Dictionary of Literary Biography Biography Between 1956 and 1985 Alex La Guma published more than a dozen short stories, five novels, and a travel book on the Soviet Union (1978). In addition he wrote many essays on the political struggles in South Africa and edited a collection of writings on apartheid (1971). His work has been translated into twenty languages. As a creative writer and political activist he was honored by several national governments, and as a writer who addressed the central questions of life in South Africa, he established himself as an important literary figure both in Africa and in the rest of the world.
Alex La Guma was born on 20 February 1925 in Cape Town. He was the son of Jimmy La Guma, president of the South African Coloured People's Congress and member of the Central Committee of the Communist party, and Wilhelmina Alexander La Guma, who worked in a cigarette factory. In a country tragically plagued by racism, he grew up in the "Cape coloured" (mixed race) District Six. Not only did he learn of racism early in his life (at a segregated circus when he was eight) but he also grew accustomed to the poverty most children of his race experienced. Since his father was active both in the fledgling union movement and the newly founded South African Communist party, the young Alex was introduced early to the important political issues of the day and learned to do without his father's presence at home. He attended Upper Ashley primary school, Trafalgar High School, and Cape Technical College (1941-1942). He did not complete his studies because he was interested in either joining the fight against fascism in Spain or in seeing combat in World War II. Rejected as a volunteer because he was too young and underweight, he found jobs in a furniture factory and at Metal Box Company. He also became active in the union movement and helped to organize a strike. Dismissal from Metal Box only made him more militant, so that by 1947 he had joined the Young Communist League. When the Afrikaner Nationalist party won the 1948 South African election on the platform of apartheid, La Guma decided to become a full member of the Communist party. When the party was banned in 1950, he was listed under the Suppression of Communism Act. On 13 November 1954 he married Blanche Valerie Herman, a midwife and office manager; they later had two sons. La Guma was active with the South African Coloured Peoples Organization, and he and 155 other antiracist leaders were put on trial in 1956 for treason. In December of that same year La Guma published his first short fiction, "A Christmas Story", in the journal Fighting Talk.
La Guma was already more than thirty years old when his stories began to be published in Cape Town newspapers. In 1955 he had started a job with one of those papers, New Age, as a journalist reporting especially on his community. It is not surprising, therefore, that most of his stories and novels deal with people and situations in that same oppressed community. All but two of his stories were published between 1956 and 1966, while he was still living in South Africa. Often stories were written while he was busy on a novel, so story material is at times expanded on in the novel. Most of his stories deal with the conflict of the races inside South Africa and are derived from incidents told to him or from actual events.
"Nocturne" (in Quartet, 1963; originally published as "Etude," New Age, 24 January 1957) refers to Chopin's music, but it is also a reminder of La Guma's own love of classical music and his frequent visits to Cape Town City Hall to hear the orchestra play. In the story the protagonist, Harry, is part of a trio planning to rob a factory. While he and his compatriots are discussing their plans for the robbery, Harry's attention is caught by music emanating from a piano across the street. When the discussion is over, Harry follows the sound of the music and finds himself in a dilapidated building where an attractive girl is playing a nocturne. Although he is transported into a world of loveliness, he remembers his date with the other robbers and has to leave. He is, however, invited back by the girl, and he departs with his head full of the notion that "it would be real smart to have a goose [girl] that played the piano like that."
In "Nocturne" La Guma portrays the world of music in an exquisite and enchanting manner. This beauty is contrasted with the ugly reality of the racist world that Harry survives in, the hopeless poverty of the people who inhabit the building from which the music originates, and the awful-looking building itself. Yet, among these ruins, La Guma shows that Harry is capable of absorbing good music and living a life free of crime. Although La Guma places heavy blame on the unjust sociopolitical environment, he also insists that his characters should do everything possible to transcend this environment in a manner more positive than indulging in crime.
Harry would rather dream of a life without sin than do anything positive about it. This escapist view is also found in another of La Guma's early stories, "Out of Darkness" (in Quartet). According to La Guma, this is a true story of a man he met in prison. The story deals with the theme of playing white and the tragic consequences of this practice. The narrator, Old Cockroach, is in a prison cell telling how he landed in jail for killing his best friend, Joey. Old Cockroach had been "a teacher at a junior school and was doing a varsity course in his spare time" when he met and fell in love with the "beautiful" Cora. All his life plans, including marriage, were centered on Cora. But Cora "was almost white" and realized that in an absurd racist country such as South Africa one can benefit from one's light skin. Hence, she frequented "white places, bioscopes, cafes." Old Cockroach is black and was therefore unable to take Cora to these places. Cora "drifted away" from him, but he "kept loving her." Cora finally told him "to go to hell" and called him "a black nigger." Instead of revenging himself on Cora, Old Cockroach surprisingly killed his friend Joey, who had called him "a damn fool for going off over a damn play-white bitch."
In this story La Guma shows a remarkable ability to pace his narrative and to introduce the surprise twist at the right moment, and his penchant for creation of dialogue and vivid description is also apparent. His themes remain relevant to the concerns of his community, as they do in further stories about the colored community's dealings with whites and blacks. To pass themselves off as white in the white community, coloreds have to live their lives literally in darkness. As a "play white" Cora must leave her colored suburb for work before dawn and arrive home after nightfall. And her social life with whites must occur far away from the prying eyes of other coloreds. This anxiety-ridden, clandestine life of stealth is referred to again in the stories "A Glass of Wine" and "Slipper Satin" (both also in Quartet). In "A Glass of Wine" a young white boy is in love with the shebeen queen Charlette, Ma Schrikker's brown daughter. The courtship has taken place in secret, but the narrator and his drunken friend Arthur are suddenly witnesses to it. Arthur's drunken state allows him to question the young couple about their courtship and marriage plans. Since his questions are illogical and embarrassing in South Africa's world of racism, he is finally banished from the shebeen. The ending of the story reveals South Africa's cruel absurdity. When Arthur wonders aloud why he was ejected from the shebeen, the narrator answers: "You and your wedding.... You know that white boy can't marry the girl, even though he may love her. It isn't allowed." Arthur responds to this revelation by uttering, "Jesus. What the hell." The use of both "Jesus" and "hell" in one breath sums up in a devastating way one aspect of racism in South Africa.
In "Slipper Satin" it is not only the government-enforced law forbidding love encounters between whites and blacks that condemns the protagonist Myra; it is also the colored community itself, which acts as a vigilante force against such meetings. Myra, a colored girl, is in love with Tommy, a white boy. One evening at Tommy's house their privacy is invaded by the police. Aware that he has violated the "Immorality Act" and fearful of exposure to the white populace, Tommy shoots himself before he can be taken to the police station. For her part in the affair, Myra spends four months in jail. In the main, "Slipper Satin" deals with Myra's return from jail and with the violent reaction of her mother and community to her so-called crime. Myra has left prison with a determination to pick up her life and to begin again. After badgering from her mother and community, she decides to become a prostitute.
Interracial arrogance is also the theme of "The Gladiators" (in A Walk in the Night, and Other Stories, 1967). Though the story appears to be about a boxing match between a black and a colored South African, the "play white" phenomenon crops up again. Furthermore, La Guma shows that racism exists in the black community, too. Because blacks with lighter pigmentation receive a greater largesse from the apartheid system, they consider themselves superior to those with darker skins.
The colored boxer, Kenny, who "just missed being white," has only contempt for his black opponent. He considers the black boxer to be a "bastard," a "tsotsi" (street thug), and not one of "our kind." While Kenny is in control of the fight, the colored boxing fans share his racist views. But in keeping with crowd behavior, they shift their loyalty to the black boxer as soon as he takes command of the fight. La Guma deals deftly with the racist overtones and also makes skillful use of boxing language and description.
Often the cruel aspects of racism are reinforced by class behavior. This is especially true in the story "At the Portagee's" (in A Walk in the Night, and Other Stories), in which an immigrant from Portugal owns a café in the colored District Six. Because Portuguese immigrants are often dark in pigmentation and Catholic in religion, they are barely tolerated among the Afrikaners. They tend, therefore, to live in lower-middle-class white suburbs that border colored districts and to own cheap shops in the colored areas, selling mostly steak and chips, egg rolls, coffee, fish, and Coca Cola. Although in the story the café owner's appearance is in keeping with the sweaty shabbiness of his establishment, and he is dependent on the nonwhite consumers, he displays utter contempt toward them. As an immigrant, he regards it as his duty to be loyal to the racist policies of the country. However, since he is not fully accepted into the white community, he shows his frustration (and supposed superiority) by being rude to all his colored customers, especially those who give him reason to react.
"The Lemon Orchard" (in A Walk in the Night, and Other Stories) and "Coffee for the Road" (in Modern African Stories, 1964) deal with events that actually occurred in South Africa during racial violence when members of the oppressed groups finally refused to accept the injustices of the apartheid system. "The Lemon Orchard" is based on the savage beating of a colored teacher in the rural town of Calvinia in the Cape. The teacher had charged the minister of the Calvinia Dutch Reformed Church with assault, "and as this was regarded by the Afrikaner community as an unheard of affront to God's servant by a Hotnot [colored person]," the teacher was taken at night from his home and "beaten up savagely." La Guma's story keeps the main outline of the actual event; but instead of simply concentrating on the bloodthirsty act that is to occur, he emphasizes more subtly the atmosphere of sterile, brutal racism tinged with the fertile, fragrant growth of a lemon orchard. As earlier, in "Nocturne," he displays an impressive ability to contrast human ugliness with nature's beauty, creating an authentic climate in which a terrible deed is to be enacted.
"The Lemon Orchard" gives the reader an excellent demonstration of how La Guma portrays the brutality of South Africa. In ironical, understated language, tone, and action, ominous hints are given of the fate that the teacher is about to suffer at the hands of five white men. The title itself is clouded in irony. The lemon fruit is a bittersweet citrus variety, and the smell it gives off is sharp and pungent. The beating the teacher is to receive is to occur in the lemon orchard, where the "fragrant growth" and "the pleasant scent of the lemons" contrast sharply with the bitterness of the human deed. Pleasant as the orchard may be, it is also "a small amphitheatre" where the human hyenas are to victimize the black man to ensure that apartheid's authority is not challenged.
"Coffee for the Road" demonstrates well how La Guma used his personal experiences and those of other people in his work. According to La Guma, "this true story was narrated to me by an East Indian South African woman. I, of course, created the atmosphere, dialogue and so on." As in most of La Guma's stories, the climactic moment is short and intense, as the tired, harried protagonist of the story, in frustration, hurls a thermos flask at a white serving woman. But to arrive at this point, La Guma provides the reader with many intimate and informative details of geography, racial division, and human frustration.
The protagonist, a "dark, handsome, Indian [woman]," is driving the family automobile from Johannesburg to Cape Town, roughly one thousand miles. The three-day journey is in its second day when the chief incident occurs. Accompanying the woman is her whining and restless six-year-old daughter, Zaida, and her slightly older son, Ray. She has driven throughout the night because in racist South Africa there are no hotels open to them. At the insistence of Zaida, she decides finally to pull up outside a café on the main street of a rural Karoo town to seek coffee. As in the case of hotels, the Afrikaner-dominated rural areas have no cafés where nonwhites can sit down to enjoy food and refreshment. All that is available is "a foot-square hole" in "the wall facing the vacant space" of the café, where, at the point of the woman's arrival, "a group of ragged Coloured and African people stood in the dust and tried to peer into it, their heads together, waiting with forced patience."
The woman refuses to join the humiliating line and proceeds to walk confidently into the café, where the only customer present is "a small white boy with tow-coloured hair, a face like a near-ripe apple and a running nose." The serving woman, who is described as having "a round-shouldered, thick body and reddish-complexioned face that looked as if it had been sand-blasted into its components parts," is surprised and stunned by the presence of a nonwhite person inside the whites-only café and screams in disgust at the woman when she asks that her flask be filled with coffee. Although startled by this screeching, insulting outburst by the white serving woman, the Indian woman's years of suffering humiliation at the hands of whites suddenly reaches the breaking point, and while accusing the white woman of being "bloody white trash," she hurls her thermos in disgust at the white woman, striking her forehead and causing her to bleed. As she storms angrily out of the café, her actions and brisk movements are stared at in disbelief by the ragged collection of nonwhites on the outside. She leaves the depressing town, vaguely aware that repercussions will follow. White policemen, complete with "riot-truck" and "holstered pistols," are given orders to set up a roadblock on the highway and to arrest the woman.
In "A Matter of Taste" (in A Walk in the Night, and Other Stories) La Guma shows that regardless of the racist laws in South Africa, which seek to destroy harmonious communication between the races, there is a natural propensity among human beings to share their joy and despair. This gives reason for both hope and pessimism: hope reveals itself in the fact that the races can cooperate and aid each other; but this hope threatens the racist governors of the system and causes them to create more laws that can prevent cooperation. The story deals with two black men who have "just finished a job for the railways" and a scruffy, hungry white man who harbors dreams of working on a boat that will take him to the United States. The black men are poor and are unable to afford supper--all they possess is some coffee, which they are in the process of boiling "some distance from the ruins of a onetime siding." When they are ready to serve the coffee, they are surprised by the arrival of the white man, who is "thin and short and had a pale white face covered with a fine golden stubble." His shabby appearance indicates that he is among the discarded of white society and that he has not had food for some time. His physical condition is clearly worse than that of the black men. But since he is also a victim of hunger he becomes one with them.
However, before a bond can be established among the three men, there are certain practices of the racist system that must be overcome. Chinaboy, the black who first observes the arrival of the white man from "the plantation," is suddenly and uneasily interrupted in his task of pouring the coffee. Chinaboy's unease stems from the fact that although he and his friend are "camped out" near an abandoned railway siding, whites are generally suspicious of such occurrences and respond by arming themselves and then forcibly ejecting the blacks from the land. Second, his unease reflects his indoctrinated belief that whites are far too privileged to appear in such shabby dress. The white man is also uneasy: he is not accustomed to seeking aid from blacks, but his hunger forces him "hesitantly" and hopefully to remark, "I smelled the coffee. Hope you don' min'."
In a lesser writer the opportunity to exploit this delicate moment in a propagandistic way would be ideal. La Guma, however, weaves his tale so that he may hint at the unusualness of the encounter but still continue with his chief purpose: to show that at certain levels the racist system is also a class system affecting both white and black. Hence the focus of the story becomes the common desire of the three men to have a proper meal rather than the meager offering of a cup of coffee. The difference in race becomes secondary to their culinary needs, and even when they refer to each other in usually contemptuous racist terms such as "Whitey" and "boys," they do it more in a friendly than in a pernicious manner. In a bantering tone Chinaboy invites the new "table boarder" to eat, and the narrator jokingly refers to the "sparing" of "some of the turkey and green peas." Chinaboy, after indicating to the "white boy" that they are not "exactly [at] the mayor's garden party," begins to long for "a piece of bake bread with [the] cawfee." This longing by Chinaboy gives rise to a discussion of foods that are not then available to the poverty-stricken threesome and, once again, suggests the parameters of their world.
The stories "A Matter of Honour" (New African, 1965), "Tattoo Marks and Nails," and "Blankets" (the latter two in A Walk in the Night, and Other Stories) are anecdotes of individual interest rather than being in the tradition of seriously examining race relations in South Africa. These vignettes of life in District Six and in the Roeland Street jail are considered by La Guma to be an "exercise of the imagination and the testing of my ability to observe and to report interesting anecdotes." In "A Matter of Honour," a slight story about a bragging former boxer and a jilted husband, the narrator's sensitivity and kindheartedness, and the surprise ending, seem to preoccupy La Guma. "Tattoo Marks and Nails" also ends in a surprising way, when the narrator, Ahmed the Turk, prepares to disrobe and in so doing demonstrate that he is not the cheating, imprisoned World War II soldier, also named Ahmed, who had been humiliated by his fellow prisoners with a shameful tattoo (the phrase "A CHEAT AND A COWARD" on his chest). In "Blankets" La Guma deals to some extent with the life of the unfortunate drunk and bully Choker. By highlighting moments when Choker uses certain types of blankets to create different moods, La Guma offers insights into the bully's life.
"Thang's Bicycle," written in 1975 when La Guma first visited Vietnam, near the end of the Vietnam War, shows that it is not difficult for him to write stories of interest and concern about situations that are different from those in South Africa. His characteristic qualities of creating atmosphere, portraying character, designing realistic dialogue, and fashioning an interesting and imaginative tale are all very much present. The reader finishes the story more aware of the devastation in Vietnam and appreciating the roles that both humans and machines played in the struggle.
La Guma's first novel, A Walk in the Night, was published in 1962. He completed the short novel in 1960 but was arrested under the state of emergency the government declared immediately after the massacre of sixty-nine blacks at Sharpeville and the unsuccessful assassination attempt on Prime Minister Hendrik Frensch Verwoerd. From his cell La Guma instructed his wife to mail the manuscript to Mbari Publications in Nigeria. The manuscript, however, was kept deliberately by authorities at a South African post office for more than a year, and his wife was fortunate to retrieve it. She eventually handed it to Ulli Beier of Mbari when he made a personal visit to South Africa in 1961.
As a reporter and columnist for New Age, and as an active opponent of the apartheid regime, La Guma had written extensively about the plight of colored people. A Walk in the Night both embodies and extends the work he was doing as a journalist and political activist. In it he demonstrates that the colored community is "struggling to see the light, to see the dawn, to see something new." The novel concerns the social, economic, and political purpose of the colored community. The developing consciousness of the community is depicted through the development of major and minor characters and through the setting of District Six. First there is Michael Adonis's gradual movement from being a law-abiding citizen to the desperate position of being a "skollie," or local thug. Second, the novel studies the development of the lives of Willieboy and the "skollies" and shows how inevitably Adonis will either become like Willieboy or the "skollies." Third, through the study of the perverse police work of Constable Raalt, the reader is given an insight into the objectives and modus operandi of the South African white police. Last, La Guma describes the conditions of living in District Six and clearly demonstrates why the lives of the various characters develop as they do.
The development of consciousness in Adonis is closely tied to the racial problems in South Africa and the social environment that exists in District Six. Adonis lost his job because he refused to cower to the cheap insults of a white worker. In his anger he confronts Willieboy, who escapes the pressures of Adonis's work experience because he refuses to work at all. He prefers to live parasitically off his friends and strangers. In a way Adonis envies Willieboy's nonchalant attitude, but he is too defiant and vengeful to accept slothfulness. At this stage Adonis makes contact with the "skollies" as well, but since they live violently off others, he shies away from joining their group.
Upon returning to his shabby room in a dilapidated building, he confronts the aging, discarded, poor-white Uncle Doughty. At the invitation of Doughty he enters the old man's room and shares some cheap wine with him. When Doughty begins to identify Adonis's troubles with his own, and when he describes the two of them as ghosts like "Hamlet's father's ghost," Adonis recognizes the race difference between them and sees in the old man all the racist sins of the white society. In his anger he strikes Uncle Doughty dead. Fearful of the consequences of his crime, he joins the underworld gang of "skollies."
Willieboy's life is pathetic throughout. He is the product of a home where his father was a drunk and a wife-beater. In turn, Willieboy's mother beat him mercilessly. As a child, he found escape from his cruel life by going to the movies and imagining himself "a big shot." As an adult, Willieboy refuses to work and lives off the generosity of others. Soon after Adonis kills Doughty, Willieboy enters the dead man's room. He quickly retreats but is spotted by one of the other tenants, who accuses him of murder. Like Adonis, Willieboy, knowing that his innocence will not be accepted by an unjust society, now begins to walk the night. He is, however, apprehended and shot by Constable Raalt, and his life ends in the back of a police van.
Adonis chooses to join the "skollies" instead of Willieboy because a life of sloth was sooner or later to end pathetically. Through policemen such as Raalt, the system of injustice is perpetuated. Since La Guma spent a considerable part of his life in jail or house detention, he knew the work of the police. Some of his most remarkable characters are policemen. In depicting Raalt he provides the police with a human face.
Raalt is completely contemptuous of the colored community. He encourages gambling and prostitution among the colored people because he is able to obtain "protection money." Raalt's investigation of the murder of Doughty shows the contempt that he has for coloreds and the hatred the people have for him. When Willieboy is accused, Raalt begins a determined, relentless pursuit, which does not end until he shoots his prey. Raalt's behaving without conscience is hard for the reader to accept. La Guma, therefore, shows Raalt's marital problems as a possible explanation for his brutality.
A Walk in the Night was well received from its inception, and La Guma was considered to be a writer of great promise and talent. The novel has been translated into twenty languages and continues to be read widely. For people interested in knowing something about South Africa, La Guma strives to provide information and graphic evidence of injustice and oppression; he handles the elements of plot, character, and imagery very well.
La Guma's second novel, And a Threefold Cord, was published in 1964 in Berlin. The novel was written while he was a prisoner in the Cape Town jail on Roeland Street. On this particular occasion (in October 1963) he and many others were jailed because the government feared a mass insurrection after Nelson Mandela and several major figures of the Congress movement were arrested. La Guma spent five months in prison, three in solitary confinement. The negotiations for the publication of the book were carried out in prison between him and his attorney, and La Guma literally signed the contract there.
The chief focus of And a Threefold Cord, as in A Walk in the Night, is the socioeconomic and political environment of the Cape Town slum where the action occurs. The dreadful lives of the victims of this environment are shown at a time when the Cape winter has set in and rain has fallen continuously for days. The reader is made aware of the woeful slum situation at the beginning of the novel when La Guma describes the misery and shabby conditions of those who inhabit the crowded "pondokkie cabins" and who must now face the cold rain. The world of the South African slum is one of bare survival, where corrugated cardboard cartons, rusted sheets of iron and tin, bitumen, and old sacking are stuffed into the cracks and joints of shacks. In his meticulous manner La Guma surveys the dismal conditions of the slum. He focuses in particular on the Pauls family shack, which had been built in a hurry so as to prepare shelter for Ma Pauls, who was at the time pregnant with her third child, Caroline. The shack is typical of the other structures in the slum, a place of squalor, decay, and poverty.
What poverty does to the slum inhabitants preoccupies La Guma in the novel. The shacks in their varying stages of collapse house inhabitants who, because of their crowded, poverty-stricken, and frustrating lives, resort to cheap liquor, prostitution, family quarrels, and violence. Their already miserable lives are dogged further by sickness, police raids, and the strong among them exploiting the weak ones. The inhabitants of the slum are trapped in the same manner as the fly whose actions are described in painstaking detail by La Guma. They have been unconcernedly knocked down by the racist and class system of South Africa, and in their struggling, collapsing positions they are frantically attempting to save themselves from complete destruction. But the more they flail and thrash to survive, the more hopeless it seems. And instead of forming a community to console each other, shack dwellers turn inward to seek solace and satisfaction and to rebuild their destroyed egos. Some of the shack dwellers see their poverty-stricken state as God-made and believe that, by trusting in God, things in time will be set right. Many drink themselves into a stupor so as to forget their miserable condition. Others, as in the case of Roman, indulge in cheap wine not only to forget the pain of their condition but to fire themselves up with so-called courage to take out their frustration through violent acts on others. Poverty drives attractive young women such as Susie Meyer to prostitution.
Poverty also causes severe illness and infectious diseases among the inhabitants. Already undernourished, they are unable to obtain medical help because they are too poor to pay for it. The case of Dad Pauls is an example. The almost unbearable misery of the slum dwellers is further compounded by regular police raids. Instead of building a proper settlement for the impoverished, the South African authorities employ large numbers of police, who, under the name of "law and order," brutalize the already wretched slum dwellers. Although And a Threefold Cord powerfully exposes the cruelty of the apartheid-dominated state, it was not reprinted until 1988, and hence it is the least known of La Guma's work.
The Stone Country was first published in Berlin in 1967, a year after La Guma had gone into exile from South Africa. The novel, however, was written inside South Africa immediately after La Guma spent five months in jail for being a member of an "illegal political organization." He was already under a twenty-four-hour, five-year house arrest order.
The Stone Country is based on La Guma's experiences and the experiences of other prisoners in South African prisons. As in the previous novels, the center of attention is the socioeconomic and political environment of South Africa, which creates conditions of brutality for the major and minor characters of the novel. The prison is a "stone country" where guards and prisoners are "enforced inhabitants of another country, another world." The prison is the last line of defense for the racist system.
The discrimination against peoples of color, inhumanity against others, cruel authority, and general brutality in the stone prison is an extension of the "stone country" that is South Africa. The black population cowers before the rigorous imposition of the apartheid system. Again, La Guma is searching for a character who can demonstrate to the other oppressed people that it is possible to oppose monsters such as the prison guard called Fatso; hence, he invests George Adams with ideas of human dignity that he himself held. From the moment that Adams enters the jail, he argues for his rights as an awaiting-trial prisoner, and he urges every prisoner that he comes into contact with to do the same. But Adams's defiant spirit is curbed somewhat by the reality in prison. Here he discovers, as he did in the nonprison world of South Africa, that rights may exist but they are ignored. The prison, like South Africa, is conceived by both the oppressed and the oppressor as a world of survival of the fittest. Thus Adams's attempt to win over the other prisoners to his side is unsuccessful. The prison is ruled permanently by types such as Fatso and Butcherboy.
Once more La Guma shows the sad reality of South Africa--a country where most inhabitants have willingly or unwillingly accepted the fact that merely to exist one must either become a bully or find alternative means of survival that are not any more honorable. The extended metaphor that La Guma employs in The Stone Country, in which a mouse has been brutally clubbed and clawed by the prison cat, also applies to the inmates of the prison. The sullen, young Casbah Kid has earlier taken his frustrations out by killing another oppressed innocent person, and in prison he delivers the death blow to Butcherboy. The Casbah Kid accepts his fate--life is a jungle where the fittest alone survives. Butcherboy is the head man of the jungle killing squad. He terrorizes everyone in prison, and his immense energy is employed in a negative manner. Alone in defying the prison officials, Adams almost in a resigned manner accepts the escape attempt of Gus, Morgan, and Koppe, seeing it as at least a sign of defiance by some prisoners. But for the majority of the inmates life in prison is a defeatist extension of what life is like outside prison. La Guma sheds his reporter's garb of the earlier books, and in the guise of political prisoner George Adams he tries to influence his readers. The prisoners are generally the same people who created so much pain and havoc in their slum settlements and who continue to behave in a selfish and monstrous manner. Again, as in the earlier books, the apartheid system stands unchallenged, and the oppressed "ghosts" continue to walk the night.
The Stone Country was, from the beginning, well received by the reading public. Parts of the novel have been anthologized. It has also been translated into several languages. Although the book gives an authentic account of happenings in South African jails, it is not La Guma's most memorable work.
In the Fog of the Seasons' End was published in 1972 in London, six years after La Guma had left South Africa, but it had been conceived and substantially written while he was still there and is his most explicitly autobiographical novel. Not only is it dedicated to one of his closest friends, Basil February, who died on the battlefield as a guerrilla activist, but, as La Guma observes, "everyone mentioned in the novel and every incident come from my lived past." The depiction of the chief character, Beukes, and his arduous work is largely a portrait of La Guma and his political activities. The places in the novel are colored suburbs of Cape Town, with the exception of the black township Langa, where Elias Tekwane is arrested and Beukes wounded, and the "expensive" white Cape Town suburb where Beukes wanders around and witnesses a carefree social gathering.
The characters are based on real figures who worked with La Guma in the resistance struggle. Tekwane's name is fictitious, and so are the names of Flotman, Polsky, Abdullah, Isaac, Tommy, Henny April, Halima, and Beatie Adams. But the roles they play in the novel are the actual ones they performed and, in some cases, are still performing. La Guma refuses to reveal their real names for security reasons. He refers in the novel to several incidents that occurred in his own life: his first, personal experience with race discrimination at the circus; the school concert where blacks prepare themselves to sing at a white school; his experience as a factory worker; his stint at the American oil company (where the character Isaac works); and the meeting and courting of a character he calls Frances, although he did not marry this girl in real life. But the father of Frances in the novel has an interest in rugby, and this is true of the father of Blanche Herman, whom he did marry. Beukes's frequent absences from his home to carry on his political work and to escape the dragnet of the security police are directly from La Guma's life experience. Although La Guma was never wounded, the doctor who treats Beukes is, says La Guma, "still very much alive in Cape Town." La Guma also says that the despair, joy, fear, and hope that Beukes expresses "are straight out of my own life history."
The emphasis of In the Fog of the Seasons' End is on the South African resistance-and-liberation movement. But to help readers appreciate the new, defiant response of some of the oppressed, La Guma returns to the theme of his earlier work to show how the protest arose. Hence the novel develops the familiar theme of the devastating effects that the socioeconomic and political situation has on the oppressed people. Once again the reader is taken on a slow, painful tour through the human destruction that the apartheid regime and its system have caused. In the first chapter of the novel the municipal park that Beukes is resting in has segregated benches for "Whites" and "Non-Whites." Behind the "maze of pathways" leading to the museum is an "open-air restaurant" reserved for "Whites Only." A sign near the top of the statue of Cecil John Rhodes points toward "the segregated lavatories." The museum that Beukes finally enters once had separate "Whites" and "Non-Whites" entrances.
The beaches of South Africa are divided along racial lines, with the inferior places being set aside for the nonwhites. Discrimination exists at the railway station as well. Apart from the separate entrances to the station and the different compartments and seats for different races, non-whites are also forbidden to cross the "White footbridge." When Beukes circumvents the security-police network, he considers the use of the footbridge, but he is deterred by the forceful reminder that "a Coloured man had recently been sentenced to twenty pounds or ten days" for using the "White bridge." The magistrate had further warned the fined person that "sterner measures would be taken if the practice continued...." As Beukes discovers at the age of seven, the schools are also divided rigidly along color lines: "They had been told that they would be giving a special performance of their concert for a White school. That was really the first time that the little boy had realized that children called 'White' attended separate schools."
Perhaps the most serious indignity and injustice the apartheid system perpetrates is to force all blacks over the age of sixteen years to carry the hated pass book. In depicting what occurs countless times every day in South Africa, La Guma makes the reader vividly aware of the total power that the regime wields over the oppressed. He goes on to depict a discussion between an aggressive white South African policeman and a black man who, although his credentials are impeccable, is subjected to abusive treatment. The black man is humiliated by the officer's use of the derogatory denotation of "kaffir," by his insolent and absurd questioning, by his contempt and brutality, and by the laws of the country that allow a citizen to be subjected to so much indignity. Without the pass, the black person is not permitted to live in his township, to travel from one place to another, to work, or, in fact, to exist, as indicated by the policeman. But, even with the pass, the black man is not permitted to have his family visit or live with him without prior permission, or he stands to have "the wrath of the Devil and all his minions" invoked against him. The policeman also reminds the man that he is "not allowed to leave" his job with his present employer without permission, nor can he leave his present place of abode for another without consent. It is the similar humiliation that Tekwane suffers at the pass office that spurs him on to revolt against the racist system.
In the face of an environment dominated by a brutal police force with their cohorts of "informers" and by members of an oppressed community who are selfish, class-oriented, wrapped in unreality, and who turn their frustration on each other, it seems difficult and at times impossible to organize a resistance-and-liberation movement against the racist regime. In moments of despair and longing to be with Frances and his child, Beukes wonders, "Why the hell am I doing this"" Fortunately he abandons "the thought a little reluctantly, discarding it like a favourite coat, and [goes] along the road, carrying the cheap case packed with illegal handbills." Beukes knows that he is a tiny but necessary part of a struggle that began with the Bushman warriors at the beginning of the Dutch invasion of South Africa in 1652. He knows that he is part of a just struggle that has had its moments of victory in the early wars between the blacks and whites and that must once again and finally triumph. Hence, although the task of defeating an "ignoble regime" is very difficult, and even though the help needed is "as shaky as hell," it is necessary to persevere because "sometimes ... you understand why, often because there was nothing else to do. You couldn't say, the hell with it, I'm going home."
The successful departure to the north (Botswana) by Peter, Michael, and Paul is a short moment of triumph for the resistance work carried out by Tekwane, Beukes, and others. But it is an essential moment that people such as Beukes, Tekwane, Flotman, and Abdullah must have in order to carry on their uplifting but difficult task. When one of Beukes's protégés, Isaac, turns up at Henny April's place near the Botswana border disguised as the guerrilla activist Paul, Beukes can hardly restrain his joy. Isaac is based on Basil February, to whom the novel is dedicated, and also symbolizes the warrior past of the oppressed, the future victory of the just struggle for liberation, and the chief reason for Beukes's task of preparing and awakening the people for the battle at hand. Hence, unlike the first three books, In the Fog of the Seasons' End concludes with the knowledge that the foggy night with its walking ghosts is about to be burned away. The final, triumphant vision is of a liberated South Africa.
In the Fog of the Seasons' End has proved to be La Guma's best-received work to date. Described by several critics as a major achievement in African literature, it has been translated into twenty languages and has outsold his other books.
La Guma's last published novel, Time of the Butcherbird (1979), is the first of his novels to be conceived and written in its entirety outside South Africa. Free of constant harassment and surveillance by the South African security police and able to place all his energies behind the struggle of the liberation movement in exile, he was able to address a central question of South African society in a more revolutionary way. In his characteristic manner La Guma has succinctly packed together in Time of the Butcherbird two major stories and some shorter ones. The major stories are tied integrally to the theme of the time of the butcherbird (a period of natural "cleansing") and deal with the personal revenge of Shilling Murile, the forced mass removal of the blacks by Afrikaners in the Karoo region, and their resistance to this removal. The minor stories, and in some cases more personal portraits, deal with the failed marriage of Edgar Stopes and Maisie Barends, the history of Oupa Meulen, the struggle between Hlangeni and Mma-Tau, and the dismal failure to establish harmonious and just relationships between blacks and whites on both the personal and collective levels. All of these stories, major and minor, are held together by the metaphor of the butcherbird. The butcherbird is common in South Africa and is found especially in areas where there are cattle, sheep, and pigs. These livestock are generally molested by bloodsucking ticks. The butcherbird preys on these parasites, and in performing this useful task it is considered by rural dwellers as a bird of good omen that cleanses nature of negative influences. The book, therefore, reflects La Guma's belief that the time of cleansing South Africa's negative ways has come.
Murile's revenge for his brother Timi's death occupies a large part of the novel. The stalking and killing of Hannes Meulen, who had been instrumental in the death of Timi, exemplify the role of the butcherbird. But the butcherbird's destruction of parasites aids the entire population that lives off the livestock. Murile, on the other hand, first seeks personal revenge, and even though his action brings to an end the cruel and ignoble life of Meulen, he does not see his task as benefiting all those who have suffered at the hands of Meulen. When he finally joins forces with the collective struggle, he becomes an integral part of the butcherbirdlike work of cleansing the society of parasites. La Guma traces Meulen's ancestral roots and shows how his family had robbed blacks of their ancestral land. This gives the reader an intimate and authentic view of some Afrikaner people. La Guma sees in Meulen a modern Afrikaner but one who continues to treat blacks with contempt.
A part of the black community, led by Chief Hlangeni's militant sister, Mma-Tau, follows Murile's example by refusing to leave their ancestral land and instead challenging those who have come to remove them. Used to meek and resigned blacks, the sergeant in charge refuses at first to accept Mma-Tau's authority or the decision to disobey "the orders from the government." Annoyed at the songs of resistance, the sergeant "unbuttons his pistol holster," and this causes a black youth to throw a stone at him. The stone misses the sergeant, but his clerk panics and begins to flee, creating fear and confusion among the drivers of the government convoy, who decide to drive away from the scene. Embarrassed, the sergeant wonders "who would have thought that these bloody kaffirs would start something like this"" Not convinced as yet by the militant action of the blacks, he views the resistance as "a lot of baboons in jumble-sale clothing." The blacks, to confirm their determination not to permit the "ticks" to continue to suck their blood without resistance, throw stones at the sergeant and his convoy.
The sergeant returns to the town to seek reinforcements, while the black people, led by Mma-Tau, move into the hills to continue their resistance. The final three paragraphs contrast sharply with the opening of the book: gone is the hopelessness of the opening scene, in which Hlangeni and the remnant of his followers await their death as they succumb to the cruel laws of the white society. As the "yellowing afternoon light puts a golden colour on the land," a "flight of birds swoop overhead towards a water-hole." The symbolism is clear: the drought of human destruction and unjust dispossession of land has ended, and the butcherbird will smell out the sorcerer, hunt him down, and cleanse the society of his bloodsucking, negative nature.
Time of the Butcherbird relies heavily on symbolism and historical narrative and less on the immediate experiences so characteristic in La Guma's South Africa-based novels. As a consequence, readers have not shown the same enthusiasm for it as for the other books. However, it is still widely read.
Before La Guma died he was busy on several projects. First, his sixth novel, "Crowns of Battle," had been planned extensively and two rough chapters had been written. This novel concerns the nineteenth-century battle at Rorke's Drift in Natal, where Zulu warriors inflicted a heavy defeat on the white settler forces. La Guma had also sketched, in some detail, material for two short stories. And, finally, he had started to collect data for an autobiography.
Throughout his life La Guma succeeded in combining his political and literary activities. His task was always that of supporting the forces that were to bring the liberation of men, women, and children in South Africa and in the world at large. To this end, he created memorable fictional characters and situations based on harsh reality. He was an articulate spokesperson for his society, one who has left his mark as an important writer.