Alex La Guma was a novellist and a Struggle icon, yet many young people in Cape Town have never heard of him, says the writer.
Alex La Guma was a novellist and a Struggle icon, yet many young people in Cape Town have never heard of him, says the writer.

La Guma a forgotten colossus

By LINDSAY JOHNS Time of article published Jun 6, 2018

Share this article:

Later this year, Cape Town airport will be officially renamed. Various politically expedient worthies are in contention but for me, one name on merit alone stands head and shoulders above the rest - the Mother City’s most spectacularly high-achieving, and most neglected son - the novelist and freedom fighter, Alex La Guma (1925 -1985).

Nowadays, La Guma is sadly a forgotten colossus but during his lifetime, he was one of South Africa’s leading novelists - arguably the greatest writer that Africa, let alone South Africa, ever produced.

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 Season’s End (1972) and Time Of The Butcherbird (1979).

He also wrote several short stories, all with working class, predominantly coloured protagonists fighting against the scourges of poverty, injustice and the debilitating evils of apartheid.

But he wasn’t only a prodigiously talented writer. La Guma was also an indefatigable political activist, and a valiant freedom fighter in the anti-apartheid Struggle who dedicated every fibre of his being to fighting against the pernicious, dehumanising and ignoble apartheid regime and the physical, moral and psychological wrongs against people who did not have white skin.

Born in District Six in 1925, La Guma left Trafalgar High School at 17, but as a self-taught person he read voraciously. Inspired by his father, who was a trade union leader, he was politically active from an early age and became a communist.

He worked as a factory hand and a clerk, then became a reporter for the New Age newspaper, and then a novelist.

After being a defendant in the infamous 1956 Rivonia Freedom Trial, surviving an assassination attempt by the secret police in 1958, then spells in the notorious Roeland Street prison and five arduous years of house arrest and brutal police harassment, La Guma finally went to London in exile with his wife Blanche and two children in September 1966.

He eked out a precarious existence as a penurious novelist while also flying all over the world on anti-apartheid business.

In 1978, he was appointed chief representative of the ANC in Havana, Cuba, where he lived until he died of a heart attack, aged 60, in 1985.

La Guma dedicated his life to the Struggle. He was a man of thought and action living in dangerous times, who had the rare talent, the indomitable spirit and the unyielding courage to both “talk the talk” and “walk the walk”. His literary oeuvre, his moral fortitude and his uncommon valour all merit being lauded and globally applauded.

In addition to being the "Black Dickens" - a consummate storyteller and a distinguished prose stylist - La Guma was a liberator, a fearlessly brave man who gave a voice in his fiction to the poor, the downtrodden, and the dispossessed.

Amid the cauldron of insanity which was South Africa, he strove for human freedom and dignity for all. When little was known of the horrors of apartheid internationally, he alerted the world to the nefarious legacy of man’s inhumanity to man.

Even though his novels are set in a very racially and socially specific milieu, La Guma, like Dickens, created beautifully delineated, nuanced characters and told timeless, universal stories of abiding contemporary relevance.

The great Kenyan novelist Ngugi wa Thiong’o said of him: “La Guma dramatised the resilience of the human spirit.”

Very few writers have been able to dramatise that resilience and articulate the majesty and meaninglessness of the human condition with as much aplomb, wry humour and stylistic felicity as La Guma did.

La Guma was a proudly African writer, a black revolutionary hero and vocal on the topic of coloured identity, but crucially one whose message of non-racial, compassionate humanism is exceedingly relevant in today’s increasingly racialised world.

While fiercely proud of his coloured heritage, his principal and abiding allegiance was to the only race which is not a social construct: the human race. Yet tragically, despite his myriad achievements, he has been consistently overlooked, especially in Cape Town.

His novels touched millions of lives, yet he is practically unheard of some 30 years after his death. Even more galling, as the furore over pulling down statues continues unabated, no one has yet commemorated La Guma in his native city.

This neglect is tantamount to literary, political and racial sacrilege and needs to end with alacrity.

Furthermore, in our tawdry age of corrupt politicians and besmirched ideals, young and old are craving new heroes and yearning for someone to believe in.

La Guma was a towering moral force, as well as a literary one. A man of unimpeachable integrity and exemplary virtue, he fought to make the world a fairer, kinder and more humane place.

A titan among men, his life and work are a glorious triumph of the human spirit over adversity, as well as a timely reminder of what true greatness is.

Naming the airport after him would send a profound and powerful message to both the inhabitants of this city, and those who visit, that these are the noble, life-affirming values which Cape Town cherishes.

La Guma’s story - one of true literary prowess, boundless courage and supreme self-sacrifice - is a beacon of enduring hope amid the moral darkness of our age.

That’s why more people need to know about his incredible life and his beautifully moving novels, let alone his seminal contribution to human flourishing.

Moreover, how many young people on the Cape Flats who have never even heard of La Guma and his empowering life story might be inspired to take him for a positive role model, as opposed to gangsters and materialistic rappers, and thus ameliorate their lives, if he is brought to their attention in this way?

Symbolism is important. Cape Town still possesses a majority coloured population, which should be reflected in the airport naming. Were La Guma not selected, it would be further proof that even when the perfect candidate is in full view, coloured people are still being marginalised in the Rainbow Nation.

Airports are, by their very nature, places of expanding geographical, cultural and intellectual horizons.

La Guma represented South Africa with zeal, determination and dignity on the world stage and travelled as far as London, Moscow, Havana, Stockholm, Kabul, Seoul, Beirut, Addis Ababa and Jamaica - all in the name of freedom.

He was a man of the people whose country was the world, and whose religion was to do good.

La Guma’s message of collective action, unity and togetherness in the fight to alleviate human suffering offers us all a much needed sense of belonging and anchorage in an often discombobulating world.

La Guma’s life, work and genius are as humbling as they are heroic and transcend colour, class and creed.

With his loving, humanistic world view, his international outlook and his global peregrinations, what he stood for affirms our common humanity, not to mention our innate human dignity, and is supremely fitting for 21st century Cape Town and its place in the world.

Johannesburg airport rightfully celebrates Oliver Tambo. It is now time for Cape Town to have the Alex La Guma International Airport - a meaningful and apposite choice of a truly great writer and a truly great human being for a truly great city.

Johns is a writer, broadcaster and non-residential fellow at the Hutchins Centre, Harvard University

Share this article: