foreword to Alex La Guma (1925-1985)

This obituary of the South African writer Alex La Guma who died of cancer in 1985, was commisioned by Peter Kravitz for The Edinburgh Review No. 73. It was later reprinted with slight amendments for The End of a Regime? An Anthology of Scottish-South African Writing Aganist Apartheid.1 But the white racist regime did not end for a further three years.

Following its unbanning in 1990 the African National Congress [ANC] hosted a large conference on arts and culture in Johannesburg early 1993. Delegates and representatives of diverse organisations and groups had come from different parts of the world; and a large representation from the United Kingdom. My presence at the Johannesburg conference came about about via the poet and novelist Mandla Langa who then worked at the ANC office in London. He had visited Glasgow in 1990 to take part in The Self Determination and Power event. and we became friends. I was at the conference on a personal basis, just as one individual writer.

Having no official involvement and no defined role at the conference I was free to roam although this was against the advice of our hosts. At the 'safe' hotel location in Johannesburg where we met on the first day of our arrival a bomb had exploded a few days earlier, killing four people as I recall. The white racist regim was still in power of course and there was tremendous hostility towards what was happening. Two weeks before our arrival Chris Hani had been murdered. On the actual morning of our arrival Oliver Tambo died. Altogether it was a very emotional time and guests at the conference were aware of its historical significance.

We were staying at the central Carlton Hotel and it was a strange experience being in that place, bow ties and tuxedos, and a male version of Blossom Dearie tinkling the keys of a grand piano. Other residents attempted not to show interest in us while a few foreign residents just seemed embarassed. In the mornings taxis would ferry conference participants to the event. All the taxi drivers I saw from this hotel were white and I remember the atmosphere that I experienced inside their vehicles: extreme hatred - one old guy could hardly stop himself spitting at me. Fortunately the hotel was costing our hosts a fortune, we had to shift out after only two nights. So we wound up at a hotel in Hillbrow district for the remainder of the ten days; a tricky area to be in, an interesting area to go for a walk, but much less burdensome for myself than the Carlton.

At the conference I met another person from Glasgow, a young woman representing her branch of the Anti-Apartheid movement. In Glasgow the Anti-Apartheid movement was always active. Brian Filling's essay2 Nelson Mandela and the Freedom of Scotland's Cities gives information on the Scottish movement as a whole.

Until the Sharpeville massacre in 1960 the focus of the liberation struggle in South Africa had been on campaigns of non-violent resistance. At Sharpeville “seventy five members of the South African police force fired about 700 shots into the [‘perfectly amiable’3 ] crowd, killing sixty nine Africans and wounding 180. Most of them were shot in the back.” The Pan Africanist Congress of Azania as well as the ANC became outlawed thereafter, and “new strategic perspectives were imperative.”4 Oliver Tambo put it another way: “There can be no compromise with fascists.”5 The South African Communist Party had been banned since 1950 and it and the ANC now strengthened links. A year later its “leaders...formed a military organisation known as Umkhonto we Sizwe (MK) ‘to carry on the struggle for freedom and democracy by new methods.’”6

There are many people who feel it is useless and futile for us to continue talking peace and non violence against a government whose reply is only savage attacks against an unarmed and defenceless people.7

In response to this development of the liberation struggle the white racist regime stepped up its campaign of terror and oppression and “its utilisation of emergency military and police powers...marked the beginning of a new phase in South African politics.”8 Within three years security forces had captured and jailed seven leading figures. This took place at a farm in the suburb of Rivonia, not far from Johannesburg; the captured figures included Govan Mbeki, Nelson Mandela and Walter Sisulu.9 This was a massive blow to the liberation movement, one from which it did not recover for many years. Thousands of people were forced into exile, amongst them Alex La Guma. He had engaged actively in politics since the 1950s and, following five years’ house arrest and bouts of imprisonment without trial, he left the country. From that period and until his death in Cuba, 1985, he worked on behalf of the ANC; in between times, where and when possible, he engaged as a writer of fiction.

Alex La Guma (1925-1985)

'I'd like to sit down in a smart caffy one day and eat my way right out of a load of turkey, roast potatoes, beet-salad and angel's food trifle. With port and cigars at the end.'

'Hell,' said Whitey, 'it's all a matter of taste. Some people like chicken and others eat sheep's head and beans.'

'A matter of taste,' Chinaboy scowled. 'Bull, it's a matter of money, pal. I worked six months in that caffy and I never heard nobody order sheep's head and beans!'

'You heard of the fellow who went into one of these big caffies? Whitey asked, whirling this coffee around in the tin cup. 'He sits down at a table and takes out a packet of sandwiches and puts it down. Then he calls the waiter and orders a glass of water. When the waiter brings the water, this fellow says: "Why ain't the band playing?"'

We chuckled over that and Chinaboy almost choked. He coughed and spluttered a little and then said, 'Another John goes into a caffy and orders sausage and mash. When the waiter brings him the stuff he take a look and say: “My dear man, you've brought me a cracked plate.” “Hell,” says the waiter. “That's no crack. That's the sausage.”’

- an extract from a short story by Alex La Guma, a South African writer who died of a heart attack in 0ctober last year; he was sixty years of age and living in Havana, the A.N.C.'s representative in Cuba.

I first came upon his work a few years ago, the early collection entitled A Walk in the Night..1 0ne story in particular really stuck with me, A Matter of Taste, from which the above is taken. It is a marvellous bit of writing, telling of three men who meet over a pot of coffee in the middle of nowhere. They have a meandering conversation centred on food, then the two help the third hop a freight train heading for Cape Town wherein lies the possibility of working a passage to the U.S.A. In the racial parlance of white South African authority the two are coloured and the third is white. La Guma himself was coloured. If the reader forgets such distinctions it won't be for long for it is always there, the backdrop to his work, intextricably bound in with the culture he worked from within. Even in that brief extract above the divisions are evident, where Whitey sees choice and Chinaboy knows differently.

The title story of the collection is the short novel, A Walk in the Night, a very fine piece of writing which I did not appreciate at the first time of reading. There was something missing for me which I see now as structural. In a Matter of Taste that element existed and in consequence my appreciation of the story was much more immediate. A Walk in the Night is a bleak tale, set in the coloured District 6 which used to be one of the worst slums in Cape Town until it was done away with altogether, to create space for white building development. A young man by the name of Michael Adonis gets the sack after a verbal disagreement with a white man. For the rest of the evening he wanders about in a semi-daze, going for a meal, periodically meeting with acquaintances, would-be gangsters. Eventually, in a moment of stupidity he vents his anger on an elderly, white Irish alcoholic who lives in the same rooming house. The old man dies. Then the white policemen arrive and one of Michael's acquaintances winds up being mistaken for him, i.e. the killer. It is a memorable story, like most of the others in the collection. The structural element I spoke of as missing for me in my initial reading is to do with empathy; I found it very difficult to be with Michael Adonis, the world he moved in, it was alien to me. It was less alien on the second reading. The last time I read the story I knew the world he moved in even better.

Speaking purely as a writer it is good to feel anything and everything is possible in experiential terms. The existence of apartheid makes such a thing less easy to assume. In a good interview by Ian Fullerton and Glen Murray,10 the South African writer Nadine Gordimer, who regards La Guma as 'the most talented black novelist since Peter Abrahams,11 believes it is not possible for a white writer, like herself, in South Africa to write from within 'particular areas of black experience' and because of this

cannot create black characters. The same thing applies the other way about. But there is that vast area of our lives where we have so many areas of life where we know each other only too well, and there I see no reason why a black writer can't create a white character or a white a black.12

There is a fine point being attempted here although at first sight it might appear contradictory. In fact she doesn't quite bring it off, to my mind, and a question later seems to back off, saying there 'is something beyond the imaginative leap'. It has to be remembered that Gordimer was replying in an interview and to the best of my knowledge did not have the benefit of being able to work out her comments on the page. I think that if she had, to risk being presumptious, she may have brought in the use of basic structural techniques like the first and third party narratives, and developed her argument from there. In a straightforward manner, third party narrative allows the writer to create characters from the outside, where 'skins rubs against each other', but allows the writer to draw back from certain areas of experience, the sort which are to the fore psychologically and seem to demand the creation of character from the inside, more commonly wrought by the writer through first party narrative, although other methods are always possible.

Alex La Guma has written at least four novels; they are available in Heinemann's African Writers Series, just about the most exciting list of English-language writing available anywhere, but difficult to get a hold of and at the time of writing not a solitary thing by La Guma is available in Europe's largest reference library, Glasgow's Mitchell. I managed to read two of the novels, on which basis I take Lewis Nkosi’s point, that La Guma is only 'a competent novelist who after the flashing promise of that first collection of stories seems to have settled for nothing more than honourable, if dull, proficiency'.13

The Stone Country is an extended version of the short story Tattoo Marks and Nails; it is written in the third party and is based on the writer's personal experience of prison. There are many good things about the novel and too there are its defects, including a bit of a rushed, fairly predictable ending. But Yusef the Turk is a fine character and the Casbah Kid also, though occasionally La Guma glamourises a little too much. And the converse of that is the deadened Butcherboy, a creation that only manages to get beyond the stereotype of 'hulking bully'. The central character is George Adams, in prison for belonging to an illegal organisation which in the case of La Guma could simply have been the Communist Party since it has been banned for some forty years in that country. The novel is certainly 'competent' and La Guma's dialogue and working of the relationships betwen the prisoners often rises to the standard of the early stories. He uses the third party narrative in a restricted fashion, only rarely attempting to get within characters other than George Adams; thus we are seeing how folk act rather than how they think - which lies at the root of Gordimer's point as far as I understand it. This also provides a structural base for the reader unfamiliar with prison life in South Africa. I mean that to some extent we can be with George Adams in his dealings with an environment alien to him.

La Guma's last published novel seems to have been Time of the Butcherbird which appeared in 1979; this ended a silent period of seven years. His other two novels are And a Threefold Cord and In the Fog of the Season’s End. An anthology Apartheid and an account of his travels in the U.S.S.R., A Soviet Journey, do not seem to be available, though both are mentioned by his publisher. According to the publisher's blurb for Time of the Butcherbird the author gives 'a rounded picture of all the people in a small community inexorably moving towards tragedy'. I think this is what La Guma intended but I also think he fails and that he fails in a predictable way. He uses the third party narrative voice but does not restrict it. Instead he sets out to give the psychological workings of assorted individuals, blacks, whites and coloureds, but falls into the trap of stereotyping: the poor white woman, Maisie Stopes, and the militant black woman, Mma-Tau, are both obvious examples of this, the former being a sleazy semi-slut while Mma-Tau is a vast "Mother Earth". It has to be said that the writing is hurried, often clumsy, and requires a straightforward editing. The person for this would have been La Guma himself. Failing that maybe someone at the publisher's office should have performed the job properly. I'm not sure what Heinemann's policy is. Given the great literary merit of the African Writers Series the productions themselves are inferior, the actual paper cheap, the proofing generally substandard - and did La Guma censor himself in The Stone Country, or was it done by another hand?

La Guma's very fine skill lay in his dealings with day-to-day existence, his precise and 'concrete observation which is the correct starting point for all materialists'.14 The highpoint in Time of the Butcherbird is the introduction of Shilling Murile from the time that he is 'sitting in the ditch' straight through until the end of the period he spends with the shepherd Madonele, some 4000 words later, as they move off together 'through the crumbling dunes, smelling the smoke'. This long section is beautiful, a brilliant piece of writing. It shows the true mark of the artist. Perhaps this indicates why La Guma could have felt capable of trying a novel as ambitious as this. It was a risk and he failed. In that short story A Matter of Taste the risk was an easy sentimentality but he succeeded. The best artists always take risks.

Realism is the term used to describe the 'detailing of day-to-day existence' and most writers who advocate social change are realists. Incidentally, one of the areas of exclusion under the South African censorship Act is the 'advocation of social change;'15 and, of course, the writings of La Guma have always been banned there. Nothing is more crucial nor as potentially subversive as a genuine appreciation of how the lives of ordinary people are lived from moment to moment.

0rdinary people. In the African Horn the children of ordinary people are eating insects to stay alive. It is a fact of existence so alien to other ordinary people that it cannot be admitted; there is an element lacking, a sort of structural base that does not allow us to be with folk for whom starvation is death and not simply a concept. To face such a fact in literary terms seems be possibly only in the work of a writer prepared to encounter the minutiae of day-to-day existence. And as far as I can see any formal advances in prose have occurred directly because of that struggle; formal advances and 'imaginative leaps' may not be the same thing but they cannot easily be prised apart.

As long as art exists there are no areas of experience that have to remain inaccessible. In my own opinion those who think otherwise are labouring under a misapprehension which will lead to a belief that it is not possible to comprehend someone else's suffering, that we cannot know when someone else is in pain, that whenever I close my eyes the world disappears. It is an old problem. It has been kicking about in philosophy for several centuries. Just when it seems to have gone it reappears under a different guise and leads to the sorts of confusion we get in discussions to do with art and realism - naturalism - relativism - modernism - existentialism - and so on. 0ne good example of this concerns the work of Franz Kafka.168 He is probably the greatest realist in literary art of the twentieth century. His work is a continual stuggle with the daily facts of existence for ordinary people. Kafka's stories concern the deprivation suffered by ordinary people, ordinary people whose daily existence is so horrific other ordinary people simply will not admit it as fact, as something real, as something verifiable if they want to go and look. He seems to bend out line of vision so that we see round corners and perceive different realities. A few other artists also do this or attempt to; they work in the minutiae of existence, trying to gain access to and make manifest, the dark areas of human experience, and suffering.

Most artists from oppressed or suppressed groups are under pressure of one kind or another. Time becomes the greatest luxury. Without time the work just cannot be done properly. To read Time of the Butcherbird is to see a writer of enormous potential labouring to perform a workaday chore. But to criticise the lack of development in La Guma's prose179 is to assume certain general points concerning the role of the artist in society. La Guma would not be divorced from his society, no matter how hard the white South African racist authority tried to achieve it. His whole background was one of radical commitment. His father was James La Guma, a former president of the Coloured People's Congress. Both he and Alex were members of the Communist Party throughout their lives and in 1955 they were involved in the formation of the Congress Alliance. This comprised the Indian Congress, the African National Congress, the Coloured People's Congress and the white Congress of Democrats. When the treason trials took place in 1955-61 Alex was one of the 156 leaders of the Alliance to be charged by the State. Then began the series of imprisonments and house-arrests which only ended with his departure from South Africa in 1966. He lived in London from then until 1979, although the literary people in control down there seem never to have noticed. For several years he was secretary of the Afro-Asian Writers Organisation (in 1969 he had won their Lotus Prize for literature).

Exactly one week after La Guma's death the poet Benjamin Moloise was murdered on the gallows by South Africa's white racist authority. 0nly a few years before that another good young poet, Arthur Nortje,1810 committed suicide in 0xford while awaiting deportation "home".

In Roque Dalton's Declaration of Principles1911 the poet can only be - as far as the bourgeoisie is concerned - a clown, a servant or an enemy. In South African society at present there is no alternative role available, whether for ordinary people or ordinary poets.

As a personal footnote; one of my treasures is a telegram I received from the man in early 1983. When I was Writer-In-Residence to Renfrew District Libraries and organising the Paisley Writers’ Weekend I sent him an invitation to come and give a reading of his work. Unaware of his whereabouts I sent it c/o the A.N.C. office in London; eventually, much later, came a reply from Havana:




1 edited by Brian Filling and Susan Stuart [Aberdeen University Press 1991].

2 ibid

3 see South Africa: The Struggle for a Birthright, by Mary Benson

4 see The Struggle for South Africa: a Reference Guide to Movements, Organisations and Institutions, by Rob Davies, Dan O'Meara and Sipho Diamini, Vol 2 [Zed Books 1984]

5 in his essay Call to Revolution included in Apartheid: A Collection of Writings on South African Racism, edited by Alex La Guma [Lawrence and Wishart 1972]

6 see The Struggle for South Africa: a Reference Guide to Movements, Organisations and Institutions, by Rob Davies, Dan O'Meara and Sipho Diamini, Vol 2 [Zed Books 1984]

7 Nelson Mandela, quoted by Mary Benson in her South Africa: The Struggle for a Birthright

8 Sechaba July issue 1983

9 ibid, Harold Wolpe's brief article. The other members of the "Rivonia Seven" were Ahmed Kathrada, Dennis Goldberg, Elias Motsoaledi, Andrew Mlangeni and Raymond Mhlaba.

10 published in Cencrastus magazine, Autumn 1981

11 In her essay found in Aspects of South African Literature ed. C. Heywood (Heinemann 1976).

12 Cencrastus (Autumn 1981)

13 Tasks and Masks (Longman 1981)

14 see Nkosi

15 See Ian Fullerton's article in Cencrastus of summer 1980

16 8 The Hungarian critic Georg Lukacs has written the seminal work on Kafka and ‘modernism’.

17 In his Twelve African Writers Gerald Moore says differently. He believes La Guma's short stories are inferior to his novels which I find extraordinary.

18 Two of his poems can be read in The Race Today Review of February 1986.

19 Edinburgh Review number 69 (1985).