The Worker with a Pen

In his life and books, Alex La Guma struggled for a society in which all people could find their humanity, argues his friend Ngugi wa Thiong'o.

Alex La Guma and his son, Barto, in London, 1972. (Image: George Hallett).

He was not there in person — he was under house arrest back in apartheid South Africa — but Alex La Guma dominated the literary discussions at the 1962 Conference of African Writers of English Expression, held at Makerere University in Kampala, Uganda. Among the attendants were some of the leading writers of the continent, and they included Chinua Achebe, Wole Soyinka, and Christopher Okigbo from Nigeria, Kofi Awoonor of Ghana, and a group of exiled South African writers, among them Es’kia Mphahlele, Lewis Nkosi, Arthur Maimane, and Bloke Mod-isane. La Guma’s book A Walk in the Night had just been released by the Mbari Writers Club in Nigeria, founded by Ulli Beier among others. La Guma’s realism was often compared and contrasted with that of Chinua Achebe’s, whose novel Things Fall Apart had been published by Heinemann in 1958. It’s interesting that both novels had titles drawn from English literature — Shakespeare in the case of La Guma, and Yeats in the case of Chinua Achebe — reflecting the dominance of English literature in the education of the writers present. But the two texts were seen as mapping new directions in African literature in English, heralding the Africa emerging from colonial domination. Alex La Guma spoke to me and to this emergent Africa from the place of his house arrest through his words.

I met Alex La Guma in person for the very first time in Sweden at the 1967 Afro-Scandinavian Writers’ Conference held at Hässelby Castle, Stockholm. Those attending included Wole Soyinka (Nigeria), Albert Memmi (Tunisia), Kateb Yacine (Algeria), Tchicaya U Tam’si (Congo), and Dan Jacobson (South Africa). In the course of delivering the opening lecture “The Writer in Modern Africa,” Soyinka made a reference to the African writer in some independent African country and who, in despair, was reduced to carrying guns and holding up radio stations.

It was of course a reference to himself, but it was Alex La Guma’s response that raised the whole question of the role of violence in revolutionary change. As a South African, he said he was prepared to run guns and hold up radio stations, because, whether as writers or common laborers, the situation called for fundamental change. I was struck by his coupling of writers and workers and by his speaking on behalf of the working class in apartheid South Africa. For him, the writer was a worker with a pen. In person, he dominated the discussion in Sweden much as his text A Walk in the Night had done at Makerere five years earlier.

La Guma was tall, serious, and focused, but once I did see another side of him. It was at a party held for us at some house in Stockholm. When some jazz music was put on, I saw Alex La Guma, on the floor, jiving. Yes, he could jive! He was free, the picture of one who loved life.

Six years later in September 1973, he and I would meet again, this time in Moscow on our way to the Fifth Conference of Afro-Asian Writers at Alma-Ata in Kazakhstan, then part of the Soviet Union. This meeting followed previous ones held in other capitals including New Delhi, Tashkent, and Cairo. Among those attending were Okot p’Bitek (Uganda), David Rubadiri (Malawi), and Lenrie Peters (Gambia). Our guide was the late Victor Ramzes who had done so much to translate African writing into Russian. It was during this visit that discussions began about La Guma returning to tour the Soviet Union and write whatever he wanted to write about it. I was also asked if I, too, would come back and do the same. The invitations were out there.

I never took up the offer, or rather, when eventually I did in 1975, it was not to tour the Soviet Union, but to go to Chekhov’s house in the Caucasus mountains overlooking Yalta to complete my novel, Petals of Blood. That was also the last time I met Alex La Guma, but in a hospital in Moscow.

The last time I heard of him he was the ANC representative in Cuba, and then the loss, in October 1985. He never lived long enough to see post-apartheid South Africa, but he had no doubt that it would come to be, or rather he had seen and predicted it in his novel In the Fog of the Seasons’ End.

I felt his loss in a very personal way. I always felt him to be a kindred spirit. His spirit of hope lives on in the books he left us. He is a central figure alongside Chinua Achebe, Wole Soyinka, and others in the making and consolidation of modern African literature.

But I will always carry the image of the Alex La Guma whom I once saw jiving the night away in Stockholm, a year after his exile from the South Africa he loved. In his life and books, he struggled for a society in which all people could find their humanity. Joy in life was part of that humanity, and it comes through in his novels and memoir.

The above is the foreword for the new edition of A Soviet Journey (2017) by the South African writer and activist, Alex La Guma (1925-1985). First published by Progress Publishers in Moscow in 1978, A Soviet Journey is today one of the longest accounts of the USSR by an African writer. La Guma was a lifelong member of the South African Communist Party (SACP), and his father James (“Jimmy”) La Guma was a founder of its earlier version, the Communist Party of South Africa (CPSA), during the 1920s. A Soviet Journey consequently points to the longevity and intergenerational nature of leftist politics in South Africa, as well as the global political and intellectual engagements of South African writing during the anti-apartheid years. The book is an aspirational work, viewing the Soviet system as having achieved political and economic justice and, thus, providing a paradigm for a future South Africa. Both La Guma and Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o published in the famed African Writers Series edited by Chinua Achebe, resulting in the eventual canonization of their work. Ngũgĩ here reflects on this early period of postcolonial African literature and his friendship with La Guma. —Christopher J. Lee

Further Reading

Goodbye, Piassa

The demolition of an historic district in Addis Ababa shows a central contradiction of modernization: the desire to improve the country while devaluing its people and culture.