Alex La Guma: The Greatest Novelist Whose Name You’ve Never Heard Before

Thirty years after his death, the name of South Africa’s Alex La Guma as a novelist, an activist in the liberation struggle and a remarkable human being should be on all of our lips.

By , The Root

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Editor’s note: The spelling of the ethnic term “Coloured,” used within the context of South African history and culture, reflects the writer’s preference.

October 2015 marks the 30th anniversary of the death of one of the world’s great novelists, arguably the greatest Africa—let alone South Africa—has ever produced, a man who was not only a prodigiously talented writer but also a valiant hero of the anti-apartheid struggle.

Alex La Guma (1925-1985) is today, sadly, a forgotten colossus, but in the 1960s and ’70s, he was indubitably the black Dickens, with his fiction containing the sweep and moral power of his acclaimed Victorian predecessor. An astonishing creative artist as well as an ardent freedom fighter, 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 Seasons’ End (1972) and Time of the Butcherbird (1979).

With his genius for creating vivid characters amid the brutality of apartheid, his compassion for the poor and the oppressed, his masterful storytelling technique and his unforgettably sensuous, beautifully ornate prose style, La Guma has seldom been bettered in any age or on any continent. Thirty years after his death, the name Alex La Guma as a novelist, an activist in the liberation struggle and a remarkable human being should be on all of our lips…

When his debut novella, A Walk in the Night, was published in 1962, a new star of black South African writing came into view with astonishing alacrity. A remarkably assured first work, written while he was under house arrest for anti-apartheid activism, it articulated many of the themes that would come to dominate La Guma’s writing: fierce opposition to apartheid, a lyrical celebration of the working-class Coloured community, a potent use of nature as a mirror for the psychology of his protagonists, and the use of literature as a tool for liberty, equality and human dignity, all distinctively couched in seductively ornate prose and heavily infused with a Dickensian realism.

Hewn from the miasma of poverty and oppression that was the enclave of District 6, A Walk in the Night unrepentantly celebrates the lives, hopes and fragile dreams of the down-and-outs, prostitutes and gangsters who inhabited this tawdry, bohemian slum. It is the story of Michael Adonis, a young Coloured man who, after being sacked from his factory job following a confrontation with his racist Afrikaner boss, embarks upon a nocturnal odyssey of crime and murder amid the neighborhood’s squalid, insalubrious tenement blocks. The horrors of racism, patricide and the pain of rootlessness all play their part in the novel’s terse, bleak greatness…

 

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South Africans Battle To Overturn Apartheid Evictions

By: Sofie Ribstein, BBC News

Lily Lawrence and her children have fond memories of their old home. The Red Hill ruins are a daily reminder of The Group Areas Act passed in 1950.

Lily Lawrence and her children have fond memories of their old home. The Red Hill ruins are a daily reminder of The Group Areas Act passed in 1950.

At the far end of the African continent, Redhill was once a village, home to more than 70 predominantly mixed-race (or coloured, as they are referred to in South Africa) families.

But stone walls are still standing, reminders of a precious past for those who were forcibly removed in the late 1960s by South Africa’s white minority regime.

“Here was the lounge and this used to be the kitchen with a fireplace and the small bedroom at the back,” says 78-year-old Lily Lawrence, walking through the old stones which were once her home.

The Group Areas Act, passed in 1950, was a pillar of the brutal apartheid regime.

Among other things, it led to the removal of non-whites from real estate considered desirable by the government. Over the following decades, thousands of families were forced to leave their homes and relocate to barren land.

The effects of this policy have yet to be reversed. Even in post-apartheid South Africa, much of the most fertile territory is still in the hands of a few thousand white commercial farmers.

President Jacob Zuma has given people an opportunity to lodge land claims

President Jacob Zuma has given people an opportunity to lodge land claims.

Just after his re-election to a second term in office in May, South African President Jacob Zuma announced the creation of another window for lodging claims for the restitution of land.

Under the 1950 law, Mrs Lawrence, her husband and their four children had no other choice but to leave their land.

“It was so heartbreaking, tears, tears and tears,” says Mrs Lawrence, recalling the day they left. She says the family had to leave much of their furniture behind – including heirlooms – as it could not be taken up the stairs of the flat they were moving to.

Today, two of her children, Margaret and George, are doing everything possible for this past not to be forgotten. They were only eight and 13 years old when they left Redhill.

But the trauma of the forced removal remains. Margaret is an archivist at the Simon’s Town Museum. She collects pictures, texts, memories from the coloured community and tries to piece together their history.

Margaret (centre) was 13 years old when they were forced out of their home.

Margaret (centre) was 13 years old when they were forced out of their home.

She invites her mother to the museum to talk to schoolchildren. Twenty years after the end of apartheid, she wants the new generation to know what happened.

George, her brother, has embarked on a legal journey, trying to get the land back from the South African state. He says he registered the first land claim in 1998 – but since then, has only been to meetings and offered excuses for inaction.

“The only thing I want in my life is to come back to my land. I was born here, my roots are here. It is not so difficult, the government just has to sign the papers.”

Since President Zuma announced another window for the restitution, another 12,500 new claims have been lodged, according to the government-backed Land Claims Commission.

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