Exploring horrors of second class citizenry

In the Fog of the Season’s End; By Alex La Guma; Harare; Baobab Books (1992); 181 Pages 
ISBN: 978-0-435-90980-2(Paperback)

HARARE - Some books can never be dumped altogether, no matter when they were published. One would want to think of Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart, Arrow of God, A Man of the People, Ngugi Wa Thiongo’s Devil on the Cross, The Beautyful Ones are Not Yet Born by Ayi Kwei Armah among others from within the continent.

There would be entirely nothing wrong with including The Old Man and the Medal (Ferdinand Oyono), Mongo Beti’s Mission to Kala.

The same can be said of Alex La Guma’s In the Fog of the Season’s End. Coming from a society that had institutionalised racism, most works of fiction in English had hitherto come from liberal white South African writers like Alan Paton, Nadine Gordimer, among others. 

Curiously, some of the most striking accounts of apartheid have come from the coloured population of South Africa, themselves not a privileged race in the southern African nation. 

Having been colonised by both the Dutch and the English, South Africans endured one the longest and most grueling brutality at the hands of their colonisers. 

Of the several accounts of struggles with conservative colonisers, La Guma’s ranks among the most graphic in the manner in which they retell the horrors segregated populations suffered at the hands of white might — without doubt a race that had for long been perceived as supreme.

It is not surprising that La Guma himself is of mixed race; underlining his intimacy with the experiences he seeks to explore.

 Most of La Guma’s books — notably A Walk in The Night and In the Fog of the Season’s End explore how bad apartheid as a system was on humanity. 

A Walk in the Night specifically portrays the political and social lives of the coloured population in District Six of Cape Town, South Africa. 

The actions of four characters drawn from the District Six community during the course of a single night shape the plot. Besides their brushes with the police, the reader gets to see the decay and rot in the slum. 

So exquisite is La Guma’s power of description that the reader feels with the miserable inhabitants of the slum.

However, In the Fog of the Season’s End, a book that mirrors the day-to-day lives of people who risk their survival in the underground movements against apartheid seems to be in a class of its own. 

These are the people who were at the forefront of political organisation against apartheid, the system that has demoted the non-white population of the country to second-rate citizens.

Central in La Guma’s fiction is the quest to show the economic contradictions of South Africa’s hitherto separatist policies. 

In the Fog of the Season’s End is an autobiographical work chronicling the life of Beukes and several of his colleagues involved in political organisation against apartheid. 

La Guma successfully shows the importance of collective action in human life. It is only through this that the society’s aspirations are achieved. 

Through Beukes, who is actively involved in political resistance, readers also realise the centrality of the need to care for others. Beukes is not self-centred and endures the horror of police cells.

The pass laws represented one of apartheid South Africa’s most inhuman pieces of legislation that were designed to give the Afrikaaner regime unlimited time at the helm in the country’s political system. This was aided by a tailor-made police control system. 

The involvement of the police in all aspects of South African life was meant to fortify the apartheid system. 

“Around the police block the stream swirled against the dam of blue uniforms and the jerking flash lights, then slowly trickled through accompanied by shouts and curses. Lunchboxes, bundles, bags were being searched, papers examined.” (p66) 

The police block in itself is a restrictive measure, which also confirms the suspicion the system had in the population. These are people who are coming back from work and desirous of a rest so that they prepare for the next day.

Despite the fact that almost every citizen wants the oppressive pass law discarded, the system sees it as one of its numerous survival strategies. 

“In the Township the word had gone around for the surrender or destruction of all passes that day. The passes would be taken to the White man’s police station and dumped there.” (p101)

The people’s determination against an unjust law is evident here.

The apartheid system was determined to extend its life-span even if it meant at the expense of spilling innocent blood.

“Then for some reason or another, a policeman shot into the noise. The sound of the shot was almost lost in the chanting, the singing, the laughter.” (p104)

The characters slain in this moment of madness are not identified by name. 

There is the Washerwoman, the Outlaw, the Bicycle Messenger and the Child, among others. These become typical and represent some of the most common people in this society.

Their deaths are pathetic but descriptions of their demise remain vivid.

The Washerwoman’s “femoral arteries in the comfortable thighs had been torn through” while the Child “lay on her face and there seemed hardly a mark on her except when she was turned over and they saw the exit hole the heavy slug had made on her meagre chest”. 

The Bicycle Messenger “sprawled jointlessly over his fallen cycle which he had refused to abandon in flight, his flesh burst open, his spine shattered and his splintered ribs thrust into heart and lungs”. (p105) 

So brutal were the police that they had used live ammunition at defenceless civilians. At the end of the book, there is a lot of optimism the struggle will thrive. 

La Guma was born in Cape Town in 1925 to parents who were very active in political and labour issues. 

As a result, he grew up aware of the political and socio-economic contradictions of his society. 

He was harassed repeatedly by South Africa’s apartheid government and was forced to emigrate to England in 1966. La Guma died in Cuba on October 11, 1985.

Nothing lasts forever. Apartheid finally caved in, leading to the independence of South Africa in 1994. It is a pity La Guma and several of his departed colleagues did not live to see their country’s independence. 

However, there is a stunning resemblance between La Guma and the major character, Beukes and this is the reason why the book has been widely referred to as an autobiography.

For most readers, In the Fog of the Season’s End is indeed a treasure one would aspire to personally have on their bookshelf.

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