October 2015 marks the 30th anniversary of the death of one of the world’s great novelists, arguably the greatest Africa—let alone South Africa—has ever produced, a man who was not only a prodigiously talented writer but also a valiant hero of the anti-apartheid struggle.
Alex La Guma (1925-1985) is today, sadly, a forgotten colossus, but in the 1960s and ’70s, he was indubitably the black Dickens, with his fiction containing the sweep and moral power of his acclaimed Victorian predecessor. An astonishing creative artist as well as an ardent freedom fighter, he was the author of five masterful novels—A Walk in the Night (1962), And a Threefold Cord (1964), The Stone Country (1967), In the Fog of the Seasons’ End (1972) and Time of the Butcherbird (1979).
With his genius for creating vivid characters amid the brutality of apartheid, his compassion for the poor and the oppressed, his masterful storytelling technique and his unforgettably sensuous, beautifully ornate prose style, La Guma has seldom been bettered in any age or on any continent. Thirty years after his death, the name Alex La Guma as a novelist, an activist in the liberation struggle and a remarkable human being should be on all of our lips.
La Guma was born in District 6 on the outskirts of Cape Town, South Africa, Feb. 20, 1925. After leaving school, he worked as a factory hand and a clerk, then became a reporter for the New Age newspaper. Following imprisonment and much police harassment, he and his family left South Africa, settling first in London in 1966, then in Havana from 1978, where he served as the African National Congress’ political representative until his death in 1985.
When his debut novella, A Walk in the Night, was published in 1962, a new star of black South African writing came into view with astonishing alacrity. A remarkably assured first work, written while he was under house arrest for anti-apartheid activism, it articulated many of the themes that would come to dominate La Guma’s writing: fierce opposition to apartheid, a lyrical celebration of the working-class Coloured community, a potent use of nature as a mirror for the psychology of his protagonists, and the use of literature as a tool for liberty, equality and human dignity, all distinctively couched in seductively ornate prose and heavily infused with a Dickensian realism.
Hewn from the miasma of poverty and oppression that was the enclave of District 6, A Walk in the Night unrepentantly celebrates the lives, hopes and fragile dreams of the down-and-outs, prostitutes and gangsters who inhabited this tawdry, bohemian slum. It is the story of Michael Adonis, a young Coloured man who, after being sacked from his factory job following a confrontation with his racist Afrikaner boss, embarks upon a nocturnal odyssey of crime and murder amid the neighborhood’s squalid, insalubrious tenement blocks. The horrors of racism, patricide and the pain of rootlessness all play their part in the novel’s terse, bleak greatness.
At the time of publication, the book succeeded not only in giving the Coloured community a much-needed voice and, what’s more, a humane and dignified one, but also in exposing the horrors of apartheid to the outside world.
The title’s little-known, yet powerful, Shakespearean allusion (a quotation from the ghost scene in Hamlet) set the tone for La Guma’s body of work, in which he seamlessly combines the Coloured proletarian plight with a style deeply influenced by the Western literary canon.
Published in 1964, La Guma’s second novel, And a Threefold Cord (the title is a quotation from Ecclesiastes about human solidarity in the face of adversity), tells the tragic tale of a Coloured family of shanty dwellers on the Cape Flats and their daily struggle to survive amid crushing poverty, violence and the unforgiving Cape winter. Set against the iniquities of police brutality, township squalor and apartheid decadence, it is a lyrical and compassionate portrait of human misery and defiance.
The Stone Country (1967)—based on La Guma’s own experiences of incarceration as a result of his political activism—and In the Fog of the Seasons’ End (1972)—chronicling the machinations of the underground anti-apartheid resistance movement—are both finely crafted novels with dramatic tension and narrative pace and ought to have definitively sealed his literary reputation.
His last novel, Time of the Butcherbird (1979), is an apocalyptic, vengeance-driven masterpiece. Set against a backdrop of resistance to the forced removal of black people from the Bantustans, it recounts the fortunes of Shilling Murile, an African man who returns to kill his village’s Afrikaner oppressor in revenge for his brother’s murder.
With its brutally arresting denouement, this final creative flourishing—the culmination of the author’s lifelong physical and artistic struggle for emancipation and equality—is both a clarion call and a call to arms. In its depiction of a viciously wronged, yet dignified people finally standing up to their nefarious oppressors, the novel palpably boils with red-hot rage, resentment and retribution and is heavily symbolic of a South Africa on the verge of transition.
Why are La Guma’s novels still worth reading today? His books—like all truly great art—are both specific and wholly universal. While undeniably set in a particular historical milieu and responding to a set of highly idiosyncratic sociopolitical and racial concerns, they also effortlessly transcend these parameters and can be read simply as great human stories of considerable literary merit, articulating the eternal verities at the heart of the human condition with verve, panache and aplomb.
La Guma devoted the full power of his artistic genius to the dream of a nonracial South Africa, where all people could live in harmony and where no one was divorced of their humanity on account of their skin color. While La Guma’s avuncular love and deep concern for South Africa’s black population suffuses much of his oeuvre—and in so doing helped to instill several generations of Coloured South Africans with a tangible and life-affirming sense of pride and racial dignity—he was also a devout humanist who fought for justice and freedom for all.
Moreover, La Guma’s novels must not be confined to the genre of resistance writing that solely chronicles “man’s inhumanity to man.” As with many great writers, his work articulates a distinct world view—in this case, a bleak, but ultimately uplifting, vision of a godless universe, devoid of the comforting succor of any benevolent theistic doctrine, yet one still infused with palpable goodness. In his vision, good can—and, crucially, must—still be done, no matter how hard it is to do.
So why do we not hear more about La Guma today? Why are his books not on the national high school English syllabus or more widely celebrated as modern classics? The fact that so many people in South Africa, let alone America, do not even know his name is a testament to the appalling and demeaning neglect La Guma has suffered and is tantamount to literary, cultural and racial sacrilege.
Apart from winning one minor literary prize in 1969, La Guma has been consistently overlooked in favor of arguably lesser, but perhaps more politically expedient, authors. Despite several recent biographies, he has singularly failed to move beyond the confines of marginal black South African protest writing and hermetic Ph.D. theses onto the mainstream stage dominated by his white South African counterparts, such as Nadine Gordimer and J.M. Coetzee.
Has he been overlooked because of his communist sympathies, because he was Coloured or even because of his prose style? Some would argue that his work is dated, a product of a now thoroughly obsolete Marxist literary aesthetic of art in the service of politics. Others might point to the interethnic rivalries of the new Rainbow Nation, where Coloured people, especially in the Cape, are now arguably being marginalized at the expense of those deemed to be bona fide Africans. According to this view, La Guma has been overlooked because the fiercely proud sense of Colouredness that imbues his novels was unpalatable both to the old Afrikaner and now to the new, unashamedly Afrocentric government. There are equally those who see his florid prose style as verbose, overwrought and out of step with the modern literary fiction of today.
Maybe it is a combination of all these factors. Whatever the reason, it is high time to rescue La Guma’s work from this wholly unmerited oblivion. We must now act to rectify this grave oversight and make amends to commemorate his genius.
Let us be clear: His novels are superb works of literature, highly crafted and stylistically complex, with a devastatingly original use of imagery. Moreover, to see his novels as too didactic is grossly simplistic. While abhorring the wrongs of racism, capitalism and prejudice, La Guma was no mere preacher. He wrote with a quill, not with a sledgehammer.
His novels are still as painfully relevant today as they ever were—be it in South Africa or in the world at large. Even though apartheid has now ended, corrugated iron shacks still litter the Cape Flats, as does the gnawing indigence and cruel lack of opportunity for people of color. Beyond South Africa, the scourges of poverty, racism and oppression are still sadly universal. Be it Ferguson, Mo., church shootings in Charleston, S.C., or the Black Lives Matter campaign, injustice and inequality are still rife.
La Guma’s novels are actually that rare thing: a truly harmonious marriage of aesthetics and politics, of art for art’s sake, and literature in the service of human liberty and dignity; and as such, they deserve to be celebrated far more widely. Like William Shakespeare, Albert Camus and James Baldwin before him, he is an apostle of humanity, a beacon of humanity and, through his masterfully crafted stories of protest against injustice, a literary redeemer of humanity. Alex La Guma, a forgotten colossus? No, not any more. Just a colossus.
Lindsay Johns is a London-based writer and broadcaster.