Study of a great SA writer

2010-10-20 00:00

NO wonder the political history of the Western Cape is sometimes hard to grasp. This study of Alex la Guma’s writing and activism highlights ambiguities and conflicts within the Coloured community: identity shaped by colonialism and apartheid, but challenged by non-racialism; left wing ideology struggling with bourgeois respectability; and the debate around participation and non-collaboration.

La Guma was an activist-journalist turned novelist with artistic abilities. His politics were those of the Congress movement. Perhaps the most intriguing part of his output was a political comic strip he wrote for New Age in the 1950s. As the author of novels of social realism such as A Walk in the Night and A Threefold Cord he is regarded as the John Steinbeck of South Africa, although his later work drew inspiration from Ernest Hemingway.

He worked under appalling difficulties — for years harassed, detained, house arrested and banned; as well as charged with treason. His writing was regularly destroyed in police raids. In 1958 there was an attempt on his life and in the mid 1960s his wife Blanche was banned as well. Apartheid’s rulers required that they get permission to live together. After his arrest in the Communist Party roundup of 1965, the La Guma family accepted a one-way visa.

A portrait of Lenin adorned La Guma’s childhood sitting room. Perhaps this is why he adopted a largely uncritical view during visits to the Soviet Union, a regime equally harsh on writers. This paradox remains unanswered by Field, but La Guma’s orthodox communist views on struggle and culture led to disagreement with Wole Soyinka. The last ten years of La Guma’s life were spent as ANC representative in Cuba, where he died in 1985.

Unfortunately this book still has the feel of a thesis about it. Brief synopses of La Guma’s novels would have helped the general reader better understand both the literary and political analysis. And the pale, dense type does nothing to help.

Christopher Merrett

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