Alex La Guma


Obituary in Sechaba, January 1986

Alex La Guma, who died of what has been described as a "massive heart attack" in Havana on 11th October this year, was one of the most talented writers the movement has produced. Very few, if any, have described the lives of the ghetto dwellers so vividly and starkly as he has done. And, since the people who live mainly in the areas which he describes so graphically are Coloured, it can truly be said that his is the authentic voice of this oppressed section.

But above all, Comrade Alex was an internationalist and freedom fighter. He lived and worked for the liberation of the oppressed. At the time of his death he was the Chief Representative of the ANC in Cuba.

La Guma came partly of French and Malagasy stock. His father, Jimmy La Guma, had played a very prominent role in the Industrial and Commercial Workers'''''''' Union and the Communist Party during the twenties and thirties. They were traumatic times for these organisations. Many prominent figures found themselves cut adrift and in the political wilderness for some time. But most of these victims, like S.P. Bunting, Bill Andrews and La Guma Senior, returned to continue the fight when those responsible for the expulsion faded from our political scene.

Alex was born into and during this political cleansing process in 1925.

It was only natural that he would be greatly influenced during his formative years by such a politically motivated parent. When World War II broke out, Jimmy La Guma joined the Indian-Malay Corps, and in 1940 went up north to participate in the Abyssinian campaign as a staff sergeant. Alex was in his middle teens. His father was finally demobilised in 1947, when Alex was 22 years of age.

By this time, Alex had matriculated from Trafalgar High School and had gone on to the Cape Technical College. He worked in turn as a clerk, book-keeper and factory hand. He had graduated politically from the Young Communist League, and became a fully-fledged member of the Communist Party. He also became a member of the Franchise Action Council to oppose the disfranchisement of the Coloured people.

He went through a very lean period after the Nationalist Party came to power in 1948. But everybody who knew him well was certain that sooner or later he would surface again. And he did so with a vengeance.

Later, when the South African Coloured People''''''''s Organisation as formed, he and his father played a very active part in its affairs. As a matter of fact, their house in the lower part of District Six was given over to the Movement to be used as the headquarters for this organisation. Together with Reg September and Barney Desai, he helped to revive the militancy of the Coloured people in the struggle against the racist government.

Alex married Comrade Blanche Herman, who worked side by side with him in his political life thereafter. They went to live in Athlone, which today is in open revolt against the Botha regime. It was there that in 1962 he was placed under 24-hour house arrest for five years. But in 1966, before this term expired, Alex and his family went into exile and lived in London for many years before being posted to Cuba.

After joining New Age newspaper as a journalist, Alex appeared to gain the necessary confidence in his own ability, which was to lead to the flowering of one of the finest literary talents to come out of South Africa. He also revealed an artistic talent as a cartoonist, with a strip that appeared weekly in our Congress newspaper.

His political activities in the fifties led to his arrest together with 155 others in the infamous Treason Trial, which for him lasted until 1960, when he was released. In the State of Emergency following on the Sharpeville massacre, he was arrested again, and held in Worcester prison for over five months.

Over a period of years La Guma was blacklisted, and received a spate of banning orders which isolated him politically and socially from his colleagues and friends.

But the irony of it all was that these restrictions may very well have provided him with the time to exploit his undoubted skill at writing, which was in fact his greatest contribution towards exposing the wickedness of the apartheid regime.

The ghettos and shanties of the Cape were his milieu, and he never depicted the lives of the impoverished with either rancour or self-pity. The powerful strokes of his pen painted a picture of the starkness and reality of their lives. He allowed the tin and hessian fabrics of the rat-infested, leaking hovels to spell it out. The hell on earth amidst the paradise of the whites emerged loud and clear from such novels as A Walk in the Night and Threefold Cord.

District Six has been proclaimed a "white" area now, and many of the houses and shops razed to the ground by the racist bulldozers. It was an area graphically described by La Guma as one where the down-and-outs, prostitutes and gangsters were "doomed for a period to work the night." In his first novel, A Walk in the Night, La Guma has ensured that the guilty will not escape their just deserts. This infamous ghetto, instead of being wiped off the face of the earth as the guilty men hoped it would be, will, in this book, remain alive for future generations to ponder over man''''''''s inhumanity to his fellow men.

La Guma''''''''s description of places like Windermere, Elsies River and Nyanga, which are so vividly portrayed in his books - the shanty towns of galvanised iron and cardboard structures - could apply to thousands of similar places in every corner of the land. His vivid pictures are exactly echoed by these stanzas from Slumtown, by Phyllis Haring:

"Weary little children,

Rickets in their bones;

Got no dolls or marbles,

Playing games with stones.

Crowded little shanty,

Got no water tap,

Mother on her doorstep,

Baby on her lap.

People''''''''s souls are rooting

In the yard behind ...

Woman with consumption,

Beggar going blind.

"And when you''''''''re leaving slumtown,

When your tour is done,

Turn and see our hovels

Huddled in the sun ...

Rows and rows of coffins,

See them from afar -

It''''''''s a living graveyard

Where my people are."

In his other books such as In the Fog of the Season''''''''s End, La Guma has depicted life in the underground movement, and the torture and death suffered at the hands of the secret police.

At the time of his death, Alex was not only our ambassador in Cuba but was also the Secretary-General of the Afro-Asian Writers'''''''' Union, as well as a member of the World Peace Council.

The Lotus Award, which is the highest literary distinction given by the Afro-Asian countries, was received by him from the hands of the late Indira Gandhi at a large ceremony in New Delhi. More recently, in Moscow, he was awarded the Order of the Friendship of the Peoples of the USSR.

His stature as a freedom fighter and as a novelist has been established throughout the world. His books have been translated and published in many parts of Africa, Asia and the socialist countries, as well as being increasingly referred to in the English-speaking world.

But what of the man himself? Those of us who were fortunate enough to "grow up" in the Movement with Alex relished his company and comradeship, and marvelled at the manner in which the man and his works matured. Many of us remember him as a tall, gangling youth, full of fun and always ready for a lark. He loved mimicking the mannerisms and jargon of the Cape Coloured working class. This he did out of sheer love and togetherness with them. La Guma was an extrovert, and retained his love of fun and love of life right until the end. The prestige which he gained and the respect he attained throughout the world never spoilt him. He mixed well with the most eminent writers and poets in the world, but retained the common touch which made it easy to fraternise with him. He was a great favourite of our youth in Havana.

He retained a nice edge of aggression and sharp criticism against both paternalism and racism, and was ever alert to come down heavily on these two vices, but I have watched him tongue-lash a PAC man at a social for daring to deny the right of whites to become integrated in the freedom struggle.

He was a devoted family man, and doted on his sons, and enthused about their rapid growth as teenagers when they grew beyond his own six foot stature.

With his more intimate comrades, and especially around the New Year, which most "Kaapenaars" celebrate with a Tweede Nuwe Jaar, Alex loved nothing better than to relax and get geared up for his favourite Cape songs and ditties, which he sang into the early hours of both New Year days. The "skillie" slang and jokes would keep us in fits of laughter - and more than a little nostalgia.

He loved the Cape, and especially Cape Town, with a deep patriotic emotion and when this little bit of "regional chauvinism" was pointed out to him, he would shrug his shoulders and say, "Who can blame me? - when Drake himself said it was the fairest Cape of them all, when he completed his round the world trip."

When I last spoke to Comrade Alex in London a few months ago and asked him if he was writing another book, he replied that he had already finished it and now needed to put it to paper - and pointing to his head he said, "It is all there, and I have been storing it up for a long time now."

Having read most of his novels and short stories, I''''''''ve often enthused at his mastery of words, his adept turn of phrase and vivid descriptions of both beautiful scenery and miserable townships. I''''''''ve enjoyed his writing immensely but have always been left with the impression that somewhere inside him was a great, jumbo-sized classical novel struggling to emerge.

Lewis Nkosi has compared his writing in some respects to that of Dostoevsky, which, when one considers that the Russian writer is one of the greatest of all time, is high praise indeed. But while I agree that La Guma was a vastly talented writer, the impact that his novels had on me was that he had a very good mixture of the genius of a Damon Runyon mixed up with some of the pre-revolutionary prophecies of Gorki. But Alex wrote it as it is. Alex''''''''s writing was essentially La Guma.

At his funeral in Havana on 20th October, the eulogy was delivered by Jesus Montand, an alternate member of the Cuban Political Bureau. The ANC was officially represented by our Secretary-General, Comrade Alfred Nzo.

After hearing about his death, the thought struck me that perhaps Comrade Alex took with him to the grave that novel which would have put the seal on La Guma as a great writer in the mould of Dostoevsky or Dickens; the novel he told me was in his head.

"ANC Veteran"
[The University of Cape Town paid tribute to Alex La Guma with an exhibition in the African Studies Library in November 1985.

Chandramohan, Balasubramanyam, A Study in Trans-Ethnicity in Modern South Africa: The Writings of Alex La Guma, 1925-1985. Lewiston, New York and Lampeter, Wales: Mellen Research University Press, 1992.

See also tribute to Alex La Guma in Rixaka, cultural journal of ANC, No. 3/86.]