Blance la Guma (nee Blanche Herman) was born on 30 November 1927 in Athlone, Cape Town, Western Cape, the youngest of five children. Her parents were actively involved in local civic associations. Her mother, Sophia Herman, was active in the food committees of the 1940s. Blanche said of her mother:

She would organise the queues in Athlone as the lorries came and saw that each one got her share without doing herself more. We had to go two, three o’clock in the morning to get our place in the queue to get our two cups of sugar. It was largely women: Katie White, Gladys Smith, and Hettie September. The government had arranged that vans came around to certain locations in certain areas. They were loaded with rice one week and sugar the next week.

Blanche was educated in Athlone and attended Trafalgar High. Her fellow students included Alex la Guma who shared political interests with Blanche’s brother. During the 1940s she began to attend Communist Party of South Africa (CPSA – later renamed the South African Communist Party - SACP) meetings in Athlone, where the activist James la Guma (her future father-in-law) spoke. She soon started to distribute Party literature. Alex la Guma said, at the branch, “They were proud of her – because she sold lots of Party literature and could be relied upon to do a job of work.”

In 1950 she took up nursing at St Monica’s Home, the first institution in Cape Town where Coloured women could train as nurses. Here she specialised as a midwife. According to Blanche, “I couldn’t go for a longer course, I finished quickly so I could help augment the income at home. It was a tough time we were going through.”

In 1954, Blanche married the writer and prominent CPSA activist, Alex La Guma who was one of the defendants in the 1956 Treason Trial. Alex and Blanche had two children, Eugene and Bartholomew. Politically she became increasingly active, first in the formation of the Federation of South African Women (FEDSAW) and the underground Communist Party – the National Party (NP) declared the CPSA illegal. At this time, Alex was an organiser for the African National Congress (ANC) allied Coloured People’s Organisation (SACPO), while Blanche was the family breadwinner. According to Alex:

She was one of the most popular and well-liked midwives in the district where we lived and was kept busy all the time. But she always found time for political work among women.

In 1957, in response to the Nursing Act (No. 69) of that year, Blanche organised a demonstration of 300 nurses. She was detained under the 90-day solitary confinement laws in 1963 and subsequently banned. The Nursing Act discriminated against black nurses by promoting segregation and the dominance of white South Africans. 

In 1966, Alex and Blanche went into exile, travelling to the United Kingdom, where she started to work as a midwife, and then as a sister at the City of London Maternity Hospital. Between 1970 and 1977, she was a manager at the Soviet Weekly. She and Alex subsequently moved to Cuba in 1978, when the country offered to accept an ANC chief representative who would essentially act as an ‘ambassador’. The ANC nominated Alex la Guma, with Blanche as his assistant, where he acted as the African National Congress (ANC) representative for the Caribbean. It was at this time that Blanche became a prominent mentor to many students, as Cuba additionally offered scholarships to exiled children from South Africa. In 1985, Alex died of a heart attack in Cuba. Following this, Blanche returned to London. In 1992, she returned to Cape Town when amnesty was granted to South Africans living in exile.

In 2015, Blanche released her memoir, “In the Dark with My Dress on Fire: My Life in Cape Town, London, Havana and Home Again” which details her work in Cape Town as a midwife, in the 1950s. This title stems from an experience which Blanche faced when she was delivering a baby and her dress was set alight by a nearby candle, as a result, she was forced to deliver the baby with one hand while attempting to kill the fire with the other. This memoir unpacks Blanche's life in exile, her work in prominent South African communities such as District Six, and her racial activism as a Coloured woman during apartheid.

Blanche la Guma passed away on 6 July 2023 in Cape Town, Western Cape, South Africa.

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