Alex la Guma is known as one of South Africa’s foremost activist writers, both for his reportage and fiction writing depicting the oppressive measures of Apartheid. La Guma was born in 1925 in District Six, South Africa. He was the son of prominent political activist Jimmy la Guma, who was centrally involved in the South African Communist Party (SACP), the African National Congress (ANC) and the chief architect of the ‘Black Republic’ thesis, which was based on Lenin’s 1920 thesis on the national and colonial question (Mkhize, 134). Alex la Guma’s early exposure to class politics and the national liberation struggle, as well as an acute experience of oppression growing up in District Six, would have a major effect on his own socialist politics and the ‘revolutionary aesthetics’ of his writing. La Guma recalls his mother once telling him that “[his] father and others like him used the teachings of Lenin to show workers in the country that they could achieve happiness for themselves and their children” (La Guma, 1993: 168 in Mkhize, 136)
At the age of fifteen la Guma was in his matric year, but being more concerned with ‘seeing the defeat of Nazism than [he] was in his examinations’ (La Guma, 1991:17 in Mkhize, 137) he dropped out of school to join the army. His first job was as a factory worker for the Metal Box Company. While working he completed his matric in 1945. He was later employed in the art department of Caltex Oil, concurrently taking a correspondence journalism course and recruiting members to join the SACP. His recruitment drive preceded his official membership of the party, and he joined the Young Communist League (YCL) in 1947 and the SACP a year later. The SACP was declared an illegal party by the Nationalist Party (NP) in 1950 and la Guma was listed under the ‘Suppression of Communism Act’ as a known Communist’ (Abrahams, 1985:7 in Mkhize, 140). He continued however with political activities and in 1953 helped found the South African Coloured People’s Convention (SACPC), which was changed to South African Coloured People’s Congress (CPC) in 1959. In 1954 he married Blanche Herman. In 1955 he became chairperson of the SACPC and was an instrumental representative for them in drawing up the Freedom Charter at the historic Congress of the People that took place in Kliptown, June 1955.
La Guma’s writing career took off in 1955 when he was asked to join the staff of The New Age, a leftwing weekly, whereupon he became the mouthpiece for the ANC and SACPC. As chairperson of the SACPC, in 1955 he was at the forefront of the challenge against the government’s Race Classification Bill and the South African Act Amendment Bill that removed Coloureds from the common voters role. In December 1956 la Guma, along with other nationwide leaders, were charged with treason. The 1956 Treason Trial charged them with conspiring to overthrow the government and with allegations of the Freedom Charter being Communist inspired. The accused were acquitted in 1961 due to insufficient evidence. During this time la Guma wrote extensive reports on the trial for the New Age, and in 1957 was given a regular column titled ‘Up My Ally’ (Abrahams, 1985:12). Consequently he became known as a chronicler for liberation. Many of the themes discussed in his journalism acted as the bedrock for his fictional work, and emerged as narrative reflections on dissatisfaction with society and the emergence of violence as a counteraction to the status quo.
The State of Emergency declared after the Sharpeville massacre in 1960 resulted in the arrest of many political activists and la Guma was imprisoned for a few months. In 1961 he was detained for 10 days after rallying people for a protest instigated by Nelson Mandela, and was then slapped with a five year banning order, prohibiting him from attending public gatherings and essentially forcing him to resign from New Age. In 1963 both Blanche and la Guma were detained under the ‘Ninety-day solitary confinement clause’. After their release he remained under house arrest. In 1966 he was arrested under the ‘180-day solitary confinement clause’. During this time of restriction orders la Guma had the chance to properly pursue creative writing. It was the period in which he produced most of his fiction. His first novella A Walk in the Night was completed in 1962, followed by multiple short-stories, the novel And a Threefold Cord in 1964, and The Stone Country after his release from prison. In 1966 he went into exile in London under instruction of the ANC. He continued his political activities while also writing a series of detective stories ‘based on a fictitious African detective named Captain Zondie’ (1985:17). After three years in London he became the first to receive the prestigious Lotus Prize for literature by the Afro-Asian Writer’s Association.
La Guma’s next work was The Fog of Season’s End, a novel about ordinary people’s underground struggle against racial capitalism. In 1967 he attended the African – Scandanavian writer’s conference in Stockholm, followed by the Fourth Congress of the Union of Soviet Writers in Moscow. His visit to Russia was the first of many and la Guma maintained a relationship with the Soviet Writer’s Union, which must have contributed to his commitment to a Socialist Realism style. In 1975 la Guma wrote a travelogue of his impressions of the Soviet Union entitled A Soviet Journey. His last novel Time of the Butcherbird was purportedly used as a text by Soviet students studying English literature and Philosophy.
La Guma remained an exile for the rest of his life and died in Havana, Cuba in 1985, while acting as the chief representative for the ANC in the Caribbean.
The ‘realist debate’ has been topical in the discussion of black South African writing. Chief among the critics is one of la Guma’s contemporaries, Lewis Nkosi, who has described black SA literature as ‘journalistic fact parading outrageously as imaginative literature’, and failing to ‘transmute social facts into artistically persuasive works of fiction’ (Nkosi, 1979:222 in Mkhize, 145). Nkosi appeared to think the solution would be the pursuit of the European Modernist tradition over realism. (Mkhize, 145) More recently Njabulo Ndebele expanded the critique in Turkish Tales and Some Views on SA Fiction (1984) and Rediscovery of the Ordinary (1994). His argument stemmed from the difficulty pointed out by Nkosi that life during Apartheid was itself too absurd to be outdone by the imagination, that the absurdity of daily life undercut deeper questioning of absurdist plots because they already had symbolic bearing on reality. (Ndebele, 1994: 32) The result he says is a ‘spectacle of social absurdity’, which anticipates immediate interpretation of aesthetic signifiers, and is ‘the emptying out of interiority to the benefit of its exterior signs, [the] exhaustion of the content by the form’ (Roland Barthus, 18 in Ndebele, 1994:33). Ndebele made la Guma an exemplar of spectacle writing in his analysis of the short story Coffee for the Road. In this he unpacked the ways in which the story favoured emphasis on larger social issues rather than specific internal ones, pitting good against bad in an unsubtle way that undermines contemplation and close analysis (1994:42).
Nkosi however was more generous towards la Guma’s work despite its realism, saying that although la Guma ‘tills the same apartheid plot which other writers have so exhaustively worked up’, he is ‘a true novelist’ (Nkosi, 1979:227 in Mkhize, 145). This favour might be understood in Nkosi’s perception of the role of the writer as a creative, constructive force. While he viewed the modernist experimentation of the West as the principally productive style, in the South African political climate, realism, if earnestly and artistically done, could serve such a purpose. He described la Guma’s work as a “ruthless selection of what counts” (2000:262 in Nwagbara, 124), isolating that which ultimately provokes a violent response to the system. In A Walk in the Night the main character is depicted as
… nursing a little growth of anger the way one caresses the beginning of a toothache with the tip of the tongue…his thoughts concentrated on the pustule of rage that was continuing to ripen deep down within him. (la Guma, 1982:1).
JM Coetzee elucidates this point in his 1971 essay Alex la Guma and the Responsibilities of the South African Writer, stating that ‘the Western line of experimentation’ would ‘perpetuate a rift between the writer and society at large’, and that the writer ‘should not choose his tradition at random, but rather choose it with some sense of the social implications of his choice’ (Coetzee, 1971:6).
According to Nkosi and Coetzee, La Guma’s writing is implicitly political through its encoded realism, and gestures towards revolutionary outcomes by enabling increased self-realisation. Depicting unacknowledged realities and shifting people’s consciousness were of primary concern to la Guma. Thus la Guma was a self-aware social realist invested in the ideological implications of his writing (Mkhize, 146). He wrote that ‘when I portray South Africa I wish to show it as it actually is’. For him, the revolutionary potential of his work was embedded in the fact that ‘life is the stimulation of artistic endeavour’ (la Guma:1991:29 in Mkhize, 149).
Cecil, Abrahams (1985) Alex al Guma. Boston: Twayne.
Coetzee, JM (1971) Alex la Guma and the Responsabilities of South Agrican Writers. Journal of the New African Literature and the Arts. 9-10:5-11.
Mkhize, Jabulani (1998). Alex la Guma’s Politics and Aesthetics. Volume 5, Issue 1, p. 130 – 168. Center for the Study of South African Literature and Language.
Ndebele, Njabulo S. (1994). South African literature and culture: Rediscovery of the Ordinary. Manchester, New York: Manchester University Press.
Nkosi, Lewis. (1979) Fiction by Black South Africans: Richard Rive, Bloke Modisane, Ezekiel Mpahlele, Alex la Guma. In Beier , Ulli (ed): introduction to African Literature: An Anthology of Critical Writing. London: Longman.
Nwagbara, Uzoechin (2011) Arresting Historical Violence: Revolutionary Violence and Alex la Guma’s Fiction. Vol. 4, no 3. The Journal of Pan African Studies.