Encyclopedia of African Literature

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la Guma, Alex

b. 1925, Cape Town, South Africa; d. 1985, Havana, Cuba

novelist, journalist, and political activist

The South African political activist, writer, journalist, and cartoonist Justin Alexander la Guma was born in Cape Town. His father, Jimmy la Guma, was a leading and sometimes controversial figure in progressive trade union and political circles who expressed uncompromising support for the Soviet Union-as did his son. From childhood la Guma was exposed to the debates and strategies that informed national liberation politics in South Africa, and to the idea that literature and politics were always closely linked.

La Guma grew up in District Six, a bustling and often violent slum on the edge of Cape Town's central business district inhabited predominantly by coloreds and later destroyed by the apartheid authorities (see apartheid and post-apartheid). It was the setting for much of his fiction. He displayed an interest in art from an early age, and attended drawing classes in the late 1930s. Around this time he provided illustrations for political journals and campaigns on which his father worked, and to which Peter Abrahams refers in Tell Freedom (1954). There is no evidence that Abrahams and la Guma met then or later when the former was in Jamaica and the latter in Cuba.

Influenced by romantic ideas about the Spanish civil war, la Guma tried to enlist in the International Brigade. Later he volunteered for World War II. In both cases he was unsuccessful. After leaving school in 1941 he held a succession of "dead-end" jobs before completing his education part time. By the late 1940s, la Guma's interest in writing, politics, and art had taken adult form. He joined the Young Communist League and the SACP (Communist Party of South Africa), attended lifedrawing classes, completed a correspondence course on journalism, and wrote letters on Communism to the local press.

The election of the National Party, the dissolution of the SACP, and resistance to apartheid by the ANC (African National Congress) saw la Guma take a leading role in its colored ("mixed race") sister organization, the South African Colored People's Organization. Despite arguments that the term "colored" was an apartheid creation, la Guma saw no contradiction between his commitments to socialism, non-racialism, and the assertion of a colored identity. For la Guma the problems were not about being colored or whether coloreds existed, but how to disentangle colored identity from its origins in racial prejudice and apartheid legislation, and to ensure that coloreds identified with and participated in a liberation struggle led by the African majority.

La Guma's formal writing career began in the late 1950s as a reporter for New Age, a left-wing weekly with strong links to the ANC. His early short stories covered a range of themes common to the period, such as tough tales, passing for white, and interracial relationships. His journalism and the short stories published in South Africa were characterized by satire, code-switching, local "Cape" humor with its rich tradition of subversive


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