Alex la Guma was awarded France's Chevalier des Arts et Lettres in 1985, yet is all but overlooked in his home country.
I woke up laughing on Monday last week. This mirth was from a late morning dream in which I had been singing in the quiet before the procession of clergy into a church service.

My dream song was Brenda Fassie’s My Black President. The Rector of St Luke’s in Salt River, Father Melvin Booysen, had tried to suppress a giggle and I’d chided him: “When you sing you either get the right tune or the right words. Today I was given the right words.”

I was in Havana, Cuba and children’s voices were coming up from the playground of a nearby school.

Over supper the previous night, my hosts, the Dean of Holy Trinity Cathedral, Jose Angel Gutierrez, and his esposa, Lucretia, had treated me to a delicious meal which included the tastiest pork.

Africa was close to their hearts, the nexus of their pride in the practical ways of Cuban solidarity. The comment of a Cuban general was cited: “The Soviets gave the guns, but we (Cubans) gave our lives.” A brother of Lucretia had fought in Ethiopia and her brother-in-law had done a tour of duty in Angola.

My hosts were intrigued to learn about my fellow Capetonian, Alex la Guma, who had died of a heart attack in Havana in October 1985.

They accompanied me to the Cementerio de Christobal where the remains of Alex are interred in a grave next to the mausoleum of the parents of Jose Marti. Marti, a Latin American intellectual colossus, played a pivotal role in the Cuban War of Independence against Spain.

The Very Rev Michael Weeder is the current Dean of St George's Cathedral. Picture: Leon Muller

Lucretia had brought flowers from the Deanery garden for Alex’s grave. These she placed next to those brought a few days earlier by our ambassador in Havana. Respect is an aspect of love.

Though La Guma’s writing, much of which is set in District Six, is celebrated in world literature, Cape Town is silent about his contribution to the struggle for a free land and people.

There is a need for an engagement with mayor Patricia de Lille on this matter. I am sure that our Archbishops Emeriti, Desmond Tutu and Njongo Ndungane, along with Zackie Achmat - given their honoured status in our city - would support a conversation focused on recognising, regardless of race, many of the founding stalwarts of our struggle.

These stalwarts include Alex and his father James la Guma, the Black Bolshevik; founding member of the United Women’s Organisation (UWO) Annie Salinga, a community organiser who raised her children in Retreat; union organiser Johnny Gomez ; Hettie September, a union shop steward and I believe the first woman to be banned; Betty Radford, the founding editor of The Guardian newspaper.

It is fitting that La Guma lies buried in a country that acknowledges its presence in Angola was part-reparation for the debt incurred by slavery. Many Cubans have descendants from people of the western shores of Africa.

I have no immediate recall about any significant memorial to slavery or a descendant of slaves in our city other than those obscure blocks in Church Square on Spin Street.

This is in contrast to Jamaica’s Emancipation Park in Kingston, which I visited last Saturday. Two life-size statues of an African man and woman, mark the entrance to the park. No visible narrative indicates the reason for the memorial other than what is implicit in the word “emancipation.”

The arts are the best means to express the sigh of longing, dulled by the opiate of amnesia.

Father Mark Bozzuti-Jones, a native of Jamaica, says his compatriots are explicit in the way they refer to someone. Words like “fatty” and, in his case, “black man” rolls over their lips with non-judgmental ease.

From under the shade of an almond tree in Emancipation Park, as I walked past banners naming those honoured on Heroes Day, drifted a friendly, “Hey brown, baldy man, where ya fraahm?”

The Motherland, I told him.

A “nuff luv” reply blessed me, a fellow African and son of Jah, along my way. These were words said in a tone of love sung from the heart.

* The Very Rev Michael Weeder is the Dean of St George’s Cathedral in Cape Town.

** The views expressed here are not necessarily those of Independent Media.

Weekend Argus