminal in ‘Etude’, his first short story, introduces in a subtle way his preference for trans-ethnicity. By showing that even a Coloured criminal can enjoy Chopin's Nocturne, a high watermark in the European musical tradition, La Guma negates the theoretical basis of racial segregation and ethnic compartmentalisation. By focusing on the universality of human culture and artistic sensibility La Guma articulates his disagreement with the Nationalists' argument of separate races having separate cultures; and of one ‘racial’ culture being superior to another. This response of La Guma was typical of that of Black writers in the 1950s. Rabkin observes:

The black writer of the fifties defended his right of access to metropolitan cultural achievements, protesting against a policy which forbade (and forbids) black children taking part in a national Beethoven competition, on the grounds that this is not ‘their traditional culture’.25

La Guma's disapproval of ethnic compartmentalisation of human culture finds an echo in the argument of the liberal historian De Kiewiet, who argued:

South Africa's racial policies are based on the perverse conviction that the sum of the differences between the Whites and the non-Whites will always be greater than the sum of their similarities. They [White supremacists] do not accept the historical truth that towns in all generations have been centres where culture slowly becomes the common property of all residents.26

La Guma's works concentrate on the violation of this notion under the social and political conditions of South Africa. Many of his stories are woven around the human losses that attend social segregation both at a surface level where legislation condemns large sections of the populations to servitude based on their racial origin, and at a deeper level where sections of victims accept the values of such a status.

The theme of inter-racial love defying both the laws and the illiberal social conventions had been a popular literary theme in the 1950s and the 1960s, particularly in the background of the Prohibition of Mixed Marriages Act of 1949 and the Immorality Amendment Act of 1950. The rigorous implementation and the wide scope of these two Acts made the consequences of their violation more dramatic, or even melodramatic. While the Immorality Act of 1927 finds a rare mention in South African literature, the opposite is the case with the Acts of 1949 and 1950. The latter acts spurred on much creative writing, particularly in English, on the theme of inter-racial sexual relationships. Gerald Gordon's Let the Day Perish,27 Peter Abrahams' The Path of Thunder,28 Alan Paton's Too Late the Phalarope,29 and Athol Fugard's The Blood Knot30 were symptomatic of the literary concern with human tragedies that accompany inter-racial love in the social and legal environment favouring ‘purity’ of races.

La Guma's short stories ‘Slipper Satin’31 and ‘A Glass of Wine’32 portray the human suffering caused as a result of specific segregatory legislations. ‘Slipper Satin’ deals with the imprisonment of Myra for four months for violating the Immorality Act, and its social repercussions. In ‘A Glass of Wine’ the White boy ‘can't marry the girl, even though he may love her. It isn't allowed’.33 The punishments inflicted by the legal system are compounded by those inflicted by certain sections of the society that accept the notions of racial separation/supremacy. In ‘Slipper Satin’ when Myra returns home after working out her jail sentence the women in the street torture her with their words and ‘act as a vicious vigilante force that destroys the chief character’.34 They gossip:

‘That is she … that's she …

‘Got four months, mos', for immorality …’

‘Come home again, hey? We don't want damn whores on this street’.35

The men in the street add to Myra's sufferings through their insinuating smiles implying that she was a loose woman. They thought ‘maybe there was a chance for one of them’.36 When Myra reaches home her mother is unwilling to welcome her into the house. She rebukes Myra harshly:

You brought disgrace upon us … We all good and decent people, but you brought us shame. You couldn't go and pick a boy of your own kind, but you had to sleep with some white loafer […] And now you just come to bring bad luck into the house.37

Myra is shown to be a victim of both the manifestly unjust law and the people who have internalised the values of the ‘Immorality’ laws.

In the short story ‘Out of Darkness’38 La Guma highlights another form of internalisation of of the value system of racial separation/hierarchy as the cause of suffering undergone by Ou Kakkelak, the main character in the story. As a consequence of the differences in privileges between the Coloureds and the Whites there is a temptation among certain Coloureds whose racial features are close to that of Whites to slip over to the White group and disown their darker relatives and friends. This slipping across the racial barriers, commonly referred to as ‘passing for white’, is a cause of pain and suffering to the disowned relatives and friends. The tragedies that accompany ‘passing for white’ have been a popular subject with several Coloured writers, Richard Rive in particular.

Rive's short story ‘Resurrection’,39 like La Guma's ‘Out of Darkness’, powerfully portrays what ‘passing for white’ means in human terms. In the story a Coloured woman married to a Whiteman leaves behind three near-white children (who ‘pass’ for white) and a Coloured daughter, Mavis. During the funeral of Mavis' Ma the White friends and relatives of the father sing hymns in the ‘front room’ and Mavis and her Coloured friends are pushed to the kitchen. Mavis reflects on the tragedy of ‘pass whiteism’:

[her mother's] eyes […] had asked questioningly, “Mavis, why do they [the other children] treat me so? Please Mavis, why do they treat me so?”

And Mavis had known the answer and had felt the anger well up inside her, till her mouth felt hot and raw. And she had spat out at the Old Woman, ‘Because you're coloured! You're coloured, Ma, but you gave birth to white children. It is your fault Ma, all your fault … You gave birth to white children. White children, Ma. White Children.40

‘Pass whiteism’ is a manifestation of ethnicity. ‘Passing’ does not challenge any law of racial segregation in a real sense. Those who ‘pass’ only duck the administrative machinery that implements these laws. Hence, La Guma's attack on ‘pass whiteism’ in his short story ‘Out of Darkness’ is also an attack on laws that uphold ethnicity. In the story Ou Kakkelak and his girlfriend Cora were in love with each other for a long time. They were going to be married. Then Cora fell a victim to the attractions of ‘passing’ for white. Recounting his tragedy to the narrator Ou Kakkelak tells:

Then she [Cora] began to find that she could pass for white. She could pass as white, and I was black. She began to go out to white places, bioscopes, cafes. Places where I couldn't take her. She met white people who thought that she was really white, and they invited her out to their homes. She went to parties and dances. She drifted away from me, but I kept on loving her.

[…] In the end she turned on me. She told me to go to hell. She slapped my face and called me a black nigger. A black nigger.41

Ou Kakkelak loses his head when his friend Joey criticises him for ‘going off over a damn play-white bitch’ and hits him. Joey dies as a consequence; Ou Kakkelak ends up in the prison and over a period of time becomes demented. The tragedy of Ou Kakkelak is the tragedy of internalised values of ethnicity. La Guma's denunciation of the such values is even more elaborate in ‘The Gladiators’.42

‘The Gladiators’ describes a boxing match between Kenny, an ‘almost white’ Coloured and a tall African whom the narrator calls the Panther. Kenny is colour-conscious and considers himself to be superior to the African boxer. Capturing the racialist psyche of Kenny the narrator says:

[Kenny was …] Not exactly like teak, because he's lighter, just miss being white which was what make him so full of crap. He was sorry he wasn't white and glad he wasn't black […]. He got a nice face, too, except for the nose that's a little flat from being hit on it a lot, almost like a black boy's nose, but not exactly.43

Racial prejudice makes Kenny blind to the strength of his opponent. Instead of playing the game in a professional way Kenny over-exerts himself in the first few rounds to floor ‘that black piece of crap’ easily. Panther is a superior player and he hits back after dodging Kenny in the first few rounds. Kenny gets a bloody nose and is knocked out.

La Guma uses the story to portray the ironies of Coloured ethnic ‘superiority’ and, allegorically, to discuss the ambiguities of ethnicity and trans-ethnicity as they affect racial politics in South Africa. The narrator, who is Kenny's coach, and their mutual friend Gog try to persuade Kenny to realise the myopic nature of his notions of the racial superiority of the Coloureds. When Kenny tells that he will ‘muck that black bastard’ the narrator reminds him, ‘Look Kenny, you don't have that. Christ, we all blerry black even if we off-white or like coffee. Be a blerry sport man’.44 Again, when Kenny refuses to accept Panther as one of his ‘own’ kind the narrator reminds Kenny of the ironic position of the Coloured ‘supremacy’: ‘But we all get kicked in the arse the same’.45 The irony becomes more poignant when Kenny is unable to relate his Coloured ‘supremacy’ to the similar notions that underpin the laws of ‘separate development’. Kenny queries the narrator and Gogs:

‘But what the hell I got to fight black boys and coloured all the time?’

‘You want to fight a white boy you got to go to England?’ Gogs is just so to him.

‘Or Lourenco Marques’ I reckon. You know you can't fight no white john here […]’.46

The views of the narrator of the story and La Guma on the racial situation in South Africa overlap. Both the narrator and La Guma oppose the idea of segregation of seats on a racial basis in places of entertainment. The narrator in ‘The Gladiators’ points out that white boys were occupying the most-preferred seats ‘out front in the ring-sides’47 and the rest of the audience who were not Whites were crowded behind them in the hall. This complaint of the narrator reflects La Guma's own childhood experience with racial segregation in places of entertainment. La Guma describes the event:

I was very young, about seven or eight years old, when my mother took me to the circus for the first time. Anyway, the circus was on, and for children it was very exciting. When we were in the big top watching the performance I discovered that I couldn't see anything that was going on in the ring. For some reason or another the performers were always looking the other way, performing in the other direction. I asked my mother why this was so and she told me we were sitting in the seats for black people and the main concentration of the circus was on the white audience, so we just had our chance with the entertainment being provided. That was […] my first experience with racial discrimination.48

The narrator in ‘The Gladiators’ functions as a mouthpiece character in another respect as well. La Guma reflects on some of the contradictions of his political activities through the narrator of the story. After criticising the crowd for being bloodthirsty ‘to see two other black boys knock themselves to hell’,49 the narrator in an introspective mood muses: ‘What you in this business then?’50 The narrator's dilemma is that of being in a situation where he can not take part in the atmosphere of the place on account of having a different individual temperament. All the efforts to persuade Kenny to change his ideas of Coloured racial ‘superiority’ have had no effect. The only justification that the narrator could find is to stay there to see that not much harm is done to his irredeemably racially-conscious Kenny: ‘Maybe just to see my boy don't get buggered too much’.51

The dilemma of the narrator reflects the dilemma of the La Gumas about on the one hand being Marxists, and thereby professing allegiance to trans-ethnic politics, and on the other being leaders of ethnically-based Coloured People's Organisation (later of Coloured People's Congress). At a wider level the narrator's dilemma touches the ambiguities of ethnicity and trans-ethnicity that confront all politicians who profess trans-ethnic political ideologies in a society where ethnicity has been a strong factor in social stratification since the founding of the colony. The narrator's dilemma is the dilemma between what Durrant notices in South African literature, ‘an exaggerated concern for oneself as a member of a particular group’,52 and intellectual identification with certain ideals that transcend one's ethnic origins.

The dilemma of the narrator in ‘The Gladiators’ has also been the dilemma of the Liberal colonialist Cecil Rhodes. As a White politician and as the Prime Minister of the Cape Colony under the ‘Colour-blind’ Constitution of 1853, Rhodes found a narrow path between trans-ethnicity advocated in the Constitution and the need to win White votes through appeals to ethnic interests. On the eve of the 1891 elections he made a vote-catching volte-face to placate Black voters by declaring that he was for ‘Equal Rights for Every Civilised Man South of Zambesi’.53 The ‘civilisation’ that Rhodes implied, however, was not the civilisation of the Africans epitomised in the Zimbabwean ruins; nor was it the civilisation of the forefathers of the Coloureds who found means of surviving in the inhospitable terrains of Southern Africa for centuries; nor was it the civilisation of of those who can search their roots in Mohanjedaro and Harappa.54 By ‘civilisation’ Rhodes meant the ways of life of Whites, an idea that buttressed the ‘Civilised Labour Policy’ of various governments in South Africa after 1924.55 Rhodes, in spite of the Liberal protestations, as in the case of the narrator of ‘The Gladiators’, found that he was there in the boxing arena of politics only to see that his boys ‘don't get buggered too much’. In 1893 he rushed through legislative changes, La Guma points out, to deny Mr. A. M. Effendi, a Coloured candidate, an almost certain electoral victory through the cumulative voting system in use till then.56

Inability to transcend ethnic divisions and translate trans-ethnic ideals into practise was not limited to the Liberal politicians. The Communist Party of South Africa, which, theoretically, should have stayed above the racial politics, faltered in its early years. In the 1920s the membership of the Party was largely White. In spite of the internationalist philosophy to which they professed allegiance, the members of the C.P.S.A. marched during the miners' strike in the Rand in 1922 under May Day banners with slogans such as ‘Workers of the World Fight and Unite for White South Africa’.57 Local conditions were allowed to eclipse the professed trans-ethnic internationalism. Later the membership of the C.P.S.A. became more multi-racial and the slogan of 1922 did not resurface. However, the basic problem of operating on a trans-ethnic basis in an ethnically divided society persisted and even as late as 1961 the CPSA appealed to ethnic identities to increase its popularity. In a leaflet distributed during 1961 the CPSA claimed:

The Coloured people know the role the communists have played in fighting against apartheid and bad conditions. They remember the part played by pioneers like Jimmy La Guma, John Gomas and Ray Alexander in organising the poorest-paid Coloured workers.58

Alex La Guma's response to the dilemma was to highlight the problems the Coloureds had in common with other racial groups, particularly in terms of the poverty and poor living conditions. In addition, he went beyond the problems connected with ethnicity and looked at social injustice and man's inhumanity to man from a perspective that decried crass selfishness and individualistic morality. In his short story ‘Late Edition’,59 which acts as a bridge between his pre-exile and post-exile writings, La Guma shows Frikkie, a young boy selling newspapers, being cheated of his earnings for the day successively by the agent, a sweetmeat trader, and a couple of skollies. By the time he reaches his home the boy is in tears, afraid of the beatings he would receive at the hands of his mother for not bringing home any of his earnings. In this story La Guma points to the tragedy of the boy as an example of the different circles of exploitation that the poor Coloured boy has to face in a Cape Town slum.

In ‘Late Edition’ La Guma comes close to his objective of achieving the universal through highlighting the problems of a specific environment. Frikkie's story of the strong exploiting the weak is a universal theme common to the poor of slums all over the world. Even in terms of the locale the short story could have well been set in any of the urban slums with the poor, malnourished children who are forced to struggle for a living by doing odd jobs such as selling newspapers. Local colour becomes incidental to the actual story in ‘Late Edition’. Much of the description could fit into any story set in an urban slum:

In the gathering twilight he [Frikkie] limped down a cobbled lane, past tumbled heaps of rubbish, into the narrow grey street lined with old grey tenements and overflowing dustbins. There were people lounging in the doorways and other children playing among the dustbins. He limped past the damp, decaying buildings, ignored by those in the street, another anonymous child—one of the hundreds of nondescript smudges on the district.

Home was through a huge doorway and across a puddle hallway and into a courtyard, up a narrow, winding, rust-covered fire-escape, and into a room that always smelled of boiled cabbage or burnt cooking-oil. The lank-haired, young-old woman with the thickened body and smell of sweat, who was his mother, would be up there, waiting. Slowly, with fluttering heart, he climbed the rusty iron stairs.60

‘Late Edition’ substantiates July's contention that similarities between District Six and Harlem do not ‘result from the fact that they are both Negro quarters, but that they are both city slums’.61 By stressing the problems that are not directly related to the racial disadvantage the Coloureds experience La Guma, in ‘Late Edition’, points out that poverty is as much a cause of their suffering as ethnicity is.

In the story ‘At the Portagees’62 La Guma points out another form of suffering connected with poverty and the cash nexus. The story is set in a cafe run by a ‘Portagee’63 and deals with the narrator and his friend Banjo trying to befriend Hilda and Dolores, two girls sitting on the other corner of the cafe. Into this sketchy plot La Guma builds an incident that highlights the role of the cash nexus. Taking pity on a poor man who walked into the cafe the narrator gives him a six-penny coin to buy himself some food. The poor man then goes to a different table and orders fish. The Portagee does not want to deal with such a paltry transaction and shouts at him, ‘You can't get six-pence food here, you bladdy fool […] You better get out’.64 He reaches out to take the man by the shoulder and throw him out physically. The poor man then walks out of the cafe. The same Portagee welcomes the narrator and the others with him on account of their capacity to spend more money at the cafe. It is not colour or ethnicity, but cash nexus that leads to the poor man's humiliation.

The constant presence of poverty, crime and imprisonment in the lives of the poor people among the Coloureds is highlighted in La Guma's ‘Blankets’.65 The random violence and brutal settling of scores between the street toughs is shown outside the framework of ethnic divisions. The story deals with a street tough named Choker, who has been stabbed by an old enemy. Choker is waiting in a lean-to and is later taken to the hospital in an ambulance. La Guma weaves different aspects of Choker's life into the description of his half-conscious and half-delirious state after the stabbing. The narration shifts between the old, threadbare, stained blanket smelling of ‘sweat and having-been-slept-in-unwashed’ that some one throws on Choker while lying on the floor after being stabbed; the ‘thin, cotton blanket’ for which he jostles with his brother on the ‘narrow, cramped, sagging bedstead’; the ‘filthy and smelly’ vermin-laden blanket that the prison guard with ‘a doggish face’ flings at him; and the ‘thick and new and warm’ blankets of the ambulance van. Choker's story is told as a random happening and the narrator does not hint whether, and if so, how Choker's pain and suffering is linked to the ethnic situation in South Africa. The story, however, serves as an example of La Guma's articulation of environmental determinism, ‘the way in which social and familial circumstances combine to make up character’.66

La Guma turns the focus away from South African ethnic problems and concentrates on issues of extra-marital relations and sexual jealousy in the earlier version of ‘Blankets’67 where La Guma hints a possible link between Choker's affair with another man's woman, and being stabbed soon after leaving her house. The theme of sexual jealousy underpins ‘Tattoo Marks and Nails’68 and ‘Battle for Honour’69 as well. This universal theme is discussed in the specific context of South Africa's Coloured community. The story ‘Tattoo Marks and Nails’ is set in a prison for Coloureds, and it deals with the inmates awaiting trial, one of whom is the narrator. The prison bully, The Creature, wishes to exact revenge on the person who killed his brother Nails. Nails was fatally stabbed in a squabble over his ‘goose’ (girl). The injured Nails could not name his assailant, but just before his death managed to say that the assailant had ‘a dragon picked out on his chest’.70 The Creature suspects one of the prisoners who has a dragon tattooed on his chest to be the person who murdered his brother, and tortures him. Later The Creature and his gang turn on Ahmed the Turk, another inmate who is friendly to the narrator, and challenge him to show his chest. La Guma leaves the story with an open-ended conclusion: ‘“Awright, all you baskets”, he [Turk] sneered, and unbuttoned his shirt’.71 Nail's fight over ‘goose’ ends up being a matter of honour for The Creature.

La Guma uses the same theme of extra-marital relations and fights over women in ‘Battle for Honour’. In the story, the narrator and Arthur work for a transport company, and on their way from South West Africa (Namibia) stop at a wayside pub for a drink. While they are having their drinks, Fancy, a boxer known to Arthur walks in and joins the duo. Fancy boasts about his affair with Mrs. Lily McDaniels in Port Elizabeth:

That one was really wake-up […]. They [the women] come and they go. This one walked out of her man for me […]. He was a no-good bogger, anyway. Never met him, hey, but she told me he was always on the bottle […]. So she strolled, and there was me, blerry, willing and able.72

An old man standing near them, whom the narrator calls Shark, overhears this and, in spite of being weak and in no position to engage Fancy in a fight, charges at Fancy. In the ensuing fight Fancy easily beats him up. Later just before starting the lorry Arthur asks Shark why he got into a fight with Fancy. Shark replies that it was a matter of honour and that his name was John Adam McDaniels.

Even though La Guma focuses on aspects other than the racial problems in some of the stories the readers are reminded indirectly that racial disadvantage is a part of the experience that the characters undergo. In ‘Battle for Honour’, for example, Arthur and the narrator pass through the ‘Non-European entrance’ to the bar. The White barman attends to them only after serving the customers on the ‘European’ side of the bar. In ‘Tattoo Marks and Nails’ La Guma establishes a connection between the brutality of The Creature and his henchmen, and the society outside. Describing the scene inside the prison the narrator says:

Around us were packed a human salad of accused petty-thieves, gangsters, murderers, rapists, burglars, thugs, drunks, brawlers, dope-peddlers: most of them by no means strangers to the cells, many of them still young, others already depraved, and several old and abandoned, sucking at the disintegrating, bitter cigarette-end of life.73

La Guma's indictment of the brutality of The Creature and his henchmen is also, by extension, an indictment of the society that created them.

La Guma's short story ‘The Lemon Orchard’74 deals with another facet of the life of the Coloureds, the way the ethnic attitudes of the Whites affect those who stand up for their rights. ‘The Lemon Orchard’ deals with a Coloured school teacher in a Cape village who takes the Principal of the school and the minister of the church before a magistrate for assault. The Whites in the village march him to a lemon orchard to shoot him dead by way of punishing him for insubordination to the Whites. The Coloured teacher suffers pain and, as suggested at the end of the story, death not on account of racially discriminatory legislation but on account of the attitudes of racial superiority among the White community. The Coloured teacher is abused as ‘verdomte hotnot’, ‘slim hotnot’, ‘one of those educated bushmen’ and ‘hotnot bastard’ and scolded for not showing respect to the White man. When the Coloured man refuses to answer the questions of one of the members of the party of Whites marching him to the lemon orchard, the leader says angrily, ‘Listen, hotnot […] when a baas speaks to you, you answer him. Do you hear?’.75 When the Coloured teacher stubbornly persists with his silence the leader is even more furious:

[…] no hotnot will be cheeky to a white man while I live […] I will shoot whatever hotnot or kaffir I desire, and see me get into trouble over it. I demand respect from these donders. Let them answer when they are spoken to. […] We don't want any educated hottentots in our town.76

The Coloured teacher maintains his silence to the very end of the story when the White villagers choose the site in the lemon orchard to punish him for insubordination.

The Coloured teacher's resistance to subordination represents his act of defiance as an individual. It is the individual heroism of the character which is highlighted and hence the story, in terms of the thematic content, is closer to the works of Peter Abrahams than to the author's own novels which emphasise more the communal acts of resistance. In Abrahams' The Path of Thunder77 Lanny Swartz, the Coloured man returning to his village after his studies in Cape Town, is reminded by the Whites of the village that an educated Coloured has no place in the village. Lanny remains undeterred, crosses the barriers of race and falls in love with Sarie Villier, a White girl. The novel ends with the death of Lanny in the hands of the White villagers for daring to cross the barriers of race. The heroism and idealism of Lanny and Sarie are presented as inspired acts of defiance, a quality they share with the Coloured teacher in ‘Lemon Orchard’.

La Guma's analysis of the social problems of the Coloureds as being predominantly trans-ethnic, even though the ethnic dimension is never absent, is done more elaborately in his novels A Walk in the Night and And A Threefold Cord. The extended scope afforded by the larger expanse of the genre, as compared with short stories, enables La Guma to explore within a single work several aspects of trans-ethnicity. The most significant of these aspects relates to the options open to the poor Coloureds to retain their human dignity in the face of hardships arising out of both ethnic and trans-ethnic causes. The social communities, or at least sections of them, in A Walk in the Night and And A Threefold Cord survive the adverse conditions through mutual help and sharing. Thus, thematically trans-ethnic attitudes are hinted as the way out of the present malaise. The narrative techniques La Guma uses to articulate his views include contextualising his works in terms of trans-ethnic tendentiousness, narratorial comments, and irony and satire within the text.

La Guma contextualises his first novel in terms of the trans-ethnic politics in which he was involved. He gave the title A Walk in the Night to symbolise his disagreement with what he saw as an apolitical or ethnically-political attitude in the Coloured community. In an interview with Abrahams La Guma said:

One of the reasons why I called the book A Walk in the Night was that in my mind the coloured community was still discovering themselves in relation to the general struggle against racism in South Africa. They were walking, enduring, and in this way they were experiencing this walking in the night until such time as they found themselves and were prepared to be citizens of a society to which they wanted to make a contribution. I tried to create a picture of a people struggling to see the light, to see the dawn, to see something new, other than their experiences in this confined community.78

Similarly, La Guma has a political purpose in mind in writing And A Threefold Cord. In his article ‘Literature and Life’ La Guma said:

When I write that the poor people in South Africa are compelled to buy water itself from their exploiters [as it happens in And A Threefold Cord], then I also entertain the secret hope that when somebody reads what I have written he will be moved to do something about those robbers who have turned my country into a material and cultural wasteland for majority of the inhabitants.79

The external context of the two novels is, thus, the political intent of La Guma to advocate a trans-ethnic society, or to use Drake's categorisation, a ‘creative type of pluralism as opposed to that arising from ethnic differences’.80

The social setting of La Guma's novels A Walk in the Night and And A Threefold Cord is trans-ethnic. The viable community that he projects in the two novels is built around its poverty rather than colour and the racial classification of the South African government. In A Walk in the Night La Guma tries to recreate the social community that lived in District Six before the proclamations of residential areas for the different races in Cape Town under the Group Areas Act in 1957.81 The population of District Six in the 1950s consisted mainly of Coloureds and Malays. This racial composition was a product of the economic upward mobility of Whites, part of which is attributable to the ‘Civilised Labour’ policies reserving the highly paid jobs for the Whites.

In And A Threefold Cord La Guma tries to recreate the social life of another community that was predominantly, but not exclusively, of Coloureds. The novel is set in the Windermere squatter camp82 on the outskirts of Capetown in the late 1950s and the early 60s. Windermere was, Western describes, ‘a notoriously squalid shantytown […] where both Coloureds and Black Africans lived in tin pondoks […].83 Poverty was the badge of Windermere and other Cape Flats shantytowns. The middle-class Coloureds of Heidelveld looked down upon the inhabitants of Windermere even after they had moved out of the area.84 La Guma's first two novels, thus, deal with District Six and Windermere, localities of Cape Town whose social communities are made up predominantly by poor Coloureds.

La Guma's first novel, or ‘long story’,85 to use a term he prefers, A Walk in the Night was written during the late 1950s. In the late 1950s La Guma was active as a journalist. He was a reporter on the staff of New Age and reported events in Cape Town. Apart from his reporting, he wrote articles for New Age and Fighting Talk and contributed ‘Up My Alley’, a regular column of commentary on miscellaneous issues. Thus he was performing two roles, that of the journalist and that of a creative writer. He was aware of the different demands of the two genres and made attempts to seek a transition from being a journalist to a creative writer. Commenting on this struggle to affect the transition La Guma said:

Reportage might bore the reader. Experience in journalism gives one the discipline to organise the material, but it might have bad effects when it comes to creative writing.86

The link between journalism and creative writing has been a prominent feature of South African literature, particularly of Black South African literature. Couzens points out, ‘journalism and literature were, for a long period of South African Black [African] literary history, Siamese twins’.87 The same could be said of the literary history of the Coloureds and the Indians. Popular journals were the only creative outlets available to Black writers and the ‘newspapers gave them both a public platform and a measure of social status in the aspirant urban middle-class’.88 Many of the writers, including La Guma, were influenced by the link with journalism as regards their choice of genre, the content of their writings, and more importantly, the literary style. Links with journalism led to the predominance of the documentary style of narration. On account of their reliance on ‘external subjects’ for fictional creation, and photographic accuracy of observation many of the works of journalist-turned-writers could be categorised as ‘fables of fact’,89 a category of fictional works that Hellmann popularised. La Guma's evolution as a creative writer shows the influence of his links with journalism, particularly in A Walk in the Night.

The story in A Walk in the Night deals with a slow but steady moral deterioration of Michael Adonis, a Coloured worker in a sheet metal factory. He is dismissed from his job for talking back to Ou Scofield, a white foreman who refuses to let him take a few minutes off his work for urinating. Further, the foreman insults Adonis by calling him ‘a cheeky black bastard’ (p. 4). Adonis has nowhere to appeal to against the arbitrary dismissal. He is thrown into ‘the whirlpool world of poverty, petty crime and violence’ (p. 4) of District Six, a Coloured urban slum resembling the District Six of the late 1950s. Pushed into the anonymous and alienating urban crowd, without a job, or the hope of getting one in the immediate future, Adonis' thoughts were ‘concentrated upon the pustule of rage and humiliation that was continuing to ripen within him’ (p. 1). Even while having food in a restaurant on his way home he kept thinking over and over about Ou Scofield: ‘That sonavabitch, that bloody white sonavabitch, I'll get him’ (p. 5).

When Adonis comes out of the restaurant two Afrikaner policemen stop him on the road and search him for dagga (marijuana) in an insulting way. With insult added to injury ‘deep down him the feeling of rage, frustration and violence swelled like a boil, knotted with pain’ (p. 12). Adonis then goes to a pub on his way home and meets a few of his friends. The conversation rambles on to the topic of treatment of Negroes in the U.S.A. and about an incident about a street hanging of a negro by some Whites. The topic of the ill-treatment by Whites makes Adonis even more bitter about the Whites of South Africa. Adonis ‘thought about the foreman, Scofield, and the police, and the little knot of rage reformed inside him again like the quickening of the embryo in the womb’ (p. 16).

La Guma extends the metaphor of embryo to depict the anger brewing in Adonis' mind. Adonis' anger against Whites remains unmitigated while climbing the stairs of his tenement and he ‘was nursing the foetus of hatred inside the belly’ (p. 23). Doughty, an old Irish one-time actor living in the tenement invites him for a drink. While Doughty is pouring a drink for him Adonis feels the ‘anger […] curled into a sour knot of smouldering violence inside him’ (p. 26). While talking about his career in acting stage plays Doughty recites Shakespeare's Hamlet and unintentionally includes Adonis among ‘the ghosts doomed to walk the night’. Adonis' ‘pustule of rage’ that had grown into a ‘foetus of hatred’ by now bursts out. Doughty becomes the focal point of Adonis' anger against Whites. Adonis hits Doughty on his head without any murderous intention and the old man falls dead.90

The racial situation in South Africa complicates matters for Adonis. The realisation that the dead man was a White makes Adonis nervous: ‘Din't mean it. Better get out. The law don't like white people being finished off’ (p. 29). Adonis does not want to explain the events either to the people in the tenement or to the police. The fear of the consequences of killing a Whiteman overtakes him. The insult he suffered at the hands of the White foreman and the White police earlier in the day makes him hesitant in approaching the police. Lying on his bed after slipping out of Doughty's room Adonis thought:

Maybe I ought to go and tell them (the police). Bedonerd. You know what the law will do to you. They don't have any shit from us brown people. They'll hang you, as true as God. Christ, we all got hanged long ago. What's the law for? To kick us poor brown bastards around. You think they're going to listen to your story; Jesus, and he was a whiteman, too. Well, what's he want to come and live among us brown people for? To hell with him. Well, I didn't mos mean to finish him. Awright, man, he's dead and you're alive. Stay alive. Ja, stay alive and get kicked under the arse until you're finished, too. Like they did with your job. To hell with them. The whole effing lot of them.

(pp. 43-44)

Adonis' alienation from the social system is shown to be caused by ethnic and trans-ethnic factors. His ethnic experience of discrimination, the collective memory of enforced subordination, and the social distance from the Whites determine the reaction of Adonis towards Doughty. In spite of of Doughty's attempts to be accepted as a part of the community of the tenement, he remains an outsider. The larger social divisions between the Whites and the Coloureds (or ‘brown people’ as Adonis identifies his community) dominate over the individual attempts to cut across such barriers, hence the reaction of Adonis ‘What's he [Doughty] want to come and live here among us brown people?’ (p. 44).

The anger against the social system blurs Adonis's reaction to Doughty as a person whom he liked prior to the chain of events that made him bitter about Whites. Adonis, along with other tenement dwellers, liked Doughty and endearingly called him ‘uncle’. As in Shakespeare's Hamlet, a literary work that leaves visible imprint on A Walk in the Night and later works, a bitter personal experience leads to an embittered (over)reaction. When Prince Hamlet witnesses the ‘frailty’ of women in the form of his mother marrying Claudius without weeping sufficiently for the dead husband he gets bitter about all women. Overcome by the anger against women as a whole he rejects Ophelia in spite of of loving her earlier. Hamlet tells Ophelia' ‘Get thee to a nunnery’ (Act III, Scene i) and Adonis tells Doughty, ‘Aw, go to buggery’ (p. 26).

Adonis' reaction, however, is not just an outburst of ethnic anger. He qualifies his reaction against the police by emphasising that it is the ‘poor brown’ rather than just ‘brown’ people who get the raw deal from the police. Adonis, thus, sees himself as a member of another social group which is based on poverty rather than ethnicity. It is the precarious existence that poverty forces on the tenement dwellers that unites them and gives the sense of a community. But this trans-ethnic alternative is overshadowed by Adonis' sense of ethnicity, and he refuses Doughty's offer of a comradery based on poverty. When Doughty argues that his Whiteness is of no help Adonis refuses to accept the argument. The experience of humiliation that he suffers on account of his racial origin remains uppermost in his mind, and Adonis retorts angrily, ‘Can't a boy have a bloody piss without getting kicked in the backside by a lot of effing law?’ (p. 28).

In spite of of being a victim of attitudes of racial superiority, Adonis succumbs to the logic of ethnic separateness and questions the right of Doughty to stay in the midst of the Coloureds, ‘Well, he didn't have no right living here with us Coloureds’ (p. 29). His reaction to Doughty's death is but an extension of his attitude of racial separateness, or degrees of racial separateness shown earlier in the novel. While narrating the events at the factory which led to his dismissal Adonis tells his friend Willieboy:

[Foreman Schofield] called me a cheeky black bastard. Me, I'm not black. Anyway I said he was no-good-pore-white and he calls the manager and they gave me my pay and tell me muck off out of it. White sonofabitch.

(p. 4)

Incensed by the events of the day, such as his dismissal from the job, Adonis sees his problem exclusively in terms of his ethnicity. At the pub he refuses to accept the argument put forward by the taxi-driver that ‘Whites act like that [brutally] because of the capitalis' system [… and that the] Colour bar was because of the system’ (p. 17). Thus, buried within Adonis' reaction is an option, the option of trans-ethnicity, that he chose not to exercise. Adonis' reaction arises as a result of an exercise of free will, though the conditions that constrain the scope of the free will lie in the social environment. Consequently, Adonis emerges as a symbolic character representing an attitude of ethnic exclusiveness. Ethnic exclusiveness leaves Adonis in a moral cul-de-sac, and in the pervading atmosphere of criminality of District Six Adonis' ending up as a member of Foxy's criminal gang was only a matter of time.

La Guma's concern with issues of ethnicity and trans-ethnicity illuminates the character and fate of Willieboy. He is shown as a product of material deprivation and a consequent depravity of moral values. He drifts to criminality as a result of the environment around him. He was forced to sell newspapers even from the tender age of seven often on a hungry stomach. His mother beat him if he failed to take home the paltry earnings and ate something out of it instead. He had to run away from home very often to escape the lashings from his father. These bitter childhood experiences and the alienating atmosphere of District Six lead to the problem of identity crisis. The omniscient narrator describes:

He [Willieboy] was also aware of his inferiority. All his youthful life he had cherished dreams of becoming a big shot. He had seen others to rise to some sort of power in the confined underworld of this district [District Six] and found himself left behind […]. He had affected a slouch wore gaudy shirts and peg bottomed trousers brushed his hair into flamboyant peak. He had been thinking of piercing one ear and decorating it with a gold ring […].

(p 72)

The sense of inadequacy within makes Willieboy seek compensation without. His resistance to social conditions takes the form of a nonchalant attitude. Willieboy finds no point in working for wages. He tells Adonis, ‘Me, I never work for no white john. Not even brown one. To hell with work. Work, work, work, where does it get you? Not me, pally’ (p. 4). His hatred is not so much directed at the ethnic origin of the employer but at work itself. In an ironic way his attitude is non-discriminatingly ‘trans-ethnic’. But this form of rejection of society and anarchic passivity does not save him from becoming a victim of the attitudes of ethnic superiority of the White police constable, Raalt.

Willieboy goes to Michael Adonis' apartment to borrow money. Finding the door locked he thinks of borrowing it from Doughty. He opens the door and finds the dead body. He runs away from the tenement, but while doing so he is seen by two occupants of the tenement. During the questioning by the police they indicate that they had seen somebody with kinky hair and a yellow shirt. This sets Raalt on Willieboy's trail. Willieboy, meanwhile, hoping to get some drink on credit, goes to the tavern run by Gypsy. In a drunken mood he gets into argument and later fights with Gypsy's ‘real customers’, the American sailors who had come to spend their time there. Willieboy gets thrown out of the house. He sobers up, and while walking along a deserted street tries to rob Mr. Green. Soon afterwards Willieboy is caught in the glare of Raalt's patrol van. His yellow shirt and kinky hair are enough evidence for Raalt to conclude that he is the murderer. Willieboy's instant reaction is to run away. A chase ensues.

The narrator tries to explain the reaction of Raalt in terms of acting out of private frustrations. Raalt suffers from an acute sense of inferiority because of his inability to control his wife, whom he suspects of carrying on an extra-marital affair. While on the patrol Raalt found it difficult to concentrate wholly on the radio messages. Only half of his mind was on the job; ‘the other half of Raalt's mind was thinking, I am getting fed up with all that nonsense, if she doesn't stop, I'll do something serious. […] She won't get away with it though. The Bitch’ (pp. 30-31). He is very angry about the affair, and tells himself ‘It's enough to make a man commit murder. […] I'd wring her bloody neck. […] If I ever find out something definite she'll know all about it’ (pp. 38-39).

Raalt's anger against his wife smoothly slides to anger against ‘bushmen’, the derogatory stereotype for all Coloureds. He tells the patrol van driver Andries, ‘I wish something would happen [while they are on the patrol]. I'd like to lay my hands on one of those bushman bastards and wring his bloody neck’ (p. 39). The narrator informs: ‘He [Raalt] found little relief in transferring his rage to some other unknown victim, but he took pleasure in the vindictiveness’ (p. 39). Raalt's anger against his wife (‘The Bitch’) is transformed into his anger against the Coloureds (‘bushmen bastards’). The hope of catching his wife red handed (‘If I ever find out something definite’) changes into the hope of apprehending a Coloured person at fault (‘I wish something would happen’). The distinction between his wife and the unknown ‘bushman’ victim totally disappears when he thinks of what he would do if ever he finds the guilty person; he would ‘wring [… the] bloody neck’. La Guma, thus, suggests very early in the delineation of Raalt's character a link between his private frustrations on one hand, and on the other his brutal behaviour in the discharge of his public affairs.

The ethnic divisions and the resultant group attitudes add complexity to the private/public continuum in Raalt's individual frustrations, and his brutal acts in the outer society. Raalt is mentally prepared to be more brutal if the criminals he apprehends are ‘effing hotnot bastards’ (p. 31) or ‘bushman bastards’ (p. 39). The sharp dichotomy in Raalt's attitudes is revealed during his investigation of the murder of Doughty. Initially, thinking that the dead man was a Coloured, Raalt comments, ‘What a peculiar name. These people have bloody peculiar names’ (p. 62). Then he realises that the body is that of a White man. Changing his attitudes almost instantly he says, ‘What was he doing here? How did he get there?’ (p. 62). Similarly, when Raalt comes to know that the suspected murderer has kinky hair his craving for violence takes racial overtones. While writing down the details of the suspect killer of Doughty Raalt thought:

one of those who will disgrace us whites. In his scorn for the hottentots and kaffirs he is exposing the whole race to shame. He will do something violent to one of those black bastards and as a result our superiority will suffer. They ought to post him somewhere, in a white area, where he will have little opportunity of doing anything dishonourable.

(pp. 39-40)

Andries', instead, would like to use subtle methods:

Train them [the “hotnots”] like dogs to have respect for you. If you whip them they'll turn on you. You've got to know how to handle these people. Pa knew how to handle these people. […] He's got a lot of these hotnots working out in the orchards and the vineyards and he's never had any trouble with them. Give them some wine and drive them into town Saturday nights and they're all right.

(p. 79)

Andries, thus, in spite of his differences about the methods, shares with Raalt the goal of keeping ‘the hotnots’ subordinate, much in the fashion of dogs. The animal imagery used by La Guma to describe the attitudes—Raalt hunting his prey, and Andries training them like dogs and driving them into town—is indicative of the author's suggestion that Raalt and Andries are two sides of the same coin. Failure to notice the closeness of Raalt's and Andries' intentions has resulted in Andries getting a more compassionate critical appraisal than he deserves. Michael Wade argues that through Andries ‘La Guma expresses his scorn for […] a tradition in South African life that apparently easy-going but easily rattled form of benevolent paternalism known as Cape Liberalism’.91

Examining Andries' attitude more closely one can notice that Wade's interpretation is only partially tenable. Even if it is presumed that La Guma's ‘scorn’ is for the worst aspect of Cape Liberals—their expediency in sacrificing the interests of the Cape Coloureds for the sake of personal/party electoral ends92—Andries fails to stand as a fully representative figure of Cape Liberals. Andries does not have any trace of idealism or theoretical willingness to treat the Coloured man as a human being, as some of the Cape Liberals did or at least professed.93 La Guma uses the character of Andries to highlight some of the stereotypes that illuminate differing attitudes of Whites towards the Coloureds. Raalt's anger against Willieboy, or any ‘hotnot bastard’, is so great that the hesitant Andries is not able to save the life of Willieboy. Ironically, he ends up helping Raalt to ‘trap’ the stalk by blocking the escape route of Willieboy. The death of Willieboy is not random, but a logical outcome of attitudes of ethnic superiority, and the acting out of these attitudes.

The tensions between ethnicity and trans-ethnicity determine the fate of Joe, another character in the novel who detested regular employment. While Adonis and Willieboy get pushed into criminality by the pressures of social environment, Joe escapes a similar fate by running away from it. He remains an outsider to the society of District Six, as the narrator points out. Introducing Joe to the readers the narrator says:

Nobody knew where Joe came from, or anything about him. He just seemed to have happened, appearing in the District like a cockroach emerging through a floorboard. Most of the time he wandered around the harbour gathering fish discarded by fishermen and anglers, or along the beaches of the coast, picking limpets and mussels. He had a strange passion for things that came from the sea.

(p. 9)

Joe, thus, stands out as a representative of Strandlopers, the beachcombers near Cape Town who survived on animals washed up by sea. The strandlopers, as Schapera points out, ‘were merely Bushmen who took to the seashore, so that we have to deal with a particular mode of life rather than with particular people’.94

The Khoisan, as Schapera's studies suggest, have a highly developed sense of communalistic concern and mutual help which finds expression in the food sharing rituals and practises: ‘[…] it can safely be asserted that among the Bushmen all game is shared out among the members of the band’.95 This characteristic feature of Khoisan life is stressed by Dorethea F. Bleek as well: ‘that they [the Khoisan] do share their goods is well known to the border farmers, who have a saying: ‘If there are four Bushmen and one sheep's trotter, they must each have a bit’.96 Lorna Marshall's study of !Kung San provides further evidence:

The !Kung custom of sharing meat helps to keep stress and hostility over food at low intensity […]. The fear of hunger is mitigated: the person with whom one shares will share in turn when he gets meat; People are sustained by a web of mutual obligation. […]. One is not alone.97

This aspect of sharing and caring that is a part of Joe's communal heritage illuminates his character in the novel.

The informal bond of mutual concern that existed between Adonis and Joe gets shattered when Adonis decides to join the criminal gang of Foxy. In a last minute attempt to re-establish the bond Joe asserts his right to take care of his ‘pal’. Running behind Adonis who is on his way to join Foxy's gang Joe says, ‘Mike […] maybe it isn't my business, you see? Maybe it got nothing to do with me, but you like my brother. I got to mos think about you’ (p. 74). A little later, still running behind Adonis who refuses to listen to him, Joe ‘looked as if he was going to cry’ (p. 7). His appeal to Adonis is based on a concern for mutual wellbeing, ‘I am your pal. A man's got a right to look after another man. Jesus, isn't we all people?’ (p. 75).

The scene in A Walk in the Night where Joe tries to persuade Adonis has been interpreted by Wade as illustrating certain Judaeo-Christian precepts:

[…] adumbrated in this scene is a simple but powerful and comprehensive moral system, resting on certain basic Judaeo-Christian precepts: one should love one's neighbour and try to help him because one is one's brother's keeper and one is involved in his fate. Put in another way it is a system based on shared responsibility, mutual recognition between human beings of their obligations to each other in a hostile environment.98

Wade's argument regarding the moral basis of the scene fails to do sufficient justice to Joe's communal heritage. La Guma does not show Joe as being religiously minded, least of all as a Judaeo-Christian, except in his name. Joe uses the words ‘Jesus’ and ‘Hell’ in a general way as accepted words of everyday language. Joe stands as an example of the communal concerns of mutual help that governed the lives of the Khoisan. By attributing Judaeo-Christian basis to Joe's morality Wade delinks Joe from his native communal heritage which pre-dates the alien Judaeo-Christian precepts.

Joe's response to the material problems facing him in the industrial society of South Africa is to retreat to the beaches and the rocks. He is not a part of the society of District Six. He himself admits his peripheral position when he says ‘[…] I got nothing. No house, no people, no place’ (p. 69). ‘[…] most of the time I do what I can on the rocks’ (p. 74). Joe's response is essentially a repetition of the response of his father who, unable to find work and feed his family, runs away to an unknown place: ‘He just went out one morning and we [Joe and his family] never saw him again’ (p. 69). When Joe finds out that his family is being evicted for non-payment of rent and is returning to the ‘outside’ of Cape Town he ‘just ran away like my [Joe's] old man (p. 70).

Retreating to the beachcombing habits of his historical past does not save Joe from the problems or the ‘troubles’ of the industrial society. He is constrained from bringing the dead fish he finds on the beach into the city. Otherwise, as Adonis tells him, ‘City Council would be on your neck’ (p. 10). On one hand the colour-blind laws of the City Council of an industrial city prevents him from bringing in dead and stinking fish into the city: and on the other the colour-bound laws of the City Council condemn him, on account of his ethnic origin, to a situation where he cannot even have access to the beaches his forefathers freely moved about. Talking about the City Council moves to reserve beaches for Whites Joe tells Adonis, ‘I hear they're going to make the beaches so only white people can go there. […]. It's going to get so's nobody can go nowhere’ (p. 10). The only option open to Joe, which he takes up towards the end of the novel, is to retreat further away from the society of Cape Town, to make ‘his way towards the sea, walking alone through the starlit darkness’ (p. 96). Joe's failure to prevent Adonis from joining Foxy's gang shows the failure of the old form of communal caring, ‘Isn't we all people?’ (p. 75), to influence the society of twentieth century South Africa. By implication, La Guma points to the need for new forms of communal caring that still raise the question ‘Isn't we all people?’.

La Guma's attempt in A Walk in the Night has been to show the intertwined nature of ethnic and trans-ethnic issues affecting the Coloured characters. He elaborated his view of this intertwined nature of the problems in an article in Sechaba in 1967 in which he argued that:

In the face of increasing forms of apartheid and racial discrimination in politics and economics, it is not surprising that the physical and social life of the Coloured Community is deteriorating at an alarming degree […]. Social problems which might exist under ‘normal’ capitalist conditions are aggravated seriously by racial discrimination.99

Thus, similarities exist in the views of Alex La Guma in his non-fictional works and the portrayal of Coloured characters and their social situation in A Walk in the Night. La Guma articulates the same viewpoint even in situations where the Coloureds do not constitute the overwhelming majority as in District Six. La Guma's next novel And A Threefold Cord deals with a community composed of the Coloureds and Africans.

One of the aims that La Guma had in writing And A Threefold Cord is to inform his readers about the conditions in the slums of South Africa. The area of Cape Town that provided the model for La Guma to undertake such a venture was Cape Flats, a dry sandy area on the Eastern and North-Eastern outskirts of the city in which Windermere and other Black slums are located. La Guma explains:

I was interested in recording creatively the life of a community under various conditions. I thought it would help to bring to the reader an idea of what goes on in the various black areas of the Cape and that through a novel this would be done. And having had some experience of the Cape Flats and having met some of the people there and having had some idea of their lives, well I just got stuck into And A Threefold Cord.100

There are several similarities between the known details of Cape Flats and the descriptions of the locale in the novel.

The circumstances under which And A Threefold Cord was written made the overseas reader a significant factor in the delineation of the character, and the description of the locale. In 1963 the Seven Seas Publishers approached La Guma for ‘something’ to publish.101 He was, at that time, under severe restrictions and was serving a five-year term of house arrest. He was prohibited from attending any gatherings or joining any political organisations and ordered to resign from political organisations. He was a ‘banned’ person. The laws under which La Guma's writings were banned had a wide scope that covered almost everything he wrote or spoke. Reporting on the nature of La Guma's banning that made A Walk in the Night unavailable to South African readers. ‘B.P.B.’ of New Age wrote:

The Act [The General Laws Amendment Act] makes it an offence, without the consent of the Minister or except for the purposes of any proceedings in any court of law, to record or reproduce by mechanical or other means or print, publish or disseminate any speech, utterance, writing or statement or any extract from or recording or reproduction of any speech, utterance, writing or statement made or produced or purporting to have been made or produced anywhere at any time by any person banned under the Supression Communism Act from attending gatherings. La Guma has been banned from attending gatherings.102

Against the background of these wide-ranging bannings that virtually denied any possibility of publishing his works in South Africa La Guma accepted the offer from the Seven Seas Publishers and wrote And A Threefold Cord.

The immediate intended audience for And A Threefold Cord was, therefore, the overseas readers the Seven Seas Publishers had in mind. Two significant concessions are made in the book for non-South African readers. Firstly, there is a long foreword by Brian Bunting giving a description of the social and political conditions in South Africa. The other concession is in the appending of a glossary mainly of Afrikaans words used in the text. The glossary contains very common words such as baas and Ou which a South African reader of any race in any region of the country would be in a position to understand. Obviously, the glossary is for the non-South African readers. It is difficult to conclude as to what extent the publisher's concern with the overseas readers influenced La Guma. However, one could speculate that banning resulted in a new author-reader relationship.

Unlike in the case of A Walk in the Night which was completed before the offer of publication by Mbari Publishers, And A Threefold Cord was written with the knowledge that the book was for an overseas readership. La Guma thus envisages certain aspects of the novel as propaganda or, more precisely, as counter-propaganda against the rosy picture of South Africa propagated abroad by the South African government. For example, the title of the novel is a symbolic invitation to the readers outside South Africa to treat the problems of the South African slum dwellers as their own. Explaining the wider context of the experiences of the characters portrayed in the novel La Guma said:

The title (And A Threefold Cord) comes as an excerpt from a biblical quotation. I think it is Ecclesiastes 4:9-12. This excerpt emphasises the idea that the individual alone cannot survive, that he has to have somebody around him to which to cling in times of difficulty and adversity and I tried to convey the idea that loneliness of people, loneliness of individuals is one thing, but at some time or another they've got to turn away from their loneliness and try to associate with other people. And I try throughout this novel to show that while people have got their own problems, or what they believe to be their own problems, these problems are not actually entirely their own but they are shared by other people.103

La Guma's intention to address the non-South African readers is partly responsible for the repeated use of the motif of incessant rain causing misery and suffering. The descriptions of rain in the novel have purposes other than creating the atmosphere. La Guma explains:

There is also the fact that overseas people believe the South African regime's tourist propaganda that it is a country with perfect weather. I had an idea that we could use the weather as a feature of South Africa, but also in terms of its symbolic potential, and thus at the same time make it or try to make it genuinely South African. In other words, I am contesting the official propaganda of South Africa's natural beauty and trying to show the world that the tourist poster world of wonderful beaches and beautiful golf links is not the total picture104.

The reader that La Guma had in mind was not, however, wholly non-South African. Given the regional divides that exist in South Africa between the Cape and other parts of the country, La Guma's attempt was aimed at least in part in recording what was happening in Cape Town's slums. To act as a social historian of the Cape was one of La Guma's aims in writing And A Threefold Cord. Speaking on his motivations to write the novel La Guma remarked that the novel ‘is a matter of recording history or recording situation’105, a motivation that many writers from Africa had. Thus, in this regard, And A Threefold Cord is in the same category as Things Fall Apart,106, and The River Between,107 novels that examine communities engaged in the struggle for survival when faced with outside forces.

The primary focus in And A Threefold Cord is on recording the happenings in the community. Its main character Charlie Pauls serves as a convenient string to hang different sketches of life in the shanty town of Windermere. The plot is, JanMohamed notes, ‘virtually non-existent; it simply consists of Charlie Pauls' constant attempts to repair his family house in a dilapidated shanty town while various disasters befall his friends and family members’.108 Throughout the novel, as Fatton notes, ‘La Guma uses interpolated sketches to juxtapose the life of the Pauls family to that of the community’.109 What holds the story together is the way the social community of the location survives the intertwined problems of poverty and racial disadvantage.

The squatter camps of Cape Flats sprang up in the 1930s when there was a large influx of people from the hinterland of Cape Town. The influx was a combination of ‘pull factors’ associated with the boom in manufacturing industries around Cape Town and ‘push factors’ of rural poverty associated, among other things, with the cumulative effects of divisions of land holdings into uneconomically small units. The population influx consisted of people of Coloured, African and White ethnic origins. The ‘poor whites’ did not become a part of the Cape Flats squatter camps as they were protected by the ‘Civilised Labour’ policies; and they moved on to more affluent areas.110 The rest of the migrants became part of racially mixed shanty towns such as Windermere or of predominantly African townships such as Nyanga and Langa. In the locations, J.S. Marais points out, ‘Coloured inhabitants often live side by side with the Bantu […]’.111 In the ‘notoriously squalid shantytown’ of Windermere, John Western points out, ‘both Coloureds and Black Africans lived in tin pondoks[…]’.112 Windermere, thus, is distinguished by two features, its poverty, and its ethnically-mixed Black populace. Both these features are reflected in the novel.

In And a Threefold Cord La Guma portrays in graphic details the poverty in which the people of Windermere live. In his descriptions of the locale and the people La Guma shows a concern for naturalistic detail, as he had done earlier in A Walk in the Night. La Guma's concern for detail is continued in the novel in the descriptions of the dilapidated surroundings, the leaking pondoks that offer no protection against the incessant rain and cold wind to the undernourished inhabitants of Windermere. The racially mixed character of Windermere is reflected in the racial range of the characters in the shanty town area of And A Threefold Cord. There are Coloured characters such as the Pauls and Freda, African characters such as Brother Bombatta and Missus Nzuba and a Cape Malay character Aunt Mina. Among the characters who intrude into the community for a short period are Mostert, the White owner of the petrol-station across the road that acts as a boundary of the shanty town, and the Afrikaner police constable Van Den Woud. What unites the people of the shantytown is their poverty, and the need for mutual help and solidarity, irrespective of their ethnic origins, in times of crises. It is only the threefold cord between the poor that enables them to survive the dehumanising forces of poverty and racial disadvantage in the locations.

The squalid conditions of the locations and the poverty of the people who live in the locations have been a subject of many sociological studies and reports of Government Commissions. Describing the conditions in a typical location the Tuberculosis Commission noted in 1914:

[The location was frequently placed on] stony and irregular [ground] fit for no purpose, generally […] in the vicinity of […] the town sanitary tip, the refuse dump, and the slaughter poles and […] away from the possibility of procuring any proper domestic water supply [… The dwellings are] with a few exceptions […] a disgrace, and the majority quite unfit for human inhabitation. [The locations are] mere shanties, often nothing more than hovels, constructed out of old packing case lining, flattened kerosine tins, sacking and other scraps and odds and ends […] put up on the bare ground.113

The conditions in the locations hardly improved for years and in 1937 Cape Coloured Commission repeated many of the findings of the Tuberculosis Commission and noted that the conditions prevailing in most locations ‘are insanitary and unhygienic to a degree that can hardly be described’.114

Literary attempts to describe the Cape Flats locations have been very few. Peter Abrahams highlighted the conditions in the Cape Flats in his autobiography Tell Freedom:

Entering the Cape Flats was stepping into a new Dark Age. The earth, here, is barren of all but the hardiest shrub. It is a dirty white, sandy earth. The sea had once been here. In its retreat it had left a white unyielding sand, grown dirty with time. Almost, it had left a desert. And in this desert strip, on the fringes of a beautiful garden city, men had made their homes. They had taken pieces of corrugated iron and tied them together with bits of string, wire and rope. They had piled sacking on top of this. The ‘fortunate’ had made floors; the unfortunate had sandy earth for floor. Into these hovels men had taken their women. […] They had called these places homes. They had lain with their women. And their women had brought forth children. And the children grew, stunted as the shrubs on this desert strip.115

La Guma's And A Threefold Cord is probably the first full-length novel set entirely in a Cape Town location. The textual evidence suggests that the novel deals with a location with mixed racial population in Cape Town in the early 1950s before the rigorous implementation of the Group Areas Act or the introduction of the passes for women. La Guma's attempt in the novel has been to make it ‘really another record of the general life of the people as reflected through the experience of one particular family [the Pauls] and its associates’.116 The poverty in which the Pauls live serves as a metaphor for the poverty of the location as a whole. Intertwined with the poverty that afflicts most of the Coloured and African characters is the burden of racial disadvantage. The hardships of poverty are made even more unbearable by the psychological humiliation at the hands of the police who enforce the racially discriminatory laws.

Poverty is omnipresent at different levels in the location in And A Threefold Cord. Incessant rain and inclement weather only add to the sufferings of the poor people of the location whose leaky pondoks provide no adequate protection. The narrator provides a detailed description of Pauls' pondok and how it was built:

Dad [Pauls] had rented the lot, one of the several empty ones in the sand waste just beginning to be crowded in by the collection of dilapidated shanties that was springing up like sores of the legs of land off the highway. […] Dad and Charlie had scavenged, begged and, on dark nights, stolen the materials for the house. They had dragged for miles sheets of rusty corrugated iron, planks, pieces of cardboard, and all the astonishing miscellany that had gone into building the house. […] And now and then [with] the other help, Coloured and African shack dwellers, had filled four-gallon cans with crudely made concrete and allowed it to set. Then they had arranged the concrete-filled containers in a square and had laid the floor of the kitchen and the bed room across them […]. Then the walls had gone up, and assortment of rusty galvanished sheets and flattened oil drums nailed and bound to uprights with a square hole left in the bedroom for a window. […] The roof had been nailed down and they had heaved heavy stones on to it for additional security.

(pp. 39-41)

The shack in which Charlie's sister Caroline and her husband Alfred lived was even worse. It was a big motor-car crate resting a few inches off the ground on pieces of timber. Houses such as those of the Pauls or of Alfred and Caroline make up the location which the narrator describes as follows:

It could hardly be called a street, not even a lane; just a hollowed track that stumbled and sprawled between and around and through the patchwork of shacks, cabins, huts and wickiups: a maze of cracks between the jigsaw pieces of settlement, a writhing battle-field of mud and straggling entanglements of wet and rusty barbed wire, sagging sheets of tin, topping pickets, twigs and peeled branches and collapsing odds and ends with edges and points as dangerous as sharks' teeth, which made up the fencework around the quagmires of lots.

(p. 45)

Most of the people in the location are either unemployed or are dependent on earnings from doing odd jobs when available. Charlie Pauls is unemployed; his uncle, Uncle Ben, who lives by doing odd house-painting jobs is also temporarily out of work on account of the downpour. Only Ronald Pauls has a steady job, and after his arrest for the murder of Susie Myres, his girlfriend whom he suspects of going out with other men, the family loses even that small income. Thus, the Pauls family does not have money to eat sufficient food, or have proper medicines for Pa Pauls who is sick, or even to buy adequate amount of water to wash Pa Paul's body when he dies. Alfred's earnings are so meagre that the City Council refuses to allot him a house. Freda is relatively lucky, and through her work as a house-maid with a White family in the town is able to survive and feed her two children by her former husband. She loses all her belongings and the children in the fire accident that burns down her shack.

The people of the location are faced with the humiliation forced on them in everyday life because of their ethnic origins. Their low status in the racial hierarchy of South African society prevents the possibilities of social interaction even with Mostert, the owner of the petrol station just across the road from the location. Mostert is a dropout of the White society. His wife had run away with a used-car salesman after getting tired of Mostert's ‘lack of ambition or his premature surrender to encroaching competition’ (p. 66) and he is leading a lonely existence lacking human company. He is unable to get over ‘his wretched pride in a false racial superiority’ (p. 67) and mix with the people of the location. Later, when he does take the plunge, and walks to the location and chances to bump into Susie Myres who shows her willing to ‘have a wake-up time’ (p. 129) he is afraid of the association: ‘One didn't go with coloured girls; it was against the law anyway’ (p. 128). A combination of social attitudes and legal barriers generate and sustain ethnic separateness reinforcing the racial/social walls that enclose the location.

Charlie Pauls, the central character of the novel, is aware of the intertwining nature of the forces that are responsible for the pain and suffering of his family and himself. In the course of a chat with his uncle, Uncle Ben, Charlie speaks of the relative poverty and racial humiliation the Coloureds undergo:

Listen, Uncle Ben, one time I went up to see Freda [the women he loves and later marries] up by that people she works for, cleaning and washing. Hell, that people got a house mos, big as the effing city hall, almost, and there's an old bitch with purple hair and fat backsides and her husband eating off a table a mile long and dingus on it. And a juba like me can't even touch the handle of the front door. You got to go round the back.

(p. 83)

On several occasions Charlie Pauls contrasts the opulence of Freda's White employers with his and his family's poverty. Charlie portrays the White/Black divisions as rich/poor divisions though the link is not seen as an absolute one. Ethnic divisions of White and Black are countered by trans-ethnic economic divisions within the Black ethnic groups. Speaking to his brother Alfy about the leaking roof of their house Charlie says:

Is funny there got to be a lot of people like us, worrying about the blerry roof everytime it rain, and ther's other people don't have to worry a damn. Living in wake-up houses like that house Freda work by […] or even just up the road here [in the location]. […] Some people got no money, some people got a little money, some people got a little more money, and other people got a helluva lot […].

(p. 89)

The events in the novel highlight the ambivalent relationship between the ethnic and the trans-ethnic factors that cause misery and suffering to the poor people of the location. When Charlie's father dies, the family is faced with the problem of buying sufficient water to wash the dead body. The location did not have a proper water supply and ‘Those who owned the plumbing and the taps sold water to those who lacked such amenities’ (p. 113). The narrator rails at the attitude of the people who were making profit out of the helplessness of those who did not have water taps. The Black ethnicity of the profiteers does not save them from the narrator's criticism. While describing the scene where ‘queues of scarecrow children form up with buckets and cans and saucepans’, the narrator comments:

Water is profit. In order to make this profit, the one who sells the water must also use it to wash his soul clean of compassion. He must rinse his heart of pity, and with the bristles of enterprise, scrub his being sterile of sympathy. He must have the heart of a stop-cock and the brain of a cistern, intestines of lead pipes.

(p. 114)

The insensitivity of the profiteer that makes the burdens of poverty even harder to bear is matched by the racial humiliation and psychological pain inflicted on the people by the police party headed by a White police constable, Van Den Woud. With the ostensible purpose of checking for Pass Law offenders, dagga smokers, and illicit liquor the police make it a point to insult every Coloured and African they come across. Every Coloured, by virtue of his race, is automatically presumed to be a dagga smoker. Thus, Van Den Woud asks Charlie ‘Alright, jong, waar's die dagga? Where's the dope? (p. 135). The sergeant insults Freda, who by then had not married Charlie, by calling her a ‘blerry black whore’ (p. 136). Nor do the police respect the privacy of Caroline's child birth. They try to barge in under the pretext of looking for illicit liquor. It is only Ma Pauls' brave defiance that prevents any possible tragedy.

The police party's behaviour towards Africans is even more insensitive and arbitrary. The police use the brief they have to implement the Pass Laws in a brutal and high-handed way. They insult and arrest Africans in an indiscriminate manner. The narrator describes one such random arrest:

[Hearing the commotion at the time of the raid] an African man came out of his cabin to the gate of his yard in order to see what was going on. He was wearing an old overcoat over his pyjamas. Light fell on him, and he was surrounded by police.

‘Where's your reference book, kaffir?’

‘It is inside, in my coat pocket.’

‘Where is it, man? You should have it on you.’

‘No pass, hey? Come, come on, come on.’

‘Listen, it is inside, sir.’

But hands were laid on him and he was led towards where others stood waiting to be loaded into the police trucks.

(p. 139)

In response to the intertwined problems of poverty and racial disadvantage the poor Coloureds and Africans forge ‘a threefold cord’. They survive deprivation and racial humiliation through mutual material help and moral support. Their poverty and the need for mutual help and solidarity, irrespective of the ethnic origins or the ethnic categories the police make during their raid, act as unifying forces. When the Pauls family does not have water to wash the dead body of Dad Pauls their neighbour Missus Nzuba offers a bucket of water. When Ma Pauls offers to return the bucket of water Nzuba says, ‘I do not want it back […] I am proud to yelp you. We been living here together a long time […] We all got to stand by each other’ (pp. 111-12).

Similarly, Charlie takes it upon himself to seek vengeance against the police for insulting his woman and the community of the location. He gets up from the bed suddenly, puts on his ‘old army boots’ (p. 138) and tells Freda that he was going out to ‘see what's happening to our people’ (p. 138). When a police man asks him to move off from the place where the police were counting off the arrested people to the police trucks, Charlie retorts ‘Can't a man watch his own people being effed off to jail?’. Charlie hits a ‘hard, snapping blow’ on the face of the police man and manages to run away to safety. In another instance of expressing solidarity in times of crisis, Charlie, when Freda loses her house and her two children in a fire accident, takes the grief-stricken women to his house: ‘I'll take her up to our place. I reckon that's the only place for her now’ (p. 159).

La Guma thus shows that the problems facing the Coloured community in general have their roots in both ethnic and trans-ethnic factors. The interlinkages between ethnic factors such as social practices and laws that segregate them into mental and physical ghettoes on one hand and trans-ethnic factors such as poverty, sexual jealousies, profiteering on people's miseries on the other are shown to be complex. The overlapping nature of the ethnic and trans-ethnic factors render any rigid categorisation both simplistic and inaccurate. By criticising sections of the Coloured communities who are willing to get rich by exploiting the poor of their own ethnic kind La Guma points out that identities other than the Coloured ethnicity do exist. An identity based on economic groups and humanitarian mutual help is shown as a viable alternative, particularly in And a Threefold Cord. The quest for a viable alternative to ethnicity is continued by La Guma in his later novels, The Stone Country and In the Fog of the Season's End.


  1. La Guma in his interview with Robert Serumaga in Duerden, D., and Pieterse, C., eds., African Writers Talking, (London: Heinemann, 1972), p. 93.

  2. Marks, Shula, ‘Khoisan Resistance to the Dutch in the Seventeenth and Eighteenth Centuries’, Journal of African History, vol. XIII, no. 1, 1972, pp. 55-80.

  3. Raven-Hart, R., Before van Riebeek, Callers at South Africa from 1488 to 1652 (Wynberg, Cape: Rustica Press, 1967).

  4. Especially his poem ‘The Brown Hunter's Song’ in Pringle, T., Poems Illustrative of South Africa: African Sketches (Cape Town: Struik, 1834, 1966), pp. 62-63.

  5. February, V. A., Mind Your Colour: The ‘Coloured’ Stereotype in South African Literature (London: Kegan Paul, 1981), p. 1.

  6. Rabkin, D., DRUM Magazine (1951-1961): And the Works of Black South African Writers Associated with It, unpublished Ph. D. thesis, University of Leeds, July 1975, p. 178.

  7. Cited in Stonequest, Everett, V., The Marginal Man: A Study in Personality and Culture Conflict (New York: Russell & Russell, 1937), pp. 20-21.

  8. Cited in February, Mind Your Colour, p. 60.

  9. Millin, Sarah Gertrude, God's Step-Children (London: Constable, 1924; 1951).

  10. Millin, S. G., God's Step-Children, p. 34.

  11. Edelstein, M., What Do the Coloureds Think? (Johannesburg: Labour & Community Consultants, 1974), p. 77.

  12. The Theron Commission: A Summary (Johannesburg: SAIRR, 1976), p. 114.

  13. Western, John, Outcast Cape Town (Minneapolis, Minnesota: University of Minnesota Press, 1981), p. 346.

  14. Cape Argus, 19th August 1969; cited in Whisson, M. G., ‘The Coloured People’ in Randall, P., ed., South Africa's Minorities, (Johannesburg: Study Project on Christianity in Apartheid Society, 1971), p. 48.

  15. La Guma, Alex, ‘Culture and Apartheid in South Africa’, Tricontinental, no. 8, 1968, p. 132.

  16. La Guma's interview with Robert Serumaga in 1966, in Duerden, D., and Pieterse, C., eds., African Writers Talking, p. 93.

  17. For example, Adonis and Joe in A Walk in the Night.

  18. La Guma, A., ‘A Walk in the Night’ in La Guma, A., ed. A Walk in the Night and Other Stories (London: Heinemann, 1967), pp. 1-96. All references to the text are to this edition.

  19. La Guma, A., And a Threefold Cord, (Berlin: Seven Seas, 1964). All references to the text are to this edition.

  20. La Guma, A., The Stone Country (London: Heinemann, 1967).

  21. La Guma, A., In the Fog of the Season's End (London: Heinemann, 1972).

  22. La Guma, Alex, ‘What I Learned from Maxim Gorky’, Lotus: Afro-Asian Writing, no. 34-4/77, Oct-Dec 1977, p. 164.

  23. Rive, Richard, ‘Growing Up in District Six’, South African Outlook, vol. 110, no. 1303, 1980, p. 8.

  24. Rive, Richard, Writing Black (Cape Town: David Philip, 1981), p. 12.

  25. Rabkin, D., DRUM Magazine (1951-1961): And the Works of Black South African Writers Associated with It, p. 227.

  26. De Kiewiet, C. W., The Anatomy of South African Misery, (London: OUP, 1956), p. 39.

  27. Gordon, Gerald, Let the Day Perish (London: Methuen, 1952).

  28. Abrahams, Peter, The Path of Thunder (London: Faber, 1948; 1952).

  29. Paton, Alan, Too Late the Phalarope (London: Jonathan Cape, 1953).

  30. Fugard, Athol, The Blood Knot (Johannesburg: Simondium Publishers, 1963).

  31. La Guma, A., ‘Slipper Satin’, in Rive, R., ed., Quartet: New Voices from South Africa (London: Heinemann, 1963; 1974), pp. 67-73.

  32. La Guma, A., ‘A Glass of Wine’, in Quartet, pp. 91-96.

  33. La Guma, ‘A Glass of Wine’ in Quartet, p. 96.

  34. Abrahams, Cecil, Alex La Guma, (Boston, Massachusetts: G.K. Hall, 1985), p. 32.

  35. La Guma, A., ‘Slipper Satin’, in Quartet, p. 67.

  36. La Guma, A., ‘Slipper Satin’, in Quartet, p. 68.

  37. La Guma, A., ‘Slipper Satin’, in Quartet, pp. 69-70.

  38. La Guma, A., ‘Out of Darkness’, in Quartet, p. 38.

  39. Rive, R., ‘Resurrection’, in Quartet, pp. 41-51.

  40. Rive, R., ‘Resurrection’, in Quartet, p. 42.

  41. La Guma, A., ‘Out of Darkness’, in Quartet, p. 38.

  42. La Guma, A., ‘The Gladiators’, in La Guma, A., A Walk in the Night and Other Stories, pp. 114-120.

  43. La Guma, A., ‘The Gladiators’, in A Walk in the Night and Other Stories, p. 114.

  44. La Guma, A., ‘The Gladiators’, in A Walk in the Night and Other Stories, p. 115.

  45. La Guma, A., ‘The Gladiators’, in A Walk in the Night and Other Stories, p. 115.

  46. La Guma, A., ‘The Gladiators’, in A Walk in the Night and Other Stories, p. 115.

  47. La Guma, A., ‘The Gladiators’, in A Walk in the Night and Other Stories, p. 117.

  48. La Guma's interview with Cecil Abrahams in 1978; cited in Abrahams, C., Alex La Guma, pp. 4-5.

  49. La Guma, A., ‘The Gladiators’, in A Walk in the Night and Other Stories, p. 117.

  50. La Guma, A., ‘The Gladiators’, in A Walk in the Night and Other Stories, p. 117.

  51. La Guma, A., ‘The Gladiators’ in A Walk in the Night and Other Stories, p. 117.

  52. Cited in Mphahlele, E., The African Image, (London: Faber, 1962), p. 108.

  53. Roux, E., Time Longer than Rope: A History of the Black Man's Struggle for Freedom in South Africa, (Madison, Wisconsin: University of Wisconsin Press, 1964; 1972), p. 62.

  54. The idea of civilisation that a British governor who was in office not long after Rhodes' government was:

    If the redemption of the pledges [made to the Government of India on indentured Indian labour] means that in fifty or one hundred years this country [South Africa] will have fallen to the inheritances of the Eastern instead of the Western populations, then from the point of view of civilisation they must be numbered among promises which it is a greater crime to keep than to break.

    [Sir Arthur Lawley, Lieutenant-Governor of Transvaal, writing to Lord Milner (13 April 1904), cited in Tinker, Hugh, A New System of Slavery: The Export of Indian Labour 1830-1920 (Oxford: OUP, 1974), p. 298]

  55. ‘Civilised Labour’ was defined as ‘the labour rendered by persons whose standard of living conforms to the standards generally recognised as tolerable from the usual European standpoint’, and ‘Uncivilised Labour’ was ‘to be regarded as the labour rendered by persons whose aim is restricted to the bare necessities of life as understood among barbarous and undeveloped peoples’ [Cited in Hepple, Alex, South Africa: A Political and Economic History (London: Pall Mall, 1966), p. 207].

  56. La Guma, A., ‘Apartheid and the Coloured People of South Africa’, Notes and Documents, (New York: United Nations Unit on Apartheid, 1972), p. 15.

  57. Roux, E., Time Longer than Rope, p. 148.

  58. Harmel, Michael, pseud. A. Lerumo, History of the Communist Party of South Africa: Fifty Fighting Years 1921-1971, (New Delhi: People's Publishing House, 1971, 1978), p. 196.

  59. La Guma, A., ‘Late Edition’, Lotus: Afro-Asian Writings, vol. XII, 1972, pp. 152-157.

  60. La Guma, A., ‘Late Edition’, p. 157.

  61. July, R. W., ‘African Personality in the African Novel: Alex La Guma; Cyprian Ekwensi; Onuora Nzekwu; Cheik Amidou Kane’, in Beier, Ulli, ed., Introduction to African Literature: An Anthology of Critical Writing (London: Longman, 1967; 1979), p. 231.

  62. La Guma, A., ‘At the Portagees’, in La Guma, A., A Walk in the Night and Other Stories, pp. 108-113.

  63. A person of Portugese or Southern European descent.

  64. La Guma, A., ‘At the Portagees’, in A Walk in the Night and Other Stories, p. 111.

  65. La Guma, A., ‘Blankets’, in Walk in the Night and Other Stories, pp. 121-125.

  66. Rabkin, D., DRUM Magazine, p. 205.

  67. La Guma, A., ‘Blankets’ in Mphalele. ed., African Writing Today (Penguin: Harmondsworth, 1967), pp. 268-273.

  68. La Guma, A., ‘Tattoo Marks and Nails’, in La Guma, A., ed. Walk in the Night and Other Stories, pp. 97-107.

  69. La Guma, A., ‘A Matter of Honour’, The New African, Sept 1967, pp. 169-170. The story first appeared as ‘Battle for Honour’, Drum, vol. VIII, pt. 10, 1958, pp. 84-86.

  70. La Guma, A., ‘Tattoo Marks and Nails’, p. 101.

  71. La Guma, A., ‘Tattoo Marks and Nails’, p. 107.

  72. La Guma, A., ‘A Matter of Honour’, p. 169.

  73. La Guma, A., ‘Tattoo Marks and Nails’, p. 98.

  74. La Guma, A., ‘The Lemon Orchard’, in La Guma, A., A Walk in the Night and Other Stories, pp. 131-136.

  75. La Guma, A., ‘Lemon Orchard’, p. 133.

  76. La Guma, A., ‘Lemon Orchard’, p. 135.

  77. Abrahams, P., The Path of Thunder, (London: Faber and Faber, 1948; 1952).

  78. La Guma's interview with Cecil Abrahams in 1978; cited in Abrahams, C., Alex La Guma, p. 49.

  79. La Guma, A., ‘Literature and Life’, Lotus: Afro-Asian Writings, vol. I, no. 4, 1970, p. 237.

  80. St. Clair Drake, ‘An Approach to the Evaluation of African Societies’, in Africa as Seen by American Negroes (Paris: Presence Africaine); cited in February, Mind Your Colour, p. 80.

  81. Although the Group Areas Act was passed in 1950 its actual implementation in Cape Town was delayed till about 1957, on account of several local factors including non-cooperation from city council.

  82. According to Cecil Abrahams La Guma identified the location as Windermere; Abrahams, C., Alex La Guma, p. 74.

  83. Western, J., Outcast Cape Town, p. 117.

  84. Western, J., Outcast Cape Town, p. 241.

  85. In his interview to Abrahams La Guma says:

    I had never really consciously thought of producing a novel, as such, in terms of the formal structures and so on. I just started at the beginning and ended at the end. […] I just constructed the story in my mind, whether it was a short story or a long story. I don't call it a novel, I call it a long story. Once it had been completed in my mind, I sit down to write it and then amend it, change it and so on.

    Abrahams, Cecil, Alex La Guma, p. 69

  86. ‘Alex La Guma Discussing His Story The Stone Country’, B.B.C. Radio Broadcast, 23rd March 1968.

  87. Couzens, T. J., ‘The Black Press and Black Literature in South Africa’ 1900-1950, English Studies in Africa, vol. XIX, no. 2, 1976, p. 98.

  88. Couzens, T. J., ‘The Black Press’, p. 96.

  89. Hellmann, J., Fables of Fact: The New Journalism as New Fiction (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1981).

  90. Abrahams, C., Alex La Guma, p. 63.

  91. Wade, Michael, ‘Art and Morality in Alex La Guma's A Walk in the Night’, in Parker, K., ed., The South African Novel in English (London: Macmillan, 1978), p. 188.

  92. ‘One suspects in the case of many Cape Liberals that their nigrophilism was only skin deep. They expressed publicly their interest in maintaining the Cape Coloured vote. This vote had provided them with safe seats in Parliament.’

    Roux, E., Time Longer than Rope, p. 71.

  93. John X. Merriman, for example; for details of the legacy of Cape Liberalism in the later day politics see Robertson, J., Liberalism in South Africa 1948-1963 (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1971).

  94. Schapera, I., The Khoisan People of South Africa (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1935; 1965), p. 29.

  95. Schapera, I, The Khoisan People of South Africa, p. 29.

  96. Bleek, D. F., The Mantis and His Friends: Bushman Folklore (Cape Town: T. Maskew Miller, 1923), pp. viii-ix.

  97. Marshall, Lorna, ‘Sharing, Talking, and Giving: Relief of Social Tensions among the!Kung’ in Lee, Richard, B., and De Vore, Irvin, eds., Kalahari Hunter-Gatherers: Studies of the!Kung San and Their Neighbours (Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press, 1976), p. 357.

  98. Wade, Michael, ‘Art and Morality in Alex La Guma's A Walk in the Night’ in Kenneth Parker, ed., The South African Novel in English, p. 188.

  99. La Guma, Alex, ‘The Time Has Come: Part II’, Sechaba, vol. I, pt. 4, 1967, p. 14.

  100. La Guma's interview with Cecil Abrahams in June 1981; cited in Abrahams, C., Alex La Guma, p. 70.

  101. La Guma's interview with Cecil Abrahams in June 1981; cited in Abrahams, C., Alex La Guma, p. 69.

  102. ‘B.P.B.’, ‘Alex La Guma's First Novel Banned by the Sabotage Act’, New Age, vol. VII, no. 43, p. 6.

  103. La Guma's interview with Cecil Abrahams in June 1981; cited in Abrahams, C., Alex La Guma, p. 71.

  104. La Guma's interview with Cecil Abrahams in June 1981; cited in Abrahams, C., Alex La Guma, p. 72.

  105. La Guma's interview with Cecil Abrahams in March 1978; cited in Abrahams, C., Alex La Guma, p. 70.

  106. Achebe, Chinua, Things Fall Apart (London: Heinemann, 1958; 1962).

  107. Ngugi wa Thiongo, The River Between (London: Heinemann, 1965).

  108. JanMohamed, A. R. Manichean Aesthetics: The Politics of Literature in Colonial Africa (Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1983), p. 239.

  109. Fatton, K., Novels of La Guma: Representation of a Political Conflict, Unpublished Ph. D. Thesis, University of Notre Dame, 1984, p. 64.

  110. ‘Increasing segregation also arose from the manipulations of the Civilised Labour policy. Erstwhile poor Whites were, from the later 1920s onward, improving their socio-economic status and buying segregation in newer all-White suburbs […] at the bottom of the scale, city's peripheral squatter camps, such as Windermere and Cook's Bush housed only negligible number of Whites, if any.’

    Western, John, Outcast Cape Town, p. 56.

  111. Marais, J. S., The Cape Coloured People 1652-1937 (Johannesburg: Witwatersrand University Press, 1957), p. 257.

  112. Western, J., Outcast Cape Town, p. 117.

  113. Union Government Publication No. 34, 1914, pp. 126-39; cited in Marais, J. S., The Cape Coloured People, pp. 257-58.

  114. Union Government Publication No. 34, 1937, par. 720; cited in Marais, J. S., The Cape Coloured People, p. 259.

  115. Abrahams, Peter, Tell Freedom (London: Faber & Faber, 1954; 1981), p. 287.

  116. La Guma in his interview with Cecil Abrahams in June 1981; cited in Abrahams, C., Alex La Guma, p. 70.

Balasubramanyam Chandramohan (essay date 1992)

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Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 12061

SOURCE: Chandramohan, Balasubramanyam. “Inter-Ethnicity to Trans-Ethnicity.” In A Study in Trans-Ethnicity in Modern South Africa: The Writings of Alex La Guma, 1925-1985, pp. 149-82. Lampeter, Wales: Mellen Research University Press, 1992.

[In the following excerpt, Chandramohan studies Time of the Butcherbird for evidence of La Guma's transition from concerns about black Africans specifically to all ethnic groups in South Africa.]

La Guma's pursuit of the notion of a trans-ethnic society in South Africa acquires greater complexity in Time of the Butcherbird,1 an overtly symbolic novel. The use of symbolism in the novel is a consequence partly of the social divisions that compartmentalise life in South Africa, and partly of the author's exile since 1966. Behind the shift in literary technique lies a change in the mode of La Guma's social concern. Thus, the shift from near-naturalism in the early works to symbolism and allegory in the later works coincides with the shift in La Guma's concern with Coloured life in Cape Town to life across ethnic divides. In this ‘widening of range’2 La Guma's concern with Africans, ‘the largest and the most oppressed group [of South Africans]’,3 is natural; and Time of the Butcherbird is mainly about the dispossession that an African community faces in rural South Africa. The divergencies between inter-ethnicity and trans-ethnicity as interpretatative models sustain the unfolding of the story in Time of the Butcherbird.

Compared with the preceding novels, symbolism in Time of the Butcherbird permeates more aspects of the novel, and it is also more overt. The locale, the characters and the action are all symbolic. The symbols embrace South Africa's history. Attempts to locate the novel in a specific geographical context, and thereby evaluate the characters, situations, and actions on the basis of the closeness to actual people has led to a view that Time of the Butcherbird has a placeless4 about it. The symbolism in La Guma's works is a result of interplay between the author's personal background and political beliefs. The literary technique is affected by the shift in his concerns from filling the gap in the literary portrayal of the Coloureds5 to covering a wider range of issues and people.

La Guma's focus in Time of the Butcherbird is on the cycles of violence and counter-violence that lead to the wastage of human life in South Africa. In the novel he portrays one such cycle of rage, revenge and retaliatory violence taking place in a dorp in the Eastern Karoo. Dedicated to ‘The Dispossessed’, the novel deals with the dispossession of an individual, Shilling Murile, and his African community which is forcibly evicted from its ancestral lands to benefit the local Afrikaner community and the mining interests of a nearby town. The struggle for the mastery over land that has been the central theme of the conflict between the Africans and the Afrikaners is allegorised in a historical perspective. The other ethnic groups, English-speaking Whites, the Coloureds, the Indians, and the San are also shown, symbolically, to interact in their own ways with this central conflict. The matrix of ideas that re-emerged in the late 1960s and the early 1970s with the rise of Black Consciousness organisations, particularly the South African Students Organisation (SASO),6 provides the social and literary context of ‘nationalisms’ in the novel. La Guma's long-standing interest in Marxist ideas counterpoints and underpins trans-ethnicity in the novel.

The relationship between exile and narrative imagination becomes acute in Time of the Butcherbird. It is the first of La Guma's novels that was written wholly in exile. Abrahams points out that In the Fog of the Season's End, the previous novel, though published in 1972 had been ‘conceived and substantially written’ while Alex La Guma was in South Africa.7 On the contrary, Time of the Butcherbird was written in exile, as Mrs. La Guma confirms.8 The struggle to link the opportunities for wider perspectives that exile opens up, and loss of immediate felt experience with the subject material of one's writing is a common problem facing exile writers. Recounting his artistic problems in exile Mphahlele says:

Having been thrown into the bigger milieu of ideas outside your homeground, your writing registers ideas more readily than it dramatizes concrete experience. How to resolve this dilemma becomes a painful preoccupation.9

La Guma's writing in exile depicting the social life of Africans, particularly after the spread of Black Consciousness ideas of pride in one's ‘blackness’, took him beyond his acquaintance with Africans in the pre-exile period. It meant a re-evaluation of his stand on the ethnic or ‘nationality’ question.

Black Consciousness ideas emphasised from 1968 onwards the primacy of ‘blackness’ in South African affairs. Steve Biko and others, using Fanon's analysis of the coloniser-colonised relationship put across ‘blackness’ in psychological terms, as self-liberation from negative stereotypes. The term ‘black’ itself was redefined to include Coloureds and Indians. These ideas led to certain new tendencies in South African literature. Mphahlele's attitudes to multi-racialism in his 1962 and 1974 editions of The African Image10 typified the shift. Observing the changes in his attitudes Mphahlele says:

The idealism I shared with the political movement of the fifties that advocated a non-racial society died with the Treason Trial, the Rivonia Trial and Sharpeville. We the black people now feel that we should cultivate a distinctive consciousness to buttress and direct the African humanism that dissipated itself in all that rhetoric of the fifties and the politics of non-racialism.11

The trend towards taking pride in ‘blackness’ and ‘black’ cultural inheritance can be noticed in the Coloured writers Matthews, Thomas and Mattera. February points out that the publication of Cry Rage,12 the anthology by Matthews and Thomas, is ‘an important literary event in that there is a definite indication of a black orphic descent’.13 Another sign of this literary trend that continues beyond 1979, when Time of the Butcherbird was published, is the endorsement by Gordimer in her A Sport of Nature of ‘a continent of black humans ruling themselves’.14 The intellectual climate created by the rise of Black Consciousness provides the background to La Guma's concern with the problems of the Africans; and his attempts to ‘deal with the attitudes of white community to this issue of mass removals and to study their attitudes to blacks as a whole’.15

Black Consciousness ideas were a reshaping of some of the earlier attitudes to African nationalism. As early as 1878 Anthony Trollope commented that South Africa ‘is a country of black men and not of white men. It has been so; it is so; and it will be so’.16 In 1928 the theme of South Africa as country of Africans, in the political vocabulary of the day—the ‘Natives’, resurfaced in the Comintern's ‘Draft Resolution on South Africa’. The Comintern's draft resolution, which Roux attributes to Jimmy La Guma, envisaged the establishment of ‘an independent Native republic as a stage towards workers' and peasants' government’.17 The draft resolution contained the expressions ‘South Africa is a black country’, ‘the return of the country and land back to the black population’, ‘South Africa belongs to Native population’ and others.18 In the 1940s, independent of the ‘native republic’ controversy in the Communist Party of South Africa, Lembede, Mda and Ngubane of the Youth League of the A.N.C. re-kindled the idea of ‘exclusive’ African nationalism. Lembede argued that ‘Africans are the natives of Africa, and they have inhabited Africa, their Motherland, from times immemorial; Africa belongs to them’.19 While agreeing to the general premise of Lembede, Biko's views on the matter showed a difference. Bernstein points out:

[…] while Lembede had emphasised the exclusion of all non-Africans, Biko expounded the unity of all those who were discriminated against on the grounds of colour or race […].20

La Guma's response to the situation was ambivalent. On one hand, he recognised in his journalistic writings, the importance of Africans in effecting political change, and on the other, he projected trans-ethnic political activity as the way forward. Analysing the social tensions in South Africa in an article in 1971 La Guma said:

Today the stratum of ‘white South Africa’ is characterised by […] highly developed industrial monopolies and mergers of industrial and finance capital; agriculture pursued on Capitalist lines, employing wage labour and producing for local markets and export […]

The lower strata of ‘black South Africa’ exhibit all the characteristics of a colony. The indigenous population is subject to extreme forms of national oppression, exploitation and poverty, lack of democratic rights and domination by a group advocating its ‘European’ or ‘Western Christian’ character and ‘civilisation’.

Characteristic too of imperialist rule is the reliance upon brute force and terror […] and the encouragement to the most backward of tribal elements and institutions.21

Such an analysis lies at the root of the self-perceptions of the African and the Afrikaner communities described in Time of the Butcherbird.

In Time of the Butcherbird the Afrikaner farmer Hannes Meulen and his foreman Opperman are responsible for the death of Timi, Murile's brother. Murile is denied justice in a court which is shown to be partial to Meulen, a White. Murile decides to take a private revenge. When Murile arrives at the dorp after serving the jail sentence ordered by the court, he sees his community opposing the planned eviction. Mma-Tau, the Chief's sister, who is organising the opposition as a form of ‘collective debt’, agrees that he is ‘entitled to justice’ (p. 80). Murile settles his private revenge by killing Meulen and joins his community in opposing the eviction. Intertwined with this main plot is the sub-plot of Edgar Stopes, an English-speaking White travelling salesman who comes to the dorp on his rounds, but gets stuck when his van breaks down. While Stopes is away his wife Maisie carries on extra-marital affairs, and Stopes has a vague sense of what was going on. Stopes happens to be near Meulen when Murile comes to take revenge. The second burst of fire from Murile's automatic rifle kills Stopes.

La Guma's last novel, thus, is a tale of Baconian wild justice, of Mosaic justice in the tradition of the revenge plays of Seneca, Kyd and Shakespeare. The plot is one of a typical revenge story. A murder is committed of, or injustice is done to, someone close to the protagonist, and the protagonist is enjoined by the memories of the dear one to seek revenge. The mounting pressure on the protagonist to seek a private revenge is a consequence of the absence, or the failure, of the available channels of justice. More often the protagonist is faced with the situation where the dispenser of justice is himself the perpetrator of the crime. He often occupies the most powerful position in the society and the victims cannot appeal for mercy. The motif of revenge that underpins Hamlet illuminates the plot of Time of the Butcherbird. The parallels with Hamlet in the novel are thus structural and thematic while they were more linguistic in the case of A Walk in the Night22 and The Stone Country.23

La Guma uses the dorp in the novel as a microcosm to reflect the issues of South Africa as a whole. Murile's revenge against Meulen in particular and Whites in general stands in a universalist perspective dealing with the helpless wronged individual resorting to revenge. La Guma portrays the other problem that Murile's people face—the planned eviction—in a historical perspective. There have been two dominant attitudes on the part of the blacks when they faced the White colonisers who were militarily superior: confrontation and compromise. The roots of such attitudes go back to the historical figures Nxele and Ntsikana who, in the early part of the nineteenth century dramatised these attitudes through their philosophies and dealings with the Whites. Nxele, commonly known as Makana, took the road of confrontation and organised an attack on the British garrison in Grahamstown. On the other hand, Ntsikana's approach was one of compromise with the Europeans and he played a crucial role in converting many Xhosas to Christianity. Peires notes:

Nxele was a war doctor and his cosmology was one of battle between good and evil. Ntisikana was a man of peace and submission, and his cosmology was one of peace and submission.24

La Guma draws on the opposing historical attitudes of Nxele and Ntsikana to portray the dilemma facing the African community. Hlangeni agrees to the instructions given to him by the Bantu Commissioner regarding the removal to a distant place. He is given to defeatism and accepts even his own demotion from being a Chief to the position of a headman. On the problem of eviction he tells his people, ‘Hear me, my people, it is foolishness to defy the whiteman […]. What can we do against the whites? It is better to obey’ (p. 48). In contrast, Mma-Tau, in an impassioned speech to the community gathering that met to discuss the eviction, argues that there is no dignity in obeying the laws and weapons of the government without a protest. Mma-Tau reasons: ‘If we go forward we may die, if we go back we may die; better go forward’ (p. 48). The dilemma faced by the African community in the text re-enacts the dilemmas of the past. The historical conflicts of Nxele and Ntsikana find a symbolic echo in the novel.

Murile's revenge in killing Meulen forms the central part of action in the novel. Murile's private revenge coincides with the public (communal) revenge the African community in the novel longs for. Mma-Tau says, ‘A whole people is starting to think of collecting a communal debt, the time for collecting this debt is drawing on’ (p. 80). When Murile returns to his village after serving his prison sentence he is pre-occupied with the idea of taking revenge. He has come here, he thinks, ‘to do one thing’ (p. 42); he is an ‘avenging rhingal,25 a patient leopard’ (p. 66) waiting for ‘his’ thing, and once it is achieved, he will go ‘his own way’. Through her lengthy arguments Mma-Tau persuades Murile to see his individual ‘debt’ as a part of the ‘collective debt’, arguing that individual ‘debt’ ‘becomes of small significance […] compared with the people's need for justice’ (p. 80). Such persuasion affects Murile's thinking. Instead of killing just Meulen against whom he had the grudge—the foreman Opperman having been killed by a rhingal in the meanwhile—Murile kills Stopes as well.

Murile's killing of Stopes brings into focus the additional dimensions of revenge. The justice of an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth which provides Murile with the justification and motivation for killing does not, on the surface, extend to Stopes. It could be argued that Stopes has not harmed Murile or his brother personally; in fact he did not even know them. Stopes was just a bystander when Murile was shooting at Meulen. Ironically he even had a sense of contempt for Afrikaners in general and Meulen in particular. This raises the question whether his death was merely an accident, or a result of an extension of Murile's individual ‘debt’ into a ‘communal debt’. The evidence in the text does not support the interpretation that it was accidental. Murile does not fire random shots even after killing Meulen. It is the second blast, the first being directed against Meulen, that kills Stopes. Murile is left with a few more bullets when he escapes and meets up with the old man from his community who is taking sheep to a hill as a part of the resistance to eviction.

The narrator in Time of the Butcherbird shows that the killing of Stopes was a part of the idea of revenge that Murile had at that moment. Murile's killing of Stopes can be compared with Medea's killing of Jason's sons to expiate the death of her father and brother. In the case of both Murile and Medea vengeance goes beyond the perpetrator of the specific crime for which revenge is sought. The explanation for this case of extended revenge lies in Medea's words:

Cui prodest scelus
is fecit.(26)

Metaphorically the above lines apply to Stopes as well. Even though he is not politically minded, he agrees with the notion of White solidarity against the Black ‘they’. Keeping in view the racial divide that exists in the novel, Stopes becomes the ‘they’ whom Murile and his community consider their oppressors. After killing Meulen and Stopes, Murile joins his community which by then had resisted the attempted eviction by building barricades and throwing stones at the police who come to evict them. Thus, Murile's revenge changes its character as the action progresses in the novel. His revenge killings have the approval of the narrator: ‘the whitewash of the passage-wall [of the hotel where Murile shoots] was suddenly decorated with a blossom petalled with blood and brains and pieces of bone and fragments of teeth like pomegranate pips’ (p. 110). In making violence both an inevitable and a redemptive force for Murile La Guma reworks a Fanonian27 notion used by Ngugi in the title of his novel Petals of Blood.28 The political significance of the transformation of Murile's revenge from being a private revenge killing to a revenge along ethnic lines is crucial to the problem whether it is ethnicity of trans-ethnicity that La Guma upholds in Time of the Butcherbird.

La Guma's novels follow the contours of political development in South Africa. One of the important political developments of the sixties relates to the government's implementation of the ‘Bantustan’ policy, assigning ‘homelands’ on a tribal basis. This spurred on political activity in the rural areas and split African communities for and against the ‘Bantustans’. Time of the Butcherbird highlights some of the social problems associated with the ‘Bantustans’ and the mass removals that went in its implementation. Explaining the background to the novel La Guma says:

I believe that one of the most serious social problems of South Africa is that of mass removal of millions of African people from their well-established homes and the government program to establish or reinforce “Bantustans”. In addition […] the attitude of the people and the resistance that's been put up on various levels in the rural areas to this policy. When the idea of writing a novel on this came to me, I thought it was necessary to combine the effect of the “Bantustans” and the resistance of the people.29

As the politics of the “Bantustans” were mainly in the rural areas La Guma shifts his setting in Time of the Butcherbird to a rural dorp. The main plot of the novel, dealing with Murile's revenge and Mma-Tau's resistance, is located in the dorp, and the sub-plot involving Stopes and his wife Maisie is located in a city. In the previous novels the rural area plays a limited role. In A Walk in the Night it is mentioned as an area to which Joe's mother returns after being abandoned by her husband, and being evicted for the non-payment of rent. Joe runs away in order to escape living in the rural area. In And A Threefold Cord the rural area is suggested as the place from which the early migrants to the Cape Flats came. In In the Fog of the Season's End the rural life is covered more extensively in describing Elias' childhood. However, it is only in Time of the Butcherbird that La Guma locates the main part of the action in a rural area.

The dorp in Time of the Butcherbird is a symbolic locale. La Guma does not give the name of the dorp, or indicate any specific region it is located in. References to actual places that enables one to pin down the locale in A Walk in the Night, such as the mention of Hanover Street, or in In the Fog of the Season's End the reference to Signal Hill, are absent. It is only through the description of the vegetation, terrain and geography of the dorp that its location in the Karoo region can be inferred. The cultural history of the place revealed through the characters enables the reader to hazard a guess of locating the dorp in the Eastern Karoo. The kloof where Opperman dies bitten by a ringhals is ‘a part of the local history’ (p. 98) and it had something to do with the wars of dispossession generations back—what the whites called ‘the kaffir wars—but exactly, few could say’ (p. 99). This kloof is within walking distance from the dorp. Opperman covers this distance in half a day. Hlangeni, Mma-Tau, Murile, Madonele, and the praise singer Kobe all emphasise that the land from which they are being evicted is their land, the land of their ancestors who are buried there. To locate the dorp in the Western part of the Karoo would be historically inaccurate as Nguni settlements in this area were recent. Claims based on ancestors being buried in an area would be more convincing if the location of the dorp is interpreted as the Eastern Karoo.

Assigning the location of the dorp to the Eastern Karoo is not without problems. Firstly, the Karoo is not a mineral-bearing region; and the eviction of the Africans in the novel is done for the benefit of mining interests. Unless it could be proved that there was a specific instance of such an eviction in the Karoo on which La Guma has based his account—none available in the existing information on the author's life, or works—assigning the location of the dorp to the Karoo can be done only symbolically. Another difficulty in determining the exact location of the dorp in the Karoo is that the geographical boundaries of the Karoo are themselves undefined. There is no single accepted delimitation of its boundaries. The boundaries of the Karoo are different in Thomas Pringle's account,30 the Carnegie Commission Report,31 and in the descriptions of professional geographers—Harm J. de Blij,32 for example. Interpreting the novel on the assumption that the dorp is located in a specific area of the Karoo would lead to misplaced expectations about the lack of correlation between the portrait of the social community of the novel and the tribal identity of the people of the identified locale.

While the geographical boundaries of the Karoo are ill-defined, it is more clearly distinguishable in terms of its climate, vegetation and landscape, which have underpinned thematically a number of literary works. The weather map published by the Weather Bureau of South Africa in 1959 marks the general Karoo region as an area of low rainfall of 4-12 inches a year.33 The scanty vegetation in the Karoo is a result of this climate. The Karoo vegetation is short and thorny in order to survive the harsh climate. The harshness of climate makes the region less hospitable and the villages are far between. The sheer distances involved make the landscape appear vast and featureless except for small hillocks or kopjes punctuating the terrain.

The special nature of the terrain and landscape of the Karoo has attracted several South African writers to locate their novels in the Karoo. In the literature of the Karoo, the Karoo becomes a symbol of a human predicament that underlies the desolateness against which life has to struggle to survive. The desolation of the terrain reinforces the picture of a harsh, cruel and hostile social environment that the characters have to survive. Among the important prose works that used the Karoo as a part or whole of the setting prior to Time of the Butcherbird are Schreiner's The Story of an African Farm,34 Smith's The Little Karoo,35 Abrahams' Path of Thunder,36 and Jacobson's A Dance in the Sun37. With Time of the Butcherbird La Guma joins this tradition of writing in which the different aspects of the Karoo are interpreted to suit the themes pursued in the creative works. In Time of the Butcherbird the Karoo stands as a metaphor for South African society as a whole; the vast physical distances that isolate human habitations symbolise the social distance between the ethnic groups.

The presence of double oppression—of nature and man—seems to have attracted liberal-radical writers to use the Karoo as the setting for their novels. The streak of humanist empathy that runs through the Karoo tradition in the South African novel can be attributed to the radical world views of the writers. Schreiner's concern for the suffering people, probably one of the reasons why La Guma liked her writings,38 can be traced to the ‘penetrating psychological and social sympathy’39 in her writings.

The radical element of Karoo literature that is found in Smith's sympathetic treatment of the evicted bywoners, share croppers, in her Little Karoo is also traceable in the consistent sympathy she had towards the striking workers. The humanistic sympathy that illuminates her concern with the under-privileged both in the rural and the urban areas re-emerges in La Guma's In the Fog of the Season's End and Time of the Butcherbird. While Sarvan calls Smith a ‘gentle rebel’,40 Driver finds a link between Smith's fictional works and the 1913-14 journal in which she shows herself to be ‘anti-imperialist, anti-capitalist, and, in a gentler way anti-clerical, anti-Calvinist and even in a sense odd with Christianity’.41 Driver cites an entry on the 1914 Railway Strike in Smith's journal:

I was told again and again how well-paid they are. Free coal, free schools, cheap groceries, etc. […] The Cape Times so hopelessly prejudiced, no possibility of getting at the truth from that at all […]. The partriotism—Red Cross nurses, girl and boy scouts,—all a bit sickening when it was justice one wanted to get hold of.42

La Guma's concern with the social underdog in Time of the Butcherbird, thus, has artistic precedents in Schreiner and Smith. However, La Guma's work escapes the criticism levelled at the preceding ones. The treatment of the Nguni people by Schreiner in The Story of An African Farm is often considered unsatisfactory. Klima argues that ‘The main characters are all whites, the writer does not discuss the ‘natives’ in this early period [of her career]43. Marquard disqualifies the novel from being the ‘great South African Novel’ on the grounds that Schreiner's political vision was limited in not being able to see the blacks ‘as more than part of the landscape’.44 Similarly in Smith's works the black-white relationship is not ‘more than briefly dealt with’45 and her works concentrate on the Whites. La Guma's Time of the Butcherbird represents a more extended and specific attempt at the articulation of the grievances of the African and Khoi populations as well. The Karoo has been the traditional area of the Khoi and the San until the introduction of water pumps changed the economy from a pastoral to an agricultural one in the nineteenth century. By using the Karoo as a symbolic landscape, and the dorp itself as a metaphor for South Africa, La Guma gives himself more artistic freedom to deal extensively with African community in the novel.

The African community in the novel is symbolic. The most prominent person in the community, Mma-Tau, the Chief's sister, is portrayed in symbolic terms. Going by the descriptions of the locale, one could identify the land that she claims as her ancestral land lies in the Karoo. The description given of her in the text indicates a connection with the Swazi or Pondo. The shepherd to whom Murile speaks on his way to the dorp tells him that ‘She [Mma-Tau] trumpets like a she-elephant. And is big as one’ (p. 84). The Queen-Mother of the Swazis is called ‘Ndlovukazi’ or ‘she-elephant’. ‘Ndlovu’ [the elephant] has symbolic connotations with the political leadership of events in Pondoland. Mbeki explains:

They [the Pondos opposed to government-appointed chiefs] coordinated their struggles and conducted it under a unified leadership. Ndlovu (the elephant)—the name given to the leadership of all locations—symbolised in their minds that in unity they had the strength of an elephant.46

Mma-Tau, thus, remains a symbolic figure rather than emerge as an individual with characteristic features of speech or social customs attributable to any specific Nguni tribe or clan.

While the political symbolism of the ‘she-elephant’ helps La Guma to present a generalised picture, capturing the social situation of the Africans as a whole, it leads to an artistic problem connected with the use of appropriate language. The use of slang and words from Afrikaans and Arabic helped him in the portrayal of the Coloured and Cape Malay characters respectively. In both these cases La Guma was trying to portray specific communities that had parallels with identifiable social units of Cape Town. Capturing the precise linguistic rhythm, through the occasional use of slang words such as mos, bedonerd, Gwan, or salutations such as Salaam aleikum in the case of the Cape Malay, helped in authenticating the near-naturalistic descriptions in the earlier novels. But to do the same in the case of the symbolic African community—which in itself consists of different linguistic groups—is problematic. Added to this complexity is the problem of transcribing Nguni words in English. Conventional English rendering is the only hope of correct pronunciation for readers in English, without, of course, resorting to phonetic transcription. Using Eweh, for Ewe on p. 21 in the novel is an example of such rendering.

The critical opinion on the use of appropriate language in Time of the Butcherbird is divided. In Taiwo's opinion the novel is ‘a dramatisation of the limits of the language’.47 The assumption behind such a view is that the language used in the novel is the most appropriate and has reached the limits of effective rendering. What is overlooked in this appraisal is that La Guma was venturing into a cultural scene with which he was less familiar. Such a handicap apart, La Guma did not feel comfortable in the rural environment. He could relate better to city life. La Guma admits:

If one has grown up and lived in a big city, it is great to go out into the countryside now and then, although I have always found that a short trip of a few days is enough before I long again for the concrete jungle of the big cities.48

In contrast to Taiwo's opinion, Mbulelo Mzamane is of the opinion that La Guma's use of Nguni words is inappropriate: ‘There are mistakes [… in Time of the Butcherbird] such as putting Sesotho words in the mouths of Xhosa-speaking Africans from the Cape where his novel is set’.49 Unfortunately, no specific examples are cited; nor is the extent of such (mis)usage indicated. However, in our private discussion on the use of Nguni words Mbulelo Mzamane told me that most of the Nguni words in Time of the Butcherbird are the root words that could be found in any of the Nguni languages. He also pointed out the spelling of some of the words is different from the way it is found in their day-to-day use: Hauw for Hawu (p. 13); Eweh for Ewe (p. 21); Nkosizana for nkosazana (p. 68); amalungu for abelungu (p. 68); Aibo for Hayibo (p. 72); Eyapi for Ziyaphi (p. 72), and elikle for elihle.50 It appears that keeping the symbolic nature of the African community in mind, La Guma avoids using any specific Nguni language. While exposing himself to the charge of generalising, of overlooking the differences between the different Nguni linguistic groups, he compensates for his lack of intimate knowledge—at least as intimate as his knowledge of Cape Town—of the area. Symbolism in the novel is partly a consequence of the need to bridge the gap between authorial intentions and limitations of personal background.

The portrayal of the Africans as an ethnic group in the novel contrasts with the portrayal of the other ethnic group, the Afrikaners. In order to achieve the portrayal of the two groups with opposing claims to the ownership of the land La Guma uses the pattern of unnumbered parallel sets of short chapters. Each chapter is a separate unit focusing on the life of one of the two groups. The division is not totally schematic. The lives of two communities are interlinked, if only antagonistically, leading to cycles of injustice and revenge both at the level of the individual and that of the communities. The Afrikaners in the novel, as in the case of the Africans, are symbolically portrayed. La Guma explains, ‘Here [in Time of the Butcherbird] I portrayed people whom I hoped were representatives of the South African scene’.51

The interlocking aspect of the struggle between the Africans and the Afrikaner has been an attractive theme for writers and commentators on South Africa. Sol Plaatje's Mhudi52 dramatises the Afrikaner intrusion into Metabele lands. The theme is pursued in Abrahams' Wild Conquest.53 The roots of the conflict that thematically underpins Time of the Butcherbird are captured by Abrahams in the conversation between Gubuza and Paul van As, the warriors who represent the Metabele and the Boers in Wild Conquest. Lying on the battlefield mortally wounded Gubuza and Paul converse:

Dying Gubuza whispered: ‘So long since I tilled the earth’.

Paul's eyelids flickered […]. He said: “I too have not tilled the earth for months.’

‘You understand’, Gubuza said. ‘Do you all?’

‘No. Only I … I was for peace’.

‘But you killed’.

‘There is hate in my people’

‘Now there is hate in my people too’.54

The same attitude of portraying the social conflict of South Africa as a conflict between Africans and Afrikaners can be noticed in Kuper. Discussing the different nationalisms in South Africa Kuper says, ‘Only Africans and Afrikaners are generally regarded as carriers of nationalism by students of South African society’.55 For Mphahlele the Africans and the Afrikaners are the two communities of South Africa struggling for their ‘birthright’.56

La Guma traces the history of the Meulens, the leading Afrikaner family in the dorp through three generations; Oupa Johannes Meulen, his son Christofel Meulen, and his grandson Hannes Meulen. Hannes Meulen is in love with Rina Steen. The Meulens and the Steens are well-to-do members of the community. Hannes Meulen is seeking election to volksraad, the Parliament. The Meulens and the Steens share the notion that ‘The Afrikaner people is not the work of man, it is the work of God. We shall prevail’ (p. 64). Dominee Visser delivering the Sunday sermon reinforces the exclusive nature of the Afrikaner people:

It is the duty of all of us to unshakeably keep to our aim, spiritual and earthly, which is to secure for our children their God-given land and soil on this earth.

(p. 106)

The idea of Afrikaners as ‘a chosen race’ is central to the self-identity of the community in the text. By emphasising this aspect La Guma puts the Afrikaner community in the novel in a historical perspective. The Afrikaners derive their self-image as an elect race from the ideas of John Calvin. Huddelston explains:

Here in this fantastic notion of the immutability of race, is present in a different form the predestination idea: the concept of an elect people of God, characteristic above all else of John Calvin.57

And Calvin defended the idea of predestination by which

[…] eternal life is foreordained for some, eternal damnation for others […]. God has attested this not only in individual persons but has given us an example of it in the whole offspring of Abraham, to make it clear that in his choice rests the future condition of each nation […] (Deut. 32: 8-9). More explicitly, in another chapter: “Not because you surpassed all other peoples in number did he take pleasure in you to choose you […] but because he loved you.

(Deut. 7:7-8)58

La Guma counterbalances his portrayal of exclusivist attitudes among the Afrikaners with a depiction of certain practises that negate the premises both of their ‘divine election’ and ‘superiority’. The rhetoric of Steen's sense of superiority over the Africans, ‘a people who a century ago had not discovered the wheel’ (p. 63-64), is contrasted with the actions of Jaap's mother, Tant' Philipa. She ‘was a Christian, believing fast in the Living God […] but she also believed in the Devil and all his works, in witchcraft, spells, curses and ghosts […]’ (p. 97). Portraying her reaction to Japp's illness the narrator says:

Jaap recalled the time when as a child he had gone down with colic or inflammation of the bowels, and the mother had cured it, or so she insisted, by butchering and skinning a cat and plastering his abdomen with the smoking pelt.

(p. 97)

Philipa's cures for her own illnesses were no less dramatic:

When Tan't Philipa herself fell ill or suffered from ailment indivinable, she would dress in her best and take the train to a place where an important black magician and diviner held his court.

(p. 98)

In focussing on the attitudes among some of the rural Afrikaners such as Oppermans towards witchcraft La Guma fictionalises some of the findings of the Carnegie Commission:

It is astonishing how much superstition with regard to the causes of diseases, plagues and misfortunes still exists among many Europeans […]. The witch-doctor with his bag of bones is often secretly called in, and his findings are believed and obeyed. A certain respectable farmer in the Karoo not long ago summoned a witch-doctor from Port Elizabeth for his wife's sickness. After a stay of a few days the native assured the man that an enemy had bewitched his wife. After searching the yard for some time, he eventually unearthed the charm which he pretended was doing the mischief. The man and his wife firmly believed in him, and although they were poor paid £ 25 for his services. Such cases are not exceptional, and are even more prevalent in the North of the Union.59

By contrasting the rhetoric of racial superiority with the actual practises, La Guma points to an irony in the Afrikaners' perception of the existence of a Cartesian dichotomy between the ‘rational’—‘intellectual’ Europeans and the Africans who did not possess such qualities. That La Guma intends such an interpretation is evidenced by an authorial intrusion in the description of Philipa's visit to an African magician:

Let it be recognised that she was not the only one of the chosen race to come from far and wide to pay a tribute, strangely enough, to this respected witch-doctor.

(p. 98)

Supernatural beings, particularly evil spirits, figure in La Guma's portrayal of the Africans as well. During the marriage celebrations of Berta, Oupa Meulen's grand daughter, Murile and his brother Timi get drunk, and in a tipsy mood stagger across the fields. Timi tells Stopes, ‘Hauw, what a terrible thing this liquor does to one. It is really tokoloshe eh?’ (p. 71). The reference to tikoloshe—more appropriately Tikoloshe—roots Murile and Timi to that part of African folklore which deals with supernatural beings and evil spirits. Woods, who grew up among the Xhosa, recollects the Xhosa folklore on tikoloshe:

Bomvana [one of the Xhosa-speaking communities] lore was full of bogeyman and sprites. The best known was Tikoloshe, the water-sprite who was only two feet tall and whose whole body was covered in grey hair. He had a long grey beard down to his knees and lived in the eroded banks of rivers. Tikoloshe would get you if you didn't behave. He could walk through walls, run like a horse and even fly. He could destroy entire herds of cattle, inflicting mysterious diseases on man and beast or causing people to act peculiarly against their better inclinations. He could also be blamed for anything that went wrong, so he was a scapegoat as well as a bogeyman.60

Both the Murile brothers and the Oppermans come from the lower strata of their respective ethnic groups. Both had to work for Meulen for their living, and both had only a peripheral role to play in the inter-ethnic politics between the Africans and the Afrikaners. It is only after events overtake them, and under the persuasion of the politically-oriented members of their respective communities—Mma-Tau in the case of Murile, and Meulen in the case of Opperman—that they decide to join their groups. Before Mma-Tau's success in persuading him to join ‘a whole people […] collecting a collective debt’ (p. 80), Murile can only think of Meulen as an individual who killed his brother. He tells Mma-Tau, ‘I have no need of people. This [revenge] is my thing, and afterwards I'll go my way’ (p. 80). Similarly, Opperman who is advised by his mother to ‘treat them [the ‘Kaffirs’] strict but right’ (p. 99) tells Meulen ‘What shall we do [with the drunken Murile and Timi]? We'll have to take them in to the police station and lay a complaint’ (p. 73). When Meulen tells him it is a waste of time to drive them to the station Opperman's attitude changes to ethnic solidarity with Meulen and he shouts at Murile and Timi, ‘Get up you kaffirs, get up when a whiteman is near you’ (p. 75). Thus, La Guma shows the existence of a sense of trans-ethnicity in the lower strata of both Africans and Afrikaners until they are diverted by the political elite.

The social picture in Time of the Butcherbird is not, however, wholly concerned with how the politicians manipulate the ordinary people for their own self-interest or megalomania. The generalised use of ‘them’ and ‘us’ antagonism by Africans and the Afrikaners receive different levels of approval from the narrator whose sympathies overlap with those of La Guma. By dedicating the novel to ‘The Dispossessed’ and not specifying the ethnic group La Guma hints at his interest in trans-ethnicity from the very start. By virtue of the dispossession of the Africans that looms large in the novel the dedication, at the obvious level, refers to Mma-Tau's people. Tucked away in the description of the Oppermans is the dispossession of the ‘poor white’ in the consolidation of land holdings, which in practice meant that bigger land holders such as the Meulens gobbled up the lands of small farmers such as the Oppermans. Describing the dispossession of the Oppermans the narrator says:

The Oppermans were small farmers—a patch of land, a few cows and sheep, some chickens. After old Opperman had been stomped [… to death] by an infuriated bull, the farm had passed to the wife and Jaap […]. Farming interrupted schooling; then they had found the farm too profitless to run, so it had to be sold to the Meulens to be annexed, and young Jaap accepted paid employment […].

(p. 99)

By portraying the fate of the Oppermans La Guma recreates in the novel the social history of the ‘poor white’ whose dispossession and dislocation figure prominently in the writings of Smith.

The theme of dispossession and displacement in Time of the Butcherbird was foreshadowed in La Guma's earlier treatment of the problem as it affects the Coloureds. In his radio play The Man in the Tree61 and in In the Fog of the Season's End he deals with the eviction of the Coloureds from certain areas of Cape Town to make way for White occupation. Man in the Tree opens with an estate agent showing round a house in such an area to the Geslers, the prospective buyers. While the agent and Mr. Gesler get busy inspecting the house, Mrs. Geslers goes to the backyard where she sees Abrahams, an old Coloured man, who tells her the tragedy of Mr. Edwards with whom he was ‘close, very close’:

[…] Mr. Edwards he lived here all his life and his mother and father for many years before him. […] when the government came and said this street was for White people only […] and no more for Coloured people […] he couldn't bring himself to go. He couldn't leave his old home. So one morning, just before everybody had to move, he came out here and hanged himself.62

The ghost of Edwards haunts the play till the end when Mrs. Gesler finds ‘THERE'S A MAN HANGING IN THE TREE’.63 The story is left open ended with two possible conclusions: that Mrs. Gesler is having a hallucination, and that the Abrahams—who wanted to stay on to give ‘company’ to Mr. Edward, but was chased out of the house—hung himself in the same tree. In In the Fog of the Season's End Beukes refers to ‘That poor bloke in Sea Point [who] went and hanged himself when they had to move, after living there God knows how long’.64

The emphasis that La Guma gives to the dispossessions of different races, rather than the dispossession of just one group, constitutes a key trans-ethnic factor in his writings. Such an emphasis saves him from becoming a ‘one-eyed Dickens’,65 a complaint that Mphahlele has against Afrikaans poetry that concentrates on the sufferings of the Afrikaners only. La Guma's trans-ethnicity is linked to the persecutions and sufferings that people face, rather than to their ethnic origins, a belief that he expresses through George Adams in The Stone Country, ‘You were on the side of the mouse, of all the mice’.66 At the same time La Guma's sympathy for the underdog portrayed in the novel recognises, in fact emphasises, the different degrees of dispossession and their historical relationship to action in Time of the Butcherbird. The author's insistence that the Africans have suffered the most—‘the most oppressed of the nationalities’ [in South Africa], as he describes them—sometimes leads to authorial intrusions into the narrative.

The narrative point of view in the novel keeps shifting. It moves back and forth, empathetically recreating the life of the ethnic group from whose point of view narrative proceeds at a given time. But La Guma violates the neutrality of the narrator at times in his eagerness to emphasise the sufferings of the Africans. One such instance occurs in the scene where Kobe and his associate take a long walk in the hot sun to meet the Bantu Commissioner to express the unwillingness of their community to be moved out of their land. In the preceding scene he has already given a detailed account of the oppressive heat in the dry Karoo in which Stopes makes his journey to the dorp. It is, therefore, sufficient for the narrator to rely on the readers' expectation of seeing Kobe and his associate get a sympathetic reception at the Bantu Commissioner's office for walking all the way in the heat. It is the negation of such an expectation and the consequent enhancing of the reader's sympathy that the author expects to achieve in the portrayal of the White clerk at the office. Unable to trust the text to the job, the narrator intervenes with a suggestive observation: ‘It did not occur to him [the White clerk] that they had walked a long way in the heat’ (p. 10).

La Guma's artistic expression of his interest in the Africans predates Time of the Butcherbird. The earliest instance of his interest is expressed in the little-known cartoon series Little Libby: The Adventures of Liberation Chabalala which he produced for New Age in 1959. Mrs. La Guma gives the background to Little Libby:

He [La Guma] actually did the cartoons himself and wrote the script on Little Libby, which was a great seller. It was quite strange. It [New Age] was a very serious paper and to bring out a lighter side in the paper was this script on Little Libby. Eventually it emerged that the sales were doing quite well because people were trying to get hold of Little Libby.67

Little Libby is a political cartoon strip that recreates in its episodes some of the political campaigns of the Congress Movement in the late fifties. Each episode in the series concentrates on an ‘adventure’ of Libby, a young African school boy. Movement from one episode to the other is achieved by using the word ‘Asihamba’ [‘as we go along’] as a link. Or sometimes the connection is made more obviously: ‘And our hero is off on a new adventure’.68

The first ‘adventure’ of Libby starts with his kidnapping by Kasper Katchum, a labour recruiting agent who sells Libby for ‘five bob’ to Oom Veld-skoen van der Mealie-blaar, an Afrikaner farmer in a remote area. Libby is forced to do hard labour. Little Libby then takes its readers through the harsh conditions in the farm. The conditions on the farm in Little Libby are similar to those on the farms to which the Pass Law offenders were sent in the 1950s, by revealing which the investigative journalism of Drum69 raked up a national scandal. Libby organises a revolt of the farm workers by demanding a wage of £ 1 a day, an action reminiscent of the ‘Pound a Day’ campaign of the Congress Movement in the late fifties. Libby escapes along with other inmates by setting off a bull against the farmer.

In the following episode Libby arrives in a big city. Rhumba, a smart African woman, accidentally meets Libby and takes him to a cafe for some ‘vetkoek and coffee’.70 They are watched and followed by the ‘Ghost Squad’, the popular name for the special police squad which rounded up Pass Law offenders in the 1950s. The ‘Ghost Squad’ is annoyed with Rhumba for participating in anti-Pass demonstrations, and finding a good opportunity they kidnap her into their ‘Kwela-Kwela’, a type of police van that was used to carry people arrested during Pass Law raids. The police pushing Rhumba into the van shout ‘Inside Meid! We haven't Time to Waste’,71 which gives the English translation of ‘Kwela’ [‘jump in quickly’] that gave the infamous van its name. The Ghost Squad gets rid of Libby by hitting him on the head, and drives away the Kwela-Kwela with Rhumba.

Sorrowful Libby is seen by Mustapha Moonsamy, a symbolic Indian character whose name combines Mustapha, an Islamic name, and Moonsamy—a South African adaptation of the name Munuswamy—a Hindu name. Libby gets into Moonsamy's jalopy and they follow the kwela-kwela taking Rhumba to Marshall Square [a police Station], indicating the that the big city in the cartoon series is a fictionalised Johannesburg. In trying to take a short cut the police van collides with the jalopy which, a little earlier breaks down in the middle of the road. The prisoners escape, but in the commotion Libby gets separated from Rhumba. Libby's next ‘adventure’ begins.

The later ‘adventures’ are set in the big city and follow the same trend of combining the pranks of Libby, and a political message reminding the readers of the different campaigns of the Congress. These ‘adventures’ deal with a police raid on a ‘Shebeen’, an illegal drinking place, and a lengthy encounter with a gang of ‘tsotsis’, the street hooligan mafia of African townships. Advertisement slogans in Little Libby for ‘New Age’ served both a political and a commercial purpose.

The use of cartoons to discuss political issues was a practice that New Age shared with Drum, even though the latter was not consistent in its use of cartoons. However, an example of exploiting the comic note in the over-enthusiastic application of Pass Laws is seen in Jo-Jo, a cartoon series published in Drum around the same time. In an instalment entitled ‘Twixt Law and Deep Blue Sea’72 an African and a White policeman go for a swim into the sea from secluded beaches, but are washed into the deep sea by a current and get drowned together. While under water the policeman asks the African for his Pass, and handcuffs him for not producing it. When the African is rescued a man-eating shark is found hanging to his handcuff. His story hits the headlines ‘Man Saved From Sea Found to Have Caught Man-eating Shark’. In comparison, Little Libby makes a more political use of the comic.

The concern with the literary portrayal of blacks in Time of the Butcherbird, thus, represents a continuation of La Guma's early interest in going beyond his Coloured origins. Libby, Rhumba and others in Little Libby are followed by Panther, the boxer, in his short story ‘The Gladiators’. Brother Bombatta and Missus Nzuba in And A Threefold Cord represent some more examples of La Guma's interest in portraying African characters. Jefferson Mpolo in The Stone Country, and Elias Tekwane in In the Fog of the Season's End are more developed figures who have received greater attention in the critical assessments of La Guma. Mma-Tau, Murile, Hlangeni, Kobe and other African characters in Time of the Butcherbird between themselves constitute a social group which, as a consequence of some historical developments and environmental factors, has acquired an ethnic identity—or is considered to have one in the maze of ethnic loyalties in South Africa. In the portrayal of African characters in Time of the Butcherbird one of the problems that becomes more significant than in the earlier works is that of ethnicity and trans-ethnicity.

La Guma's approach to the question has been to hint at the existence of both the identities. The self-perception of the African community in the novel as a distinct group is based on having its own folklore of which the symbolism of butcherbird is a part73; modes of social behaviour such as respect for the elderly, and for the Chief; and claims to have an identity rooted to the land that they lived on for generations. This self-identity merges into an externally determined identity ascribed to the group. The enforced identity operates in the realm of social attitudes of the White characters, and the administrative structures that govern the Africans in their politically disenfranchised state. An example of such an externally ascribed ethnic identity is the scene at the Bantu Commissioner's Office, an ethnic-specific administrative apparatus to which Kobe and his associate are forced to go. To the White clerk at the office ‘all Kaffirs smelled’ (p. 10).

The articulation of ethnic identity of the African community in the novel proceeds at two levels—self-perception and ascription. The ‘them’ and ‘us’ attitude both of the African community and of the White community reinforce each other to portray social polarisation along the lines of visible distinctions such as racial features. Such a division gives the African community a Pan-African identity, and portrays its problems as ‘the problem of colour’, which Du Bois claims is the problem of the twentieth century.74 The notion of ethnic identity based on the historical experience of having been exploited as a group lies at the root of such perceptions, a notion that underpins the anti-British Afrikaner identity of Christofel Meulen in the novel. La Guma, thus, recreates in the novel the crises of non-class and class identities that lie behind Sultan Galiyev's claim that ‘since almost all classes in Muslim society have been oppressed formally by the colonialists, all are entitled to be called proletarian […]. The Muslim peoples are proletarian peoples’.75

Opposed to the ethnic identity of the Africans is their trans-ethnic identity as members of a larger group that goes beyond the colour or certain specific cultural traits. Mma-Tau asserts such an identity based on the idea that they are victims of an exploitative relationship whose ramifications go beyond South Africa. Arguing her case in the indaba, the meeting, held to discuss the response to the proposed eviction, Mma-Tau says:

They [the White law-makers] exist in a false happiness of guns and laws, they exist in a false laughter, for the laughter is not really theirs.[…] The meaning [of their laws] is this: that the people demand their share of the fruits of the earth, and their rulers, of whom the white man is a lackey, a servant, refuse them a fair portion.

(p. 47)

Mma-Tau's view that the problems of her community have international linkages and that the oppressive ‘they’ whose ‘laughter is not really theirs’ represents a fictionalised account of La Guma's own views. La Guma's editorial work in Apartheid: A Collection of Writings on South African Racism by South Africans clarifies his stand on the issue. La Guma says:

Superficially the country is ruled by White South Africans. In essence, however, the power rests with the South African monopolists and the international consortium of imperialism. The combination of racialism, capitalism and international imperialism has made South Africa a colony of a special type.76

Thus, Mma-Tau is supported in the text by the author's attitudes, and approximates the author's vision of a political leadership that goes beyond chauvinistic politics of ethnicity.

The sub-plot of Time of the Butcherbird allegorises the history of industrial South Africa, particularly of the Rand, by following the family history of the Barends, their daughter Maisie, and their son-in-law, Stopes. The Barends ran a grocery and general store near a mining locality which allegorically stands for Fordsburg, the last stronghold of White miners in the 1922 strike:

After the big strike the white miners who lived there had trickled away, but her [Maisie's] father stayed on […]. The artillery of the government, the rifles, shot-guns and sticks of the defeated miners had passed into history books but the little shop stood still. […] Gradually […] the coolies, the coloureds and the bloody chinamen moved in to surround them.

(p. 30)

There are also references to Taffy Long, the Fordsburg commando leader who ‘went to the gallows singing the “Red Flag”’,77 and to the African miner's strike after the War about which Barends ‘read the newspaper accounts’ (p. 32).

La Guma's account of the Barends provides a sample of life in the run-down mining area with a predominance of Indians, Africans, and the Coloureds who migrated to the area. Barends' shop caters for these people till the place is declared an industrial zone under the Group Areas Laws forcing the Coloureds and Indians to move from the area. As in the case of the descriptions of Africans and Afrikaners in the dorp, the account of the Barends, and Stopes is portrayed through the eyes of English-speaking Whites, the ethnic/cultural group to which they belong. Thus, once the White miners move away Barends finds that the place is not the same:

‘A man couldn't get into proper conversation with the population. What could you talk to a damn applesammy about? (p. 30). [And] ‘Past the shop windows the dark people went by outside and there was a perpetual smell of oriental spices in the air’.

(p. 33)

Maisie is ashamed of bringing her boyfriends home:

God, how could she bring any fellow home? Right on the edge of coolieland? […] Indian women in saries jabbered on the pavements. She usually came alone on the tramcar that stopped a little distance away, running the few blocks, so the boys really didn't have to see where she lived.

(p. 34)

The attitude of the English-speaking Whites towards the Africans is no less ethno-centric. The image of the African man as a rapist, or as being endowed with great sexual energy, pervades the fears and sexual fantasies of at least three female characters. Mrs. Barends warns her daughter Maisie about returning home late: ‘In future it'll be straight home from the pitchers [film shows] for you. One night the kaffirs will get you, you'll see’ (p. 34). In the gun club that trained White women in the use of firearms a women tells Maisie ‘One never knows when some terrible kaffir will run amok’ (p. 50). And Maisie, who finds the woman's horror contrived, thinks: ‘You'll probably enjoy it,78 you bitch’ (p. 50). If the sexual (bodily) energy of the Africans illuminates the perceptions of the three women characters, a notion of the absence of its Cartesian opposite—mental powers—underpins Stopes' attitude. Commenting on the Africans who, on account of their poverty, find themselves unable to pay enhanced bus fares, Stopes tells Maisie:

Poor; there's no need to be poor. Are you poor, am I poor? No, because we got initiative, hey. We got brains. Look after number one, that's what I say. If it wasn't for people like us, why the country would never be civilised.

(p. 36) [Emphasis in the original]

The sense of ethnic superiority in the microcosm of English-speaking Whites, further affects the way the Afrikaners are perceived. They are seen as a group of unsophisticated people lacking finesse. Maisie finds the Afrikaner police inspector at the gun club ‘bloody awful’. Maisie's distaste of the instructor is related partly to the fact that he had ‘a gutteral Boer voice’. The narrator explains:

He [the instructor] smelled of stale tobacco and there was the beginning of a boil on his jawbone as he stood close to her, showing her how to point the pistol […] He had a gutteral Boer voice and she hated the sound of it and smell he gave off, which was probably why she had stopped going to the shooting lessons.

(p. 50)

The social distance that separates the English-speaking Whites from the Afrikaners is further illustrated in the scene at Stopes' flat, a converted outhouse of a bungalow, to which he takes her during their courtship. An item that Maisie finds out of place in the flat is a picture of voortrekkers: ‘[…] that must have come with the place […]. She couldn't imagine him buying a print of ox-wagons crossing the veld’ (p. 39). Stopes who serves as the direct link between the sub-plot and the main-plot in the novel shares Maisie's unease with Afrikaner culture and ‘spoke Afrikaans language with a slight hesitation that came basically from reluctance’ (p. 4).

In contrast to the ethno-centric perceptions of the Barends, Maisie, and Stopes is the trans-ethnic attitude of Donald Harris, a friend of Maisie who is imprisoned for ‘messing with blacks’. Maisie learns of Harris' imprisonment from her lover Wally Basson who tells her that Harris

Got himself mixed up with niggers. Coons. The damn fool thought it was a good idea to help the darkies with trade unions or some thing, true as God. Reckoned they're having a rough time, hey. Politics […] I don't know the exact details. Illegal organisations and stuff. Communists. So he got ten years, I think—no, twelve.

(p. 52)

Harris' trans-ethnic sympathies spring from the feeling that the ‘darkies’ are ‘having a rough time’. Thus, he emerges as the spiritual counterpart of George Adams of The Stone Country, who was ‘on the side of the little animals, the weak and the timid who spent all their lives dodging and ducking’.79 The means they both employ in working towards a trans-ethnic society in South Africa are also similar: both belong to political organisations that are illegal under the legislation that upholds ethnicity. Adams, Mpolo and Harris represent the ‘threefold cord’ of characters of La Guma's fictional world united in their suffering for the cause of a trans-ethnic society.


  1. La Guma, Alex, Time of the Butcherbird (London: Heinemann, 1979).

  2. Ravenscroft, Arthur, ‘Alex La Guma’, in Vinson, James, ed., Contemporary Novelists (London: Macmillan, 1982), p. 378.

  3. La Guma, A., ‘Apartheid: The Imperialist Monster’, Tricontinental, vol. XXVI, Sept 1971, p. 53.

  4. Asein, S. O., Alex La Guma: The Man and His Work (Ibadan: New Horn, 1987), p. 158.

  5. La Guma in his interview with Robert Serumaga in Duerden, D., and Pieterse, C., eds., African Writers Talking (London: Heinemann, 1972), p. 93.

  6. SASO defined Black Consciousness as a search ‘for a Black identity, self-awareness and self-esteem and the rejection of White Stereotypes and morals’. [Cited in February, V. A., Mind Your Colour: The ‘Coloured’ Stereotype in South African Literature (London: Kegan Paul, 1981), p. 102.]

  7. Abrahams, C., Alex La Guma (Boston, Mass.: G.K. Hall, 1985), p. 99.

  8. See Appendix II.

  9. Mphahlele, Ezekiel, ‘The Tyranny of Place and Aesthetics: The South African Case’, English Academy Review (South Africa), 1981, p. 12.

  10. Mphahlele, E., The African Image (London: Faber and Faber, 1962; 1974).

  11. Mphalele, E., ‘The Tyranny of Place’, p. 1.

  12. Matthews, J., and Thomas, G., Cry Rage: An Anthology (Johannesburg: Sprocas Publications, 1972).

  13. February, V. A., Mind Your Colour: The ‘Coloured’ Stereotype in South African Literature, p. 173.

  14. Levin, Bernard, ‘“Art Must Wait Until the End of the Struggle”: Review of Gordimer's A Sport of Nature’, The Sunday Times (London), 5th April 1987, p. 57.

  15. Abrahams, C., Alex La Guma, p. 116.

  16. Cited in Heywood's introductory remarks to Heywood, C., Aspects of South African Literature (London: Heinemann, 1976), p. ix.

  17. Roux, Edward, S. P. Bunting: A Political Biography (Cape Town: African Bookman, n.d.), p. 89.

  18. Roux, Edward, S. P. Bunting: A Political Biography, p. 96.

  19. Cited in Gerhart, G. M., Black Power in South Africa: The Evolution of an Ideology (Berkely: University of California Press, 1978), p. 60.

  20. Bernstein, Hilda, Steve Biko (London: International Defence and Aid Fund, 1978), p. 14.

  21. La Guma, A., ‘Apartheid: The Imperialist Monster’, Tricontinental, vol. XXVI, Sept 1971, p. 47.

  22. La Guma, A., A Walk in the Night (Ibadan: Mbari, 1962).

  23. La Guma, A., The Stone Country (Berlin: Seven Seas, 1967).

  24. Peires, J. B., The House of Phalo: A History of the Xhosa People in the Days of their Independence (Johannesburg: Raven, 1981), p. 73.

  25. Ringhals (Hemachatus haemachatus) is a cobra found in Africa, and is very poisonous. La Guma's spelling of the word ‘ringhal’ is inconsistent; on page 66 it is spelt as ‘Rhingal’ and on page 101 it is spelt as ‘Ringhal’.

  26. ‘The guiltless must fall with the guilty, for they cannot avoid profiting by sin, and so have committed the sin too.’ Cited in Bowers, Fredson T., Elizabethan Revenge Tragedy 1587-1642 (Gloucester, Mass.: Peter Smith, 1959), pp. 44-45.

  27. ‘At the level of the individuals, violence is a cleansing force. It frees the native from his inferiority complex and from his despair and inaction; it makes him fearless and restores his self-respect’. [Fanon, Frantz, The Wretched of the Earth (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1963; 1974), trans. Constance Farrington, p. 74.]

  28. Ngugi wa Thiong'o,Petals of Blood (London: Heinemann, 1977).

  29. La Guma in his interview to Abrahams; cited in Abrahams, C., Alex La Guma, p. 115.

  30. ‘The Great Karoo is an arid desert about three hundred miles in length, by from seventy to eighty in breadth; bounded by Sneeuberg and Nieuweld ridges of mountains on the North, and by Zwartberg, or Black Mountain ridge on the South’.

    Pringle, T., Narrative of a Residence in South Africa (Cape Town: C. Struik, 1966), p. 163.

  31. Carnegie Commission Report: The Poor White Problem in South Africa: Report of the Carnegie Commission, Part IV (Stellenbosch: Pro-Ecclesia Drukkery, 1932).

    The map facing Page Number 14 of the Report divides Karoo into the Little Karoo, the Cental Karoo, and the Upper Karoo. The Little Karoo is marked by the coastal belt on the South and West, and on the North by a demarcation stretching from van Rhyns drop on the West to Albany on the East. This demarcation forms the Southern limit of Cental Karoo. The Northen boundary of the Cental Karoo is marked by the Great Escarpment, which in turn constitutes the Southern limits of the Upper Karoo. Priesha in the North, Winberg in the East and Calvina in the West demarcate the area of the Upper Karoo.

  32. de Blij, H. J., A Geography of Sub-Saharan Africa (Chicago: Rand Mc Nally, 1964); see Maps 14 and 15 on pages 82 and 86 respectively. To de Blij the Karoo is a relatively narrow stretch of land sandwiched between the Highveld on the North and the Cape Ranges on the South. Lengthwise it extends from the Southern Namibia on the West to the Foothills on the East.

  33. See the Weather Map facing page no. 52 in Wilson, M., and Thompson, L., eds., The Oxford History of South Africa, Vol. II(Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1969).

  34. Schreiner, O., [pseud. Ralph Iron] Story of an African Farm (Edinburgh: New University Society, 1883; n.d.).

  35. Smith, Pauline, Little Karoo (London: Jonathan Cape, 1925).

  36. Abrahams, Peter, The Path of Thunder (London: Faber, 1948; 1952).

  37. Jacobson, Dan, A Dance in the Sun (A Dance in the Sun (London: Weidenfield, 1956).

  38. See Appendix II.

  39. Heywood, Christopher, ‘Olive Schreiner's influence on George Moore and D. H. Lawrence’ in Heywood, C., ed., Aspects of South African Literature, p. 42.

  40. Sarvan, Charles Ponnuthurai, ‘Pauline Smith: A Gentle Rebel’, World Literature Written in English, vol. XXIV, no. 2, 1984, pp. 244-50.

  41. Driver, Dorothy, ‘Pauline Smith: A Gentler Music of Her Own’, Research in African Literatures, vol. XV, no. 1, 1984, p. 48.

  42. Cited in Driver, D., ‘Pauline Smith’, p. 49.

  43. Klima, Vladimir, South African Prose Writings in English (Prague: Czechoslavak Academy of Sciences, 1971), p. 22.

  44. See Gray, Stephen, Southern African Literature: An Introduction (Cape Town: David Philip, 1979), p. 157.

  45. Driver, D., ‘Pauline Smith’, p. 50.

  46. Mbeki, Govan, South Africa: The Peasants' Revolt (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1964), p. 128.

  47. Taiwo, O., ‘Language and Themes in Three African Novels’, Literary Half-Yearly, vol. XXII, 1981, p. 44.

  48. La Guma, Alex, A Soviet Journey (Moscow: Progress Publishers, 1978), p. 117.

  49. Mzamane, Mbulelo, ‘Sharpeville and its Aftermath: The Novels of Richard Rive, Peter Abrahams, Alex La Guma, and Lauretta Ngcobo’, Ariel, vol. XVI, pt. 2, 1985, pp. 40.

  50. La Guma, Alex, Time of the Butcherbird, marked copy with annotations by Mbulelo Mzamane; author's collection.

  51. La Guma's interview with Abrahams. Cited in Abrahams, C., Alex La Guma, p. 117.

  52. Platjee, Solomon T., Mhudi (Lovedale: Lovedale Press, 1930).

  53. Abrahams, Peter, Wild Conquest (London: Faber, 1950).

  54. Abrahams, P., Wild Conquest, p. 97.

  55. Kuper, L., ‘African Nationalism in South Africa, 1910-1964’ in Wilson, Monica, and Thompson, L., eds., Oxford History of South Africa Vol. II (London: OUP, 1971), p. 425.

  56. Mphahlele, Ezekiel, ‘South Africa: Two Communities and the Struggle for a Birthright’, Journal of African Studies, vol. IV, no. 1, 1977, pp. 21-50.

  57. Huddleston, Trevor, Naught for Your Comfort (Collins: London 1956; 1957), p. 63.

  58. Calvin, J., ‘Eternal Election by Which God Has Predestined Some to Salvation, Others to Destruction’, in McNeill, J. T., ed., Calvin: Institutes of the Christian Religion, trans. F. L. Battles; Vol. XXI of The Library of Christian Classics Series (London: S.C.M., n. d.), pp. 926-27.

    New Englanders, another European group that carried Calvinism to a non-European setting, had similar ideas of being an elected race. Peter Bulkeley wrote: ‘We [the people of New England] ‘are a City set upon a hill, in the open view of all the earth, the eyes of the world are upon us, because we profess ourselves to be the people in Covenant with God’.

    Cited in Miller, Perry, ‘God's Controversy With New England’ in Kerr, Hugh T, ed., Protestantism: A Concise Survey of Protestantism and its Influence on American Religious and Social Traditions (New York: Barron, 1979), p. 73.

  59. Carnegie Commission: Report, ‘Sociological Report’, Part V, p. 40.

  60. Woods, Donald, Asking for Trouble: Autobiography of a Banned Journalist (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1980, 1987), p. 18.

  61. La Guma, Alex, Man in the Tree: A Play for Radio, The Literary Review, vol. XV, 1971, pp. 19-30.

  62. La Guma, Alex, Man in the Tree, p. 24.

  63. La Guma, Alex, Man in the Tree, p. 30.

  64. La Guma, Alex, In the Fog of the Season's End (London: Heinemann, 1972), p. 21.

  65. Mphahlele, Ezekiel, The African Image (London: Faber and Faber, 1962), p. 108.

  66. La Guma, Alex, The Stone Country, p. 127.

  67. See Appendix II.

  68. La Guma, A., Little Libby: The Adventures of Liberation Chabalala, New Age, vol. V, no. 24, 2nd April 1959, p. 8.

  69. ‘The Story of Bethal’, Drum, vol. II, pt. 3, March 1952, pp. 4-9.

  70. La Guma, A., Little Libby: The Adventures of Liberation Chabalala, New Age, vol. V, no. 26, 16th April 1959, p. 8.

  71. La Guma, A., Little Libby: The Adventures of Liberation Chabalala, New Age, vol. V, no. 27, 23rd April 1959, p. 8.

  72. Sak, L., ‘Twixt Law and Deep Sea’, Jo-Jo, Drum, vol. 109, March 1960, p. 69.

  73. In the popular Nguni custom, as Mbulelo Mzamane explained to me, the butcherbird is an auspicious bird. In the rural areas the farmers are happy to welcome the butcherbird, particularly during the agricultural season, as it kills the insects harmful to the crops.

  74. See DuBois, W. E. B., Souls of Black Folk (Chicago: A. C. McClurg, 1903).

  75. From an address by Sultan Galiyev to the Regional Congress of the Russian Communist Party at Kazan in March 1918; cited in Hodgkin, T., ‘Some African and Third World Theories of Imperialism’, Owen, R., and Sutcliff, B., eds., Studies in the Theory of Imperialism (London: Longman, 1972), p. 112.

  76. La Guma, Alex, ed., Apartheid: A Collection of Writings on South African Racism by South Africans (Berlin: Seven Seas, 1971, 1978), p. 13.

  77. Simons, J., and Simons, R., Class and Colour in South Africa 1850-1950 (London: International Defence and Aid Fund for Southern Africa, 1983), p. 297.

  78. In the mind of the white woman, the negro is a superior sexual animal. […] She believes it because her culture has taught her to believe it. She also fears Negro sexually because her culture has instructed her to fear him. Unable to experience the Negro in fact [on account of social taboos], Negro in fantasy becomes the centre of white woman's sexual life—she elevates him to the status of a god-phallus; she worships, fears, desires, and hates him. Oh, how she hates him! Everywhere he is in her midst, and she can neither embrace nor destroy him. Deep in her heart, she knows she does not have to be protected from him. It is the society from which she needs protection, especially if she acknowledges her interest in a Negro. Yet, since she cannot touch him, she desires to be ‘protected’ from him, she desires that the Negro touch her, indeed, ‘rape’ her.

    Calvin, C. Hernton, Sex and Racism (London: Andre Deutsch, 1965; 1969), pp. 32-33 (emphasis in the original).

  79. La Guma, Alex, The Stone Country, pp. 127-28.

M. Keith Booker (essay date 1998)

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Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 7270

SOURCE: Booker, M. Keith. “Alex La Guma: In the Fog of the Seasons' End.” In The African Novel in English: An Introduction, pp. 155-70. Portsmouth, N.H.: Heinemann, 1998.

[In the following excerpt, Booker views In the Fog of the Seasons' End as a turning point in La Guma's revolutionary writing.]

The political commitment central to all of La Guma's work is not unusual in African literature, but In the Fog of the Seasons' End (1972), in its elaboration of the possibilities for armed resistance to apartheid, represents a step toward the advocacy of violent revolution that is distinctive in African literature and a significant turning point in La Guma's career. The book focuses on the activities of a secret underground organization dedicated to the destruction of apartheid in South Africa. Its two principal protagonists are the “coloured” operative Beukes, who gives up a happy personal life to devote himself to revolutionary activity, and the black organizer Elias Tekwane, who is captured by the South African police, tortured, and beaten to death. La Guma refuses to romanticize revolutionary activity, showing starkly the sacrifices that must be made in the interest of a cause whose ultimate success is by no means certain. Tekwane's fate is gruesome; Beukes's work is more tedious than glamorous, although he is forced to endure extreme physical and mental hardship in the course of his day-to-day political activities. At the same time, In the Fog of the Seasons' End does contain a strong utopian dimension. During his torture, Tekwane refuses to reveal any information the police can use against the movement. Meanwhile, partially because of Tekwane's heroic silence, Beukes escapes from the police and succeeds in smuggling three other revolutionaries out of South Africa for military training for a possible all-out war against apartheid.

Most of the events in In the Fog of the Seasons' End involve the Beuke's efforts to distribute antipartheid pamphlets and otherwise work against the system while avoiding the South African secret police. In the course of these activities, Beukes frequently recalls earlier happy times spent with his wife Frances, though Beukes has not seen Frances or their young child since he was forced underground. Beukes sometimes longs simply to lead a normal, peaceful life with his family, apart from the dangerous world of revolutionary politics, but he also knows that as a coloured South African, he can never do so. He is willing to sacrifice his personal life for the movement because he knows that the destruction of apartheid is crucial to any hope he and his family might have of living a life free of oppression and humiliation.

If it is through Beukes that La Guma gives us a glimpse of the daily lives of those who worked in the underground resistance to apartheid, it is through the story of Tekwane that La Guma presents the brutal realities that made such resistance necessary. We are first introduced to Tekwane in Chapter 6, which briefly summarizes his childhood, including the death of his father in a mining accident. This chapter also outlines Tekwane's growing awareness of the racism of his society and of the intense regimentation of the lives of nonwhites in South Africa. They live their lives in a servitude whose bonds are “entangled chains of infinite regulations, its rivets are driven in with rubber stamps, and scratchy pens in the offices of the Native Commissioners are like branding irons which leave scars for life” (p. 80). Central to this bureaucratic nightmare is the system of government passes, which all adult nonwhite South Africans must carry when they travel outside their home areas. In Chapter 12, we see the hardships experienced by Tekwane, now in his forties and living in a squalid, prison-like single-man's barracks in a black “location.” There, he recalls an earlier humiliating experience when he applied for a pass to travel from his home to the city, where he wanted to work to help feed his family and alleviate the labor shortage brought about by World War II. To receive the pass, the young Tekwane had to undergo a humiliating interrogation in which a white official, aided by a black clerk, determined Tekwane's age by examining his genitals. He was assigned the age of twenty, though he was actually seventeen. This modification of Tekwane's age is only another of the many ways in which the lives of nonwhite South Africans were controlled and manipulated under apartheid. Tekwane's first name, for example, is not really Elias, but the African name of his great grandfather.1 The biblical name Elias was given to him by a white missionary who found the African name too difficult to pronounce.

The absurdity (and inhumanity) of the pass system is highlighted by La Guma in a scene in Chapter 6 where an abusive South African policeman interrogates a nonwhite South African. The man attempts to be cooperative, but he finds that no matter how hard he tries, he can never fully please his interrogator. After an almost endless series of questions, the policeman concludes the interview with a brutal reminder of the realities of life under apartheid:

If these things are not followed with care, then into the prison with you or all permits cancelled so that you cease to exist. You will be nothing, nobody, in fact you will be decreated. You … you will be as nothing, perhaps even less than nothing.

(p. 82)

The man interrogated in this scene might be Tekwane, but he is not specifically identified, suggesting that nonwhites were never viewed as individuals under apartheid but were seen merely as members of a racial group. La Guma achieves a similar effect by beginning his book with a prologue that describes the brutal torture/interrogation of an unnamed black prisoner by the South African police. It is only in chapter 17, nearly at the end of the book, that we return to this scene, with the prisoner now identified as Tekwane. This method of presentation makes it clear that Tekwane's case is not unique and that his experience, however horrifying, is that of many nonwhites in South Africa. JanMohamed identifies this aspect of La Guma's fiction as crucially important:

While each black, “Coloured,” or Indian person in South Africa is intuitively aware of himself as a unique being, the white society that controls him recognizes and treats him only as a generic being, as a “kaffir” (devil), as an interchangeable unit of a homogeneous group.

(JanMohamed 1983, 228)

This motif in La Guma's work functions largely as a commentary on the racism of South African society under apartheid. On the other hand, from La Guma's Marxist point of view, this reduction of individuals to interchangeable things is a particularly brutal and overt example of the ways in which individuals are inevitably reduced to the status of commodities under capitalism. Tekwane, the most theoretically sophisticated of the major characters in In the Fog of the Seasons' End, is perfectly well aware that there is more than racism at stake in apartheid. There is also a strong economic motivation behind the system. Tekwane thus realizes as he watches a crowd of blacks standing outside a government labor bureau hoping to be assigned menial jobs, that these men, like himself, are oppressed at least as much because of their class as their skin color. “We are not only humbled as Blacks,” he thinks to himself, “but also as workers; our blackness is only a pretext” (p. 131).

Tekwane (like La Guma) believes that South African workers must band together to oppose their exploitation by their rich bosses. Indeed, La Guma is careful to make the revolutionary movement in In the Fog of the Seasons' End multiracial, emphasizing that its members belong to a common class rather than a common race and that their ultimate struggle is against the class structure of capitalism, of which apartheid is but a particularly perverse and brutal form.2 La Guma thus emphasizes the need for the development of a strong proletarian class consciousness, that is, of a sense of solidarity and common interest among workers of whatever race. In this sense, La Guma's work recalls that of Frantz Fanon, who insists that any genuine liberation from the brutal racial inequities of colonialism (of which apartheid is an extension) requires a complete transformation not simply of racial power structures, but of class structure. As JanMohamed puts it, the “major imperative” of La Guma's fiction is a search for viable, nonexploitative communities that will allow their members to escape the oppression they have experienced under apartheid, and JanMohamed identifies the “mutual care, concern, and respect” of the members of the underground movement in In the Fog of the Seasons' End as an important example of such a community (JanMohamed 1983, 255). The movement, in short, represents an important step toward the development of a viable proletarian class consciousness that can lead to a class-based revolution.

In this sense, La Guma's fiction is extremely complex. It is, in fact, what Marxist thinkers refer to as dialectical. That is, it draws its conclusions only after a careful delineation and consideration of opposing alternatives. On the one hand, nonwhite South Africans are brutalized and dehumanized by a system that treats them as members of a racial group rather than as individuals. On the other hand, their only hope for emancipation lies in their ability to act not as individuals, but as members of a group. There is, however, no contradiction in this position. For one thing, the first kind of group involves race, while the second involves class; and class, in the Marxist vision, is a temporary category that will cease to exist after the successful establishment of socialism. For another, racism involves a genuine obliteration of individuality and humanity, while class solidarity creates a nurturing social context within which the individual can thrive and grow, reaching his or her own potential as a human being. As Emmanuel Ngara notes, La Guma's characters “tend to be ‘types’ rather than individuals” (Ngara 1985, 92). But literary characters are never literally individuals: they are textual constructs with specific narrative functions. And the function of the “types” portrayed by La Guma is to convey the large historical forces that impinge upon individuals in the real world, much in the mode praised by the Hungarian Marxist theorist George Lukács.

As many Marxist critics have pointed out, the individualistic rhetoric of Western bourgeois ideology is merely a disguise for the thorough subjection of the individual through the operation of complex ideological practices. Central to this idea is the Marxist notion that individuals exist as human beings only within a certain social context in which they become who they are through interaction with others. As a result, individuals assume their identities in ways that are greatly determined by their context. As Marx puts it in a famous passage in The German Ideology, “Life is not determined by consciousness, but consciousness by life” (Marx and Engels 1978, 155). Socialism would presumably provide a context in which individuals could develop freely according to their own desires and abilities. Capitalism, on the other hand, is based on economic competition that inevitably leads to conflict between individuals. It requires that individuals have enough sense of individualism to compete in a free market and thus make the economy function, but it also requires that this surface individualism be supported by a fundamental conformism that leads each individual to participate unquestioningly in a system that is by and large not to his or her advantage. Under apartheid, as In the Fog of the Seasons' End graphically shows, the kind of identities available to individuals were especially limited. In this sense, one of the most useful Marxist concepts for understanding La Guma's work is Louis Althusser's notion of “interpellation,” or the “hailing of the subject”—the process whereby powerful forces (working in the interest of the prevailing ideology of a given society) form individuals as subjects. For Althusser, we do not form our attitudes so much as they form us, and “the category of the subject is only constitutive of all ideology insofar as all ideology has the function (which defines it) of ‘constituting’ concrete individuals as subjects” (Althusser 1971, 171).

At stake in the notion of interpellation are the complex and subtle ways through which capitalist society attempts to convince the subordinated classes that the ideas of the ruling (bourgeois) class are right and natural, thus causing the working classes to accept their domination and exploitation willingly. Here, Althusser is influenced by the work of the Italian Marxist Antonio Gramsci, who argued that the European bourgeoisie gained and maintained their power through a complex of political and cultural practices that convinced the more numerous “subaltern” classes to accede willingly to bourgeois authority as natural and proper. The effectiveness of this technique of power, which Gramsci terms “hegemony,” resides principally in the ability of the bourgeoisie to obtain the

“spontaneous” consent given by the great masses of the population to the general direction imposed on social life by the dominant fundamental group; this consent is “historically” caused by the prestige (and consequent confidence) which the dominant group enjoys because of its position and function in the world of production.

(Gramsci 1971, 12)

If absolutely necessary, this consensual obedience can be supplemented by “the apparatus of state coercive power,” that is, by institutions such as the police and the army, which use physical force to impose obedience “on those groups who do not ‘consent’ either actively or passively. This apparatus is, however, constituted for the whole of society in anticipation of moments of crisis of command and direction when spontaneous consent has failed” (p. 12).

Hegemony is a complex and plural strategy that is by definition never fully successful, making it necessary to keep the police and the military in the background in case of emergency. Such emergencies seldom occur in the metropolitan centers of Europe, but they were more frequent in the colonies, where hegemonic practices of power were always supplemented by brute force, theatrical display, and other techniques held over from the era of feudal-aristocratic rule in Europe. Despite complex cultural interchanges and the Europeanization of certain members of the indigenous elite, most colonial peoples would never mistake the position and attitudes of the British bourgeoisie for their own because of the radical racial and cultural duality of the colonial situation. To put it in Althusserian terms, interpellation occurs when the individual subject is created in the image of official ideology, not when that ideology proclaims the subject an alien (and racially inferior) “other.”

Frantz Fanon notes that in a colonial situation, official power depends far more on physical violence than psychological persuasion (Fanon 1968, 38). In this sense, as in many others, the apartheid system closely resembled the earlier colonial systems in Africa, and In the Fog of the Seasons' End graphically demonstrates the reliance on physical violence and other coercive practices used by official power in South Africa. Perhaps the most vivid of these demonstrations is La Guma's detailed description of the ruthless torture/murder of Tekwane at the hands of the South African secret police. This murder occurs behind the closed doors of a prison, but La Guma also shows that the authorities are not above committing such atrocities in plain view. In Chapter 9, for example, he describes a brutal and deadly police assault on a peaceful crowd of demonstrators. This description gains power from the fact that it is obviously rooted in the 1960 Sharpeville massacre and other similar events in South African history. At the same time, the incident is recounted in a generalized, rather allegorical fashion that makes it clear that such atrocities were not aberrations in apartheid South Africa, but were the fabric of everyday life. Much as the torture of Tekwane is first described as the experience of an unnamed South African, the victims killed in this attack are identified by designations such as the Washerwoman, the Child, and the Bicycle Messenger. These “typical” names make it clear that in South Africa any nonwhite citizen was in danger at any time of becoming a victim of violence at the hands of a state apparatus that did not stop to make fine distinctions between individuals.

Gramsci's work reminds us that the same might be said for citizens of western Europe and North America, and indeed there are historical instances of police violence against peaceful political demonstrators in such places. But it clear that the level and frequency of such violence were far higher in an apartheid South Africa that continued to rely more on traditional colonial techniques of power than on the more subtle methods of Western industrial countries. La Guma responds to the overt brutality and physical violence of apartheid with a direct call to militant action. This is not to say, however, that La Guma pays no attention to the ideological and cultural practices that were long used to shore up the system of apartheid. In particular, La Guma clearly indicates that the popular culture of global capitalism (largely American in origin) helped create a mind-set in South Africa that perpetuated apartheid. For one thing, La Guma suggests that the images of violence so central to Western popular culture created a decadent attitude that made the brutalities of apartheid seem more thinkable and less monstrous. One motif that runs through the entire book involves newspaper reports of a sensational murder case: an Afrikaner woman in a country town murdered her abusive husband by gradually poisoning him until he was so weak that she was able to overpower and strangle him. On one level, this murder simply illustrates the cruelty and violence that is central to South African society. On another level, it suggests the possibility of successful resistance to oppression because the woman was eventually able to overpower her stronger husband through perseverance and determined effort. But also important are the prominence the media gives to the case and the fascination it elicits from the populace, which treats it like an event from a soap opera. Attuned to violence through the images conveyed to them by popular culture, most people are not horrified by the story, but merely entertained by it.

Beukes himself sometimes feels that his cloak-and-dagger existence is like something from a film (p. 25). At the same time, he realizes that this film-like nature is an aberration brought about by the unnatural system of apartheid. But other South Africans are not as adept at seeing beyond the complex entanglement of fiction and reality that characterizes their society. This motif is most obvious in the portrayal of Beukes's friend, Tommy, a decent young man who has little interest in political activism, largely because he is too immersed in the escapist world of popular culture. Tommy responds to almost every event in his life by referring to the images and ideas conveyed by (mostly American) film and popular music. Tommy, in short, retreats into the escapist world of popular culture to avoid dealing with the cruel world of reality in South Africa. As the narrator puts it (filtered through Beukes's consciousness), reality for Tommy “could be shut out by the blare of dance-bands and the voices of crooners. From this cocoon he emerged only to find the means of subsistence, food and drink. Politics meant nothing to him” (p. 53).

What in the West passes for “high” art (that is, art intended for consumption by the ruling classes rather than the working classes) also comes in for criticism in In the Fog of the Seasons' End. Realizing that Tommy knows nothing about classical music despite his fascination with Western culture, Beukes remarks, “There's things poor people just don't get to hear” (p. 57). Meanwhile, at one point the South African authorities attempt to demonstrate their enlightened attitude by proposing (in the manner of Marie Antoinette's famous “Let them eat cake”) to allow nonwhites occasional access to a new opera house, though they will in fact be unlikely to be able to afford to go there. Beukes dismisses the plan as a ruse, and Elias rejects it as well. Access to an opera house is of very little use to a population that is starving to death: “What a peculiar way of thinking they have,” he tells Beukes. “Opera house and no bread” (p. 131).

Indeed, for South Africa's oppressed majority, access to this opera house may not only be of little use, but may also contribute to the problem by creating a diversion from the real problems of their society. This suggestion that the niceties of Western bourgeois aesthetics are irrelevant or even harmful in the crisis context of apartheid South Africa can be read as an allegorization of La Guma's literary project, which dispenses with common Western expectations that art will present pleasant and beautiful images disengaged from the world of politics. Decades of New Critical dominance in American literature studies produced a vision of literature as a realm divorced from history and politics, a vision that is only now beginning to be challenged by newer trends in American criticism. Indeed, as Peter Bürger (1984) has shown, Western notions of the aesthetic inherently tend toward a vision of art as separate from the social world—and as therefore unable to contribute to change in that world. Moreover, Western literature has long been particularly opposed to revolutionary politics. One need only consider the novels of Charles Dickens, sometimes seen as a literary champion of the poor and the downtrodden, to see the central element of horror of revolution that runs through Western literature. In works such as Barnaby Rudge and A Tale of Two Cities, Dickens depicts popular rebellions in which the participants are shown as crazed and vicious members of lawless mobs.

Most of our modern Western notions of literary aesthetics arose in the nineteenth century, when literature was one of the central tools used by a newly dominant bourgeois class to explain and justify their rise to power in Europe. In the Fog of the Seasons' End, however, seeks not to rationalize a revolution from the recent past, but to promote revolution in the future. The book has a fundamentally different purpose from that of most Western literature and therefore necessarily departs in significant ways from Western aesthetic values. Critics such as Adrian Roscoe, who regrets the book's lack of a “rich poetic quality” (Roscoe 1977, 255), or David Rabkin (1973), who laments the book's lack of richly subjective characters, may thus be missing the point, though it should also be said that critics such as Balutansky, who praises the book's effective use of formal techniques, may be diverting attention from La Guma's central intention as well (Balutansky 1990).3 Indeed, critics such as Leonard Kibera (1976) and Cecil Abrahams (1985), censured by Balutansky for limiting their analyses to the “scope of La Guma's political concerns,” may actually come the closest to doing justice to the book (Balutansky 1990, 82).

Of course, this is not to say that aesthetic and formal concerns are irrelevant to La Guma's project in In the Fog of the Seasons' End. For example, JanMohamed comments that the fragmented formal structure of the book helps convey the chaotic nature of life for guerrillas involved in revolutionary activity (JanMohamed 1983, 257).4 It is important, however, to recognize that La Guma's use of formal techniques is intended not to set his work apart from the world of politics and history, but to effect a more intense engagement with that world. In short, La Guma's work, like all literature, depends on a certain aesthetic dimension for its effects, but the aesthetics of the book differ significantly from those of Western bourgeois literature. The particular urgency of the political message of In the Fog of the Seasons' End marks it as an African—and especially as a South African—text. Indeed, African revolutionary writers such as Ngugi and Sembène are clearly La Guma's closest literary comrades. Nevertheless, it is valuable for us as Western readers to realize that La Guma's work has important European antecedents as well. Many of these are Russians, whose marginality to European history may have appealed to La Guma. But La Guma's most important Russian influence, Maxim Gorky, is regarded worldwide as one of the great figures of socially-engaged literature, and leftist writers all over the world have identified Gorky as an important model.5 This mutual interest in Gorky suggests that readers who wish to find Western analogues to La Guma's fiction should search for them not in the canonical “great tradition” of Western bourgeois literature, but in the works of American proletarian writers such as Mike Gold and Jack Conroy, or British socialist writers such as Robert Tressell and Lewis Grassic Gibbon.

These writers' works, like La Guma's, are fundamentally opposed to a capitalist system that includes bourgeois literature and aesthetics. However, because of the hegemonic nature of bourgeois power in Europe and America, leftist fiction there is generally oriented toward a deconstruction of ideological practices of manipulation rather than a call for violent revolution. Comparing In the Fog of the Seasons' End to Tressell's The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists (1955, first published in 1914), perhaps the most important modern novel in the British socialist tradition, Robert Green correctly notes that the emphasis on direct political action in La Guma's book differs substantially from the more theoretical and abstract focus of Tressell's book (Green 1979, 88-89). This difference, no doubt, can be attributed to the greater social stability of England relative to a highly volatile South Africa. In South Africa, apartheid adds urgency to political action, and the actual existence of organized armed resistance adds concreteness to the literary theme of revolution by making revolution a genuine historical possibility. Tressell's book focuses on the ideological practices through which the British ruling classes secure the willing obedience of the working classes by convincing them to accept the rightness and naturalness of a capitalist system that leads to fabulous wealth for an elite few and dismal poverty for most workers. Tressell's title refers to the way in which the British working classes, ragged trousers and all, ignore their miserable living and working conditions to labor generously for the benefit of their rich bosses. He attempts to disrupt this process by showing his readers the ways in which British workers are exploited by their capitalist bosses.6 The system of apartheid in South Africa, despite its fundamentally economic underpinnings, was far less subtle than the capitalist system in England, and few nonwhites in South Africa needed to be convinced that the system was not to their advantage. La Guma can thus dispense with the arguments for an alternative system that are central to Tressell's book. Instead, his task is to exhort the South African populace to take action against a system they already realize is brutally unjust.

Both Tressell and La Guma, in short, employ literary strategies that are designed to counter the specific techniques through which the systems they criticize maintain their power.7 Tressell's book works primarily at the level of logical argument and persuasion, like the hegemonic practices of capitalist power in England and other industrialized Western countries. In the Fog of the Seasons' End, on the other hand, responds to an emergency situation by urging immediate violent opposition to apartheid. However, La Guma's book exceeds those of writers such as Tressell and Gold not only in its negative depiction of the violent workings of official power, but also in its positive suggestion of the possibilities of opposition. Indeed, one of the implications of La Guma's work is that the brutalities of apartheid arise largely out of a sense of weakness on the part of a ruling elite that realizes the fragility of its power. In the Fog of the Seasons' End is ultimately far more optimistic than most Western socialist fiction. Not only do the revolutionaries in the book score certain successes against all odds, but the book also ends with the strongly utopian image of children gathered in a sunlit yard and with the strongly hopeful declaration that the system of apartheid has prepared its own downfall (p. 181).

In terms of this novel, at least, Samuel Omo Asein is thus correct when he concludes that “the pervasive note then in La Guma's novels is not that of despair and flight into a protective world of political negativism, but that of hope in the eventual overthrow of the oppressive regime in South Africa” (Asein 1978, 86).8 Granted, The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists ends on a similarly hopeful note, but, more than eighty years later, the revolution foreseen by Tressell has not materialized. La Guma's utopian vision, meanwhile, gains a certain power from the fact that the system of apartheid has now nominally been destroyed. Indeed, the fall of apartheid makes La Guma's work more relevant now than ever, partially for the simple reason that his work can finally be read in South Africa, but mostly because it sounds an important warning against complacency by providing ominous reminders of a past that must never be repeated. From a Fanonian perspective, of course, La Guma's work also urges continued vigilance because the fall of apartheid does not guarantee justice and equality for all South Africans. La Guma's careful association of apartheid with capitalism implies that the destruction of apartheid is only the first step in a revolutionary process that can ultimately succeed only when the class structure of capitalist society has itself been obliterated.


Alex La Guma, like Nadine Gordimer, is a South African writer whose work grows directly out of South African history and in particular out of an opposition to apartheid. The reader should thus consult chapter 7 for historical background to La Guma's work. However, La Guma, as a coloured South African and an active participant in radical opposition to the apartheid regime, occupies a somewhat different position in relation to South African history than Gordimer. For example, while the “Treason Trials” of 1956-1961 involved Gordimer's character Lionel Burger, they involved La Guma directly: he was one of the more than 150 men and women tried (and finally acquitted of) treason for their opposition to apartheid.


Born in Cape Town in 1925, Alex La Guma was the son of Jimmy La Guma, a noted crusader for the civil rights of nonwhites in South Africa. The elder La Guma was a union organizer, coloured secretary of the Cape Branch of the African National Congress, president of the South African Coloured Peoples' Congress, and a member of the central committee of the South African Communist Party. The young Alex followed very much in his father's footsteps. In 1946, at age twenty-one, he organized and led a strike among the workers at a metal box factory where he was employed. The next year, he joined the Young Communist League. In 1948, when the victory of the Boer Nationalist Party led to the beginnings of apartheid as a formal government policy, La Guma became a member of the South African Communist Party and remained so until 1950 when the party was officially banned. La Guma continued his political activities as apartheid was solidified in the next few years, and he was eventually arrested in 1956 on charges of treason.

The ensuing Treason Trials lasted for nearly five years. All of those charged were eventually acquitted, but the trials absorbed the energies and attention of so many antiapartheid leaders that the opposition to apartheid was seriously hampered. Meanwhile, the Sharpeville massacre in 1960 led the government to declare a state of emergency that further curtailed the civil rights of South African citizens. La Guma himself was arrested again in 1961 for his political activities. From this point on he was continually harassed by the government. By 1962, a new Sabotage Act allowed the minister of justice to order anyone placed under house arrest without trial. La Guma was one of the first so detained, and he was officially confined to his house twenty-four hours a day from 1962 until 1966, except for one period in 1963 when he was taken to prison and placed in solitary confinement in an attempt to ensure that he could have no contact with the resistance movement. La Guma was again arrested in 1966, but in September of that year he and his family were granted permanent exit visas that allowed them to move to London in what amounted to political exile.

Once abroad, La Guma continued to crusade for justice in South Africa, traveling widely and giving numerous talks describing the evils of apartheid and promoting the resistance efforts of the ANC and other groups. This project took La Guma around the world, especially to countries sympathetic to his leftist political beliefs. He visited the Soviet Union, Chile (when Allende was president), Vietnam, and Tanzania, where he stayed for a time as writer in residence at the University of Dar es Salaam. He gained a great deal of international prominence during these years. In 1969, for example, he was given India's Lotus Prize for Literature, and in the same year he became the chairman of the ANC's London branch. In 1977, La Guma was elected secretary-general of the Afro-Asian Writers' Association, and in 1978 he moved to Cuba, where he took up residence in Havana as the chief representative of the ANC to the Caribbean and Central and South America. He remained in Cuba until his death (by heart attack) in 1986.

La Guma's political activism was accompanied by (and indeed included) a productive writing career. Beginning in the mid-1950s, he worked as a staff journalist for the progressive Cape Town newspaper New Age, for which he managed to write a weekly column until 1962 despite his persecution by the South African authorities. He also began to write fiction during the 1950s, and his first novel, A Walk in the Night (1967b), was apparently completed by early in 1960. This book was eventually published in Nigeria in 1962, after considerable difficulty in getting the manuscript out of South Africa. Thus began a career that saw all of La Guma's novels published abroad because they were banned in South Africa. And a Threefold Cord (1964) and The Stone Country (1967) were originally published in Berlin, while In the Fog of the Seasons' End (1972) originally appeared in New York, and Time of the Butcherbird (1979) was first published in London.

All of La Guma's fiction is deeply committed to the political opposition to apartheid, though the different novels employ a variety of strategies in their attempt to reveal the abusive and dehumanizing effects of apartheid and to suggest possible alternatives for a better future. A Walk in the Night is an extremely violent and essentially naturalistic novel that devotes most of its energy to vivid depictions of the degrading poverty of Cape Town's nonwhite slums and the humiliation of the slums' residents due to the squalor in which they are forced to live and the mistreatment they suffer at the hands of the police and other officials. The plot of the novel, set in the seamy underworld of District Six, the coloured slum of Cape Town, is simple and unfolds within a few hours. The protagonist, Michael Adonis, is a coloured South African who loses his job after his white foreman upbraids him for taking time from work to urinate. Michael is then stopped (without cause) by two white policeman, who insult and humiliate him merely because of his race. Filled with rage, Michael drinks in a pub, then returns to his tenement where he unintentionally kills an old Irishmen in a drunken altercation. Michael escapes, and Willieboy, a young street tough, is blamed for the murder and is eventually killed by a sadistic policeman, Constable Raalt. Michael, meanwhile, has been driven to crime, and he and his new gang are on their way to commit a robbery as Willieboy lies bleeding to death at the end of the novel.

A Walk in the Night is an angry and essentially pessimistic novel in which characters respond to their brutalization by the system with brutality of their own. As La Guma's career developed, however, his delineation of South African society became more sophisticated and his fiction began to include suggestions of more positive modes of resistance. And a Threefold Cord contains many of the same suggestions that the characters are at the mercy of large, impersonal forces, but it is less violent and more subdued than its predecessor. The depiction of the lives of the coloured Pauls family resembles the striking depictions of poverty that characterized his first novel, though La Guma's technique in And a Threefold Cord is somewhat more symbolic and less naturalistic than in A Walk in the Night. Moreover, the courage and tenacity of the Pauls family in the face of its difficulties point toward a greater sense of hopefulness, especially through the solidarity of oppressed people working together.

La Guma's third novel, The Stone Country is a highly allegorical account of life in a South African prison that in many ways represents South Africa as a whole. The book focuses on the experiences of George Adams, a political prisoner who has been incarcerated for distributing political pamphlets urging resistance to apartheid. Another prominent character is the Casbah Kid, whose squalid childhood has led him to a life of crime. The Casbah Kid is thus a character who might have fit very well in La Guma's earlier novels. Adams, however, possesses a highly evolved political consciousness that represents a clear movement forward in La Guma's development as a political writer. Though he is not a sophisticated intellectual, Adams's ability to sense the brutality of apartheid and to articulate the kind of individual dignity that should be possible in a just society is unmatched by any of the characters in La Guma's earlier works. And, if conditions in the prison stand in for the oppressive nature of apartheid society as a whole, George's determination to work for better conditions in the prison suggests the need for positive political action throughout South Africa.

This aspect of La Guma's career comes to full fruition in In the Fog of the Seasons' End. According to Cecil Abrahams, this book combined with The Stone Country to make La Guma a “major literary figure in African literature” (Abrahams 1985, 18). La Guma's brief final novel, Time of the Butcherbird, is by far his most symbolic, employing intensely suggestive images in a further elaboration of La Guma's support for armed rebellion against apartheid. Its three major characters, a poor black recently released from prison, a rich Afrikaner farmer/politician, and a struggling white English-speaking salesman, are less individuals than representatives of important groups within South African society. The black, Shilling Murile, has sworn revenge against the Afrikaner, Hannes Meulen, for his involvement ten years earlier in the death of Murile's brother. The English-speaking white, Edward Stopes, has come to town on a selling trip, and he is something of an “innocent” bystander to the events of the novel, which have clear implications for the possible future of South African society. Murile kills Meulen, but in the process kills Stopes as well, suggesting the ultimate fate of those who support and enforce apartheid and those who simply stand aside and let it continue.

Abdul JanMohamed has suggested that a consistent “marginality” is perhaps the most striking characteristic of La Guma's writing. Neither white nor black, La Guma transcends the simple polar opposition of these two racial groups. Banned from publication in apartheid South Africa, La Guma's work was pushed to the margins of the struggle against apartheid that was its major thrust. Moreover, La Guma's fiction, perhaps because of its overtly leftist political stance, has been less widely accepted in the West than the work of African writers such as Gordimer, Chinua Achebe, Wole Soyinka, or Ngugi wa Thiong'o.9 As JanMohamed points out, there was little demand for political fiction in the West during the Cold War, when such fiction was vaguely associated with what was seen as the dogmatism of Stalinism. Thus, the only political novels to have a wide readership in the West during the Cold War were those like the fiction of Alexander Solzhenitsyn, which

revives the legacy of the Cold War by once more valorizing the freedom of Western institutions against the restrictive practices of the Russian “other,” or the fiction of V. S. Naipaul, which revives the legacy of colonialism by further valorizing the goodness and civilization of the West against the unredeemable evil and barbarity of the Third World “other”.

(JanMohamed 1983, 262)

In short, La Guma's fiction, by challenging the Western stereotypes that fed both colonialism and the Cold War, had a doubly difficult time in winning a Western readership. On the other hand, Bernth Lindfors's survey of Anglophone African universities showed that among writers known primarily as novelists, La Guma is surpassed only by Ngugi, Achebe, and Armah in his prominence in the curricula of those universities (Lindfors 1990).10 La Guma is particularly prominent among African political novelists. He is thus appropriately listed with Sembène and Ngugi as the writers who “naturally come to mind” in the discussion of the development of a revolutionary African aesthetics (Udenta 1993, 9). La Guma's work is also beginning to receive more critical attention in the West, perhaps partially because of the easing of the tensions associated with the Cold War, though much published criticism attempts to divert attention from La Guma's revolutionary politics through discussion of literary form and technique. Book-length studies that show some sensitivity to the political dimension of his work include those by Abrahams (1985), Kathleen Balutansky (1990), and Balasubramanyam Chandramohan 1992). The collection entitled Memories of Home, edited by Cecil Abrahams (1991), also contains useful samples of La Guma's writing and valuable commentaries, including personal reminiscences by La Guma's widow. JanMohamed's chapter on La Guma in Manichean Aesthetics (1983) is still probably the best brief survey of his work, while numerous other critical essays discuss more specific aspects of La Guma's various novels.


  1. One might compare the events related in Elie Wiesel's autobiographical novel, Night (1987), in which the prisoners in Nazi prison camps are assigned arbitrary ages and given numbers that replace their names. The apartheid regime in South Africa has, in fact, frequently been compared to Nazi Germany. La Guma's Beukes himself makes the connection (p. 131).

  2. See Chandramohan (1992) for an extended discussion of the “trans-ethnicity” of La Guma's vision.

  3. Balutansky does, however, understand the political mission of La Guma's work. She begins her book with an epigraph quoted from La Guma which rejects the Western notion of “Art for art's sake” as irrelevant to conditions in apartheid South Africa.

  4. Balutansky makes a similar point about the fragmentation of individual sentences in the book (Balutansky 1990, 85).

  5. On affinities between Gorky and La Guma, see Chandramohan (1992, 137) and Asein (1978, 75).

  6. American leftist fiction is often even more localized in its task. Thus, Mike Gold's Jews Without Money (1984, first published in 1930), probably the most important American proletarian novel, seeks to demonstrate that systemic poverty exists in an America where many people seem to feel that only the lazy and the shiftless can possibly be poor.

  7. It is not surprising, then, that La Guma's book has much more in common with a work such as Maxim Gorky's Mother (1972), another classic of European leftist literature, but one that arises from the crisis situation of early-twentieth-century Russia.

  8. As Scanlon points out, however, In the Fog of the Seasons' End is decidedly more optimistic than some of La Guma's earlier work. As Scanlon puts it, “If La Guma's first novel traces a descent into despair, In the Fog of the Seasons' End reveals an upward movement of recovery” (Scanlon 1979, 46).

  9. Ngugi's later fiction is also overtly leftist, but his reputation in the West had already been established by earlier works that are not, such as The River Between (1965).

  10. La Guma is ranked seventh among all authors in Lindfors's survey, ranking behind these three novelists as well as the dramatists Soyinka and J. P. Clark and the poet Okot p'Bitek (Lindfors 1990).

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La Guma, (Justin) Alex(ander)