‘Culture and Liberation: Exile Writings, 1966–1985’ by Alex La Guma reviewed by Gregory Elich

Culture and Liberation: Exile Writings, 1966–1985

ed. C. J. Lee, Seagull Books, Kolkata, 2022. 624 pp., $45.00 hb
ISBN 9780857427892

Reviewed by Gregory Elich

About the reviewer

Gregory Elich is a Korea Policy Institute associate. His website is https://gregoryelich.org/ and …


Since Alex La Guma passed away in 1985, his name has generally faded from public memory, at least in the Western world. Yet during his lifetime, La Guma was a well-regarded novelist, short-story writer, and South African anti-apartheid activist.

La Guma played an instrumental role in developing the Freedom Charter, which called for a total transformation of society and signaled an upsurge in resistance to the apartheid system. Inevitably, La Guma’s activism and membership in the South African Communist Party put him on a collision course with the apartheid government, and he was arrested for his part in the Freedom Charter and charged with treason. Although ultimately acquitted on that charge, La Guma was placed under house arrest under the Suppression of Communism Act for having helped organize a strike. Before long, he and his wife were imprisoned in solitary confinement. The South African government also banned his books. After his release from prison in 1966, La Guma went into exile, where he was to spend the remainder of his life.

Christopher J. Lee, the editor of the present volume, has been waging a one-man campaign to revive La Guma’s memory and return him to the place of respect that he deserves. Five years ago, Lee brought out a new annotated edition of La Guma’s long out-of-print A Soviet Journey, in which the author recounted his experiences traveling across the USSR (2017).

The present volume collects many of La Guma’s political and literary essays and various brief stories and plays. Nearly all of the works included in the book have been essentially unavailable, and even those with access to the best university libraries cannot hope to find more than a few of these pieces. Lee has undertaken an impressive excavation to bring these pieces to light. As Lee puts it in his introduction, the works in this book ‘have largely been neglected, rendered invisible with the passage of time’ (18-19).

I wondered how Lee managed to track down so much of this material; so, I reached out to him. Lee responded that his research required several approaches, as some journals were available digitally, but others were not. ‘I drew upon bibliographies from secondary sources,’ Lee explained, ‘but I also discovered a number of pieces as well … I think I found most of his exile material.’ In what is undoubtedly an understatement, Lee added, ‘it took a lot of work.’ My ongoing thought while reading the book was astonishment at the effort I knew it surely required to locate and recover these neglected works, many of which originated in long-moribund publications. The collection’s value is enhanced by Lee’s succinct and illuminating introductions to contextualize each piece. Lee has performed an admirable service in making this rare material readily available to a broader audience.

The title of the present volume is taken from one of La Guma’s essays, in which La Guma argued that African culture and liberation are inseparable. ‘The liberation struggle is the most complex expression of the people’s cultural energy, of their identity, of their dignity,’ La Guma wrote. Liberation, La Guma maintained, created opportunities for a flowering of art and culture, and the process of anti-imperialist struggle produced new forms of expression (299). Indeed, La Guma believed that the role of literature was inextricably intertwined with political engagement. African writers were confronted by all the problems of postcolonial underdevelopment and the ongoing impact of imperialism. Therefore, La Guma argued, ‘All that is worthy in African literature engages in one way or another in resistance to colonialism, past and present’ (338).

La Guma could write with natural feeling and, at times, subtlety, as in his short story, Come Back to Tashkent, where what is deliberately unstated magnifies the impact of the words on the page to moving effect. And in The Exile, La Guma’s longing for his homeland is palpable. La Guma also demonstrated a talent for slashing satire, as in the story, A Home Away From Home.

La Guma’s literary work was much admired in the Third World and socialist countries. In 1969, the Afro-Asian Writers Association awarded its Lotus Prize for Literature to La Guma and Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish. The organization aimed to connect African and Asian writers and promote their work, informed by an anti-imperialist and anti-colonial perspective. From the late 1970s through the remainder of his life, La Guma played a prominent role in the association, and this volume includes La Guma’s address to the Sixth Conference of the Afro-Asian Writers Association, during which he was named its secretary-general.

La Guma’s humanism shines throughout this book. In an interview, La Guma defined the main themes of his work as ‘hatred for racial and national oppression and class exploitation’ and a focus on people’s struggle for a better life and to change society (536). He added that a progressive writer ‘should be against the people-hating ideology of the capitalist system, against imperialism, neocolonialism, racism. It is his duty to his own conscience, and it’s his social mission’ (539).

In South Africa, La Guma belonged to the Coloured community, the term used for those of mixed ancestry. Many of his sharpest critiques of apartheid included in the book address the struggles of this group. His Pumpkins and Dark Skins is a scathing satire exposing the utter absurdity of the Race Classification Act. Elsewhere, La Guma wrote with deep feeling about his community and the indignities they endured. La Guma’s articles about his home country reveal how severely the flurry of racial laws, rules, and practices controlled, limited, and harmed the lives of the nation’s African, Asian, and Coloured populations. The Suppression of Communism Act and the Publications and Entertainments Act were among the repressive measures La Guma so eloquently condemned. By 1969, the passage of these acts had already resulted in the banning of 13,000 titles. The Minister of Justice also produced lists of South African writers and journalists whose works were forbidden. In addition, the Group Areas Act divided the nation into racially-segregated areas, and non-white populations were evicted en masse from white-only districts. The Man in the Tree, perhaps intended as a radio play, depicts the impact of forced removals on an individual level.

Exploitation was at the heart of it all. ‘Racism in South Africa – the ideology of white supremacy and black inferiority – was born with the invasion of our country by white settlers in the seventeenth century,’ La Guma wrote. European settlers sought wealth through violence and artifice as they plundered the people of Africa, Asia, Latin America, and Australasia.

The abolition of slavery in the early 19th century changed little in the conditions of the indigenous population. The formerly enslaved ‘continued to work for their former owners, without wages and on the same terms of food, clothing and medical care’ (129). The 20th century brought minimal improvement. In damning detail, La Guma reveals the extreme disparity in wages and job opportunities available to the oppressed populations compared to whites. ‘At bottom,’ La Guma explains, ‘racism is the extension of a myth that rationalizes the position of the master, his power and wealth, at the expense of the servant who passes his life in toil to produce that wealth.’ Capitalism in South Africa, La Guma continued, was built upon an extension of the idea ‘of a superior stratum and an inferior stratum’ to capitalists and workers. In such a system, the children of capitalists inherited wealth and power, while those of the poor inherited only poverty, ignorance, and disease (282-283).

La Guma was an internationalist, believing that the struggle for African liberation was intrinsically connected with those of others across the globe. Accordingly, he was in passionate solidarity with liberation movements wherever they took place. As a World Peace Council delegation member, La Guma visited North Vietnam in 1973 and wrote movingly of that experience in an essay included in this volume. Five years later, La Guma made his home in Cuba, a nation that inspired him, particularly for its solidarity with African liberation movements. Indeed, La Guma believed the Cuban example demonstrated that ‘no small country need hesitate in the fight for liberation,’ regardless of US hostility and military might (223).

A short review can only touch upon a few points in such a wide-ranging collection. Worth mentioning, though, is La Guma’s beautiful tribute to activist/singer/actor Paul Robeson as one example of a work I am grateful to have encountered. This volume is graced with a foreword by South African activist Albie Sachs and an afterword by historian Bill Nasson. Christopher J. Lee’s perceptive introduction is the best account I have seen of La Guma’s life and work. On its own, it is worth the price of the book.

In recent years, renewed attention has been given to past fighters for liberation, such as George Padmore, C.L.R. James, and Claudia Jones. It is to be hoped that the present volume will help spark greater awareness of the contributions of Alex La Guma to making the world a better place. ‘Books go out of print, and authors can be forgotten,’ to echo Lee, ‘but they can also be restored’ (51).

9 July 2022


  • La Guma, A. 2017 A Soviet Journey: A Critical Annotated Edition, ed. C. J. Lee (Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers).

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