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Alex La Guma, a politically committed writer
Born in Cape Town in 1925, his family was already very active in politics
as Alex La Guma was growing up, and he threw himself into activism with
the South African Communist Party and the Coloured People’s Congress.
This eventually led to his involvement in the famous Treason Trials of 1956
to 1961, and several spells of imprisonment and house arrest.
Jimmy La Guma his father, though a life-long militant, enjoyed the sort of
marginal privileges allowed by the relic of Cecil Rhodes’ liberal imperialism,
practiced in the Cape in the 1890s. Rhodes, in his cunning, recognized that
the long-term safety of the white regime depended on collaboration with all
the groups that might stand between it and the black masses. These
included the large Coloured community, the Indians and the small educated
black elite – many of whom were very anxious to collaborate with the white
regimes in those days.
These attitudes lingered until the Nationalist Party came to power in 1948
and began to enforce apartheid much more rigorously. The then 23-year-
old Alex and many black leaders, who ignored the intrinsic logic of the
Nationalists coming to power and continued to use the methods of an open
society, including meetings, petitions, demonstrations and rallies, to fight
the oppressive regime, paid dearly. La Guma’s career began within the
orbit of his father’s as he was elected to the executive of the Coloured
People’s Congress and the district committee of the Communist Party.
The first significant move to form a united opposition bringing together the
Coloureds, the African National Congress, the Indian Congress and the
white Congress Party of Democrats, which drew up the Freedom Charter
for a non-racial South Africa, led to the 1956-61 Treason Trials. La Guma
was among 156 leaders charged by the state. His acquittal was followed by
a series of imprisonments, bannings and house arrests until he left South
Africa in 1966.
La Guma’s writing started in prison and his early stories were smuggled out
to Nigeria and elsewhere for publication. A Walk in the Night, published in
1962, established his reputation as a powerful and original writer. The
reputation was confirmed by his subsequent works.
His early short stories didn’t directly reflect his own active involvement in the
political struggle. They were often the shortest of short stories, made short
and sharp statements that he left for the reader to absorb and recreate in
the imagination. A lot of the stories revolved around life in District Six, a
predominantly Coloured neighborhood of Cape Town where he was born,
which was later bulldozed and taken over by the apartheid regime under its
The “ convergence of his fiction with his long-held position as an
uncompromising revolutionary,” as Gerald Moore puts it, came later in the
novel, In the Fog of the Season’s End, published in 1972. In the
protagonist, Beukes, he produces a full-length portrait of a dedicated grass-
roots revolutionary, whose obscure course knits together all the lines of
resistance which tyranny couldn’t smother.
Alex La Guma died in 1985 while serving as the representative of the
African National Congress in the Caribbean. He was the winner of the 1969
Lotus Prize for Literature.
His works include:
• A Walk in the Night and Other Stories, (1962), Mbari (Publishers),
• And a Threefold Cord (1964), (East) Berlin, GDR: Seven Seas
• The Stone-Country (1967), (East) Berlin, GDR: Seven Seas Publishers.
• In the Fog of the Seasons' End (1972), London: Heinemann.
• A Soviet Journey (1978), Moscow: Progress Publishers.
• The Time of the Butcherbird (1979), London: Heinemann.
La Guma’s writing started in
prison and his early stories
were smuggled out to Nigeria
and elsewhere for publication.