La Guma, In the Dark with my Dress on Fire

Blanche La Guma (b. 1927)
Blanche Herman was born and educated in Cape Town. She trained as nurse and midwife, and through her involvement in politics met Alex La Guma. They married in 1954. They were both involved in anti-Apartheid political activities, and were members of the Communist Party. After Alex La Guma was banned, ending his ability to write as a journalist, Blanche La Guma supported the family with her earnings as a midwife.

You can read recent commentary on Blanche LaGuma’s contributions in the Sowetan, a daily newspaper with a largely black readership.

See La Guma read from her book.

Alex La Guma (1925-1985)
La Guma
was a writer—chiefly novels and short stories, in addition to political writing. He was born and educated in Cape Town, and was well-connected to intellectual circles as a young man. He was a leader of the South African Coloured People’s Organization (SACPO), a defendant in the Treason Trial, centrally involved with the Congress of the People at Kliptown (meeting that formalized the Freedom Charter). He and his family went into exile in 1966. He worked for the ANC in London, then was the ANC’s representative in Cuba. He died in Cuba, still in exile.

Chapters 1-17: Life in Cape Town
What stands out for you in La Guma’s description of her early childhood?

How does La Guma characterize her family’s mix-race or Coloured heritage?

Describe the material circumstance of her family.

How do you interpret her assertion that “we never felt poor”?

What challenges did La Guma face completing her education? (Consider wealth, gender differences, and political limitations)

How does La Guma describe the functioning of the Communist Party? How does this description intersect with her understanding of community?

Describe the La Guma’s relationship with the South African police.

Why does La Guma embrace the idea of armed struggle? [We will compare her perspective with Nelson Mandela’s in Thursday’s class.]

In what ways did Apartheid affect the La Guma’s family life?

Describe Blanche La Guma’s political activism.

What is her perspective on major events of the era (Defiance Campaign, women’s resistance to pass laws, the Treason Trial, the Freedom Charter, the Sharpeville Massacre)?

Chapters 18-31: The decision to leave, life in exile, and bittersweet return to Cape Town
After years of harassment by the police, what convinced the La Gumas to leave South Africa?

In what ways did the La Guma’s political activities affect domestic life while in exile? How was this different from life under Apartheid in South Africa?

Describe the household division of political labor between Alex and Blanche La Guma.

Who were the ANC’s political allies beyond South Africa?

What does Blanche La Guma appreciate about her time in exile?

What does Blanche La Guma regret? Is she bitter? Why or why not?