In the wake of the death of Nelson Mandela, it seemed an appropriate time to read La Guma’s book, In the Fog of a Seasons’ End which I bought from the Africa Book Club a little while ago. It is one of the Heinemann African Writers Series, and while the book paints a bleak and almost hopeless picture of the struggle against apartheid when the regime was at the height of its power, it is also a vivid depiction of the heroism of activists who refused to submit to it.
Alex La Guma (1925-1985) was a distinguished South African author who was also one of the leading figures in the struggle against apartheid. According to the brief bio in the front of the book, he joined the Communist Party as a young man, and was active in the movement until it was banned in 1950. In 1956 he was among those who drew up the Freedom Charter and was one of the 156 accused in the notorious Treason Trials. He wrote for a progressive newspaper called New Age, and was under house arrest by 1962. But before his sentence had elapsed the authorities passed the No Trial Act and La Guma and his wife were placed in solitary confinement. Shortly after their release, they fled to Britain in 1967 but ended up in Cuba until his death in 1985.
This brief outline of his life gives moral authority to every word of this short novel. It’s only 180-odd pages long, but it’s a powerful work, the more so because it is undramatic. The sombre prose brings to life the courage and tenacity of men like Nelson Mandela and his supporters who struggled so long against an implacable and immoral regime.
The novel begins with the capture, imprisonment and torture of an unnamed man. The reader doesn’t find out who this man is until towards the end of the book, which adds to the tension because even when one knows the likely outcome, one can’t help but wish for it to be different.
There are two main characters, Elias and Beukes. Beukes, whose task it is to distribute handbills about a forthcoming strike, reminded me in some ways of the couple in Hans Fellada’s Alone in Berlin who distributed postcards around Berlin to alert people to the evil of the regime. Beukes risked the same appalling penalty if caught, and was also engaged in a seemingly hopeless task. The difference in La Guma’s novel is that while few can be trusted because of fear of reprisals, Beukes works as part of a clandestine network and he has the silent support of the Black Majority behind him. The other difference is that the struggle in South Africa went on for decades. This meant that there was a constant struggle not to give in to apathy or despair.
We see this in a simple exchange between Beukes and a nursemaid in a park:
‘We all good enough to be servants. Because we’re black, they think we good enough just to change their nappies.’
She said, hesitantly, wondering whether it would be the right answer, ‘That’s life, isn’t it?’
It wasn’t, she could feel, because he said, ‘Life? Why should it be our life? We’re as good or bad as they are.’
‘Yes, I reckon so. But what can people do?’
The brown eyes smiled. They were red-rimmed from lack of sleep, but not angry in spite of the bitter tone he had used. He rubbed the short overnight stubble on his jaw with a long brown finger. ‘There are things that people can do,’ his voice was not sleepy, ‘I’m not saying a person can change it tomorrow or next year. But even if you don’t get what you want today, soon, it’s a matter of pride, dignity. You follow me?’
‘It’s so hopeless. You only get into trouble.’
He yawned and shrugged. ‘Trouble. There’s always trouble.’ He spoke as if trouble was something he experienced all the time, but trouble was a stranger to her. (p11)
La Guma writes with superb imagery. Leaves in the late summer sun curl like ‘snippets of dead skin’; a long khaki coat droops ‘like limp wings’, a man has a bald skull ‘shiny as the furniture and brass in the room’. ‘Pale white fingers like maggots’ flick over the pages of the hated passbooks which govern the lives of Blacks in an unfunny Kafkaesque miasma of absurd rules. ‘A slum hung on the edge of the city suburbs like dirty plaster, cracking and crumbling away, yet unwilling to fall apart.’ The reader can see and smell the squalor of this environment; it is as things are, with no concessions for the faint-hearted or those who would rather turn away, because they think themselves too sensitive to read about these things although they know full well that they exist and can only be changed when good men cease to do nothing.
Life has, for Beukes, become like a gangster movie, filled with
mysterious rides, messages left in obscure places, veiled telephone conversations. The torture chambers and the third degree had been transferred from celluloid strips in segregated cinemas to the real world which still hung on to its outward visible signs of peace: the shoppers innocently crowding the sidewalks, the racing results, the Saturday night parties, the act of love. (p25)
Beukes’ business is the just and righteous overthrow of the State, but the tone of this novel is calm and measured. He goes from assignation to assignation as calmly as he would visit a workmate, observing heart-breaking signs of White oppression without demur. It is the very ordinariness of it that is so shocking: an old woman evicted from her house; an old man dying in a road-gang from overwork; a child unable to see what circus clowns were doing from the segregated Coloured seats; a widow paid two pounds a month for 20 months in compensation for her husband’s death in a mine – while her White counterpart receives fifteen pounds for life. These are everyday events – felt and suffered but so routine that they have to be accepted for the time being. The intolerable must be tolerated while the courageous few work quietly behind the scenes for change.
La Guma describes clothes and faces in vivid detail so that we see the humanity of characters both Black and White. He lets his readers know that these everyday Whites who inflict everyday misery and insult, are real people too:
In the foyer of the offices of the petroleum company where Isaac worked, a woman with tired, bleached hair and the face of a painted wax doll accidentally left near a fire and then hastily retrieved, kept guard in the little telephone exchange behind polished plate glass and mahogany. (p. 110)
This woman, hung-over from a night on the tiles, calls the Black men ‘boy’ whatever their age, and does not know the contempt in which she is held. While she ambushes anyone she can command to do her bidding, her colleagues do not even notice the presence of Isaac in their ‘world of skilled labour and monthly salaries’. Like Beukes in his brown suit, Isaac is almost invisible.
But La Guma also shows how anger grows. Elias is kicked out of his job because his White boss objects to Elias taking an interest in White affairs, that is, he had wanted to enlist to fight the Nazis. So he and his widowed mother live in poverty, surviving:
on the anaemic ears of corn which the land yielded, on a sinewy chicken now and then, on the remains of meals begged in the town, and on the kindness of the village community. Anger grew inside him like a ripening seed and the tendrils of its burgeoning writhed along his bones, through his muscles, into his mind. (p.79)
It’s true that the new South Africa has risen in triumph from the ashes of apartheid, but it is well to read La Guma’s book and pay homage to those who risked their lives to achieve it. Too many lost their lives, dying anonymously in police custody, shot mercilessly in massacres like Sharpeville, or disappearing, their fates unknown. And when we read a book like this, it’s also a reminder that in police states around the globe, men and women of courage and tenacity are fighting similar battles today.
Author: Alex La Guma
Title: In the Fog of the Seasons’ End
Publisher: Heinemann’s African Writers Series, 1992, first published in 1972
Source: Personal library, purchased from the Africa Book Club.