A catharsis in the telling

2011-01-19 00:00

ONE of the realisations this book leaves with the reader is how difficult the ANC is finding it to reach a workable compromise between the draconian discipline imposed on its members in its liberation movement days and the indiscipline that is rampant now that it is a political­ party in government.

Blanche La Guma, widow of prominent writer and activist Alex La Guma, was a supporter, and ultimately victim, of the first and is highly critical of the second.

In the Dark with My Dress on Fire (the title is explained, horrifically and hilariously, in the introduction) is the story of La Guma’s life, from her impoverished, but happy childhood on the Cape Flats, through her working life as a midwife, marriage, motherhood, involvement in the struggle, detention, exile in Britain and Cuba and eventual return home.

La Guma emerges as a wholly admirable, if sometimes uncomfortable, personality. She is dedicated, both to her patients and the struggle against apartheid, upright and, above all, brave. It is easy to see how the treatment meted out to her, and many others “hardened” (her own word) her.

No doubt, being able to tell her story in this way has been a catharsis, but the more important impact should be on those who are now living in a society very different from the one La Guma experienced. The writing is accessible, without frills or stylistic fireworks, and without any posturing of the “look at what I suffered and what a hero I was” kind. It is a salutary­ reminder of South Africa’s past and how, beyond the big politics of ideals and rhetoric, it impacted on human beings.

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