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Blanche La Guma, Obituary and Tribute

On July 6th 2023, we heard the sad news that South African activist, Blanche La Guma, had died in the Cape at the age of 95.  

Blanche (nee Herman) was born in Cape Town, South Africa. She attended High School in Athlone where she met Alex La Guma through his friendship with her brother. During the 1940s she developed an interest in communism and began to attend meetings. Like many of her female political contemporaries, Blanche trained as a nurse. In 1954 she married Alex who was by then an activist in the Communist Party and on the way to becoming an accomplished and respected writer. He worked full-time as a political organiser and they had two sons so Blanche’s salary had to cover all the family’s expenses. Alex was one of the 156 defendants in the Treason Trial 1956.  

Women including Blanche La Guma (furthest right), Rica Hodgson, Winnie Dadoo, Stephanie Kemp and Adelaide Joseph picketing outside South Africa House, Trafalgar Square London in c1974/75. Photographer unknown (supplied courtesy Joseph Family archive).

Blanche carried out political work in her own right and was active both in the  Federation of South African Women (FEDSAW) and in the Communist Party of South Africa. In 1957, in response to the newly passed Nurses Act, she organised a mass demonstration of hundreds of nurses in response to the Apartheid regime’s discriminatory treatment of black nurses. Following this, Blanche was detained under the 90-day solitary confinement laws and eventually banned. She and Alex together with their sons went into exile in London in 1966. She continued with her nursing work and as a midwife and went on to work at the London office of the newspaper ‘The Soviet Weekly’. Blanche and Alex later moved to Cuba where Alex served as the ANC rep for the Caribbean.  

Image above left: La Guma & Klammer, In the Dark with my Dress on Fire (Jacana Media, 2011)     

Image above right: Illustration by Karma Spalutto, 2023, created in response to a brief for Visual Communication Students (BA, Illustration and Animation) set by The Liliesleaf Trust UK’s Anti-Apartheid Legacy, in partnership with London Metropolitan University’s School of Art, Architecture and Design.  

Following Alex’s death in 1985, Blanche returned to London and once Amnesty was granted to ANC exiles, she returned to Cape Town. She will be remembered not only as an activist, mother and nurse but also as a vivacious and vibrant woman.   

Family friend, Bonita Bennett, aptly describes Blanche La Guma, the person beyond the persona: “Getting to know Blanche the person, the human being behind the political icon that one admired, it was very special to realise that your heroes are human beings. The humanity of her, the values, the ethics of caring for others and not living an extravagant lifestyle because there are others that are less fortunate. She was a no-nonsense lady, but she was kind and embracing.” (source SABC News).

You can learn more about Blanche in her memoir ‘In the Dark with my Dress on Fire’ which was co-authored by Blanche and Martin Klammer, published in 2011 (Jacana Media).

Hamba Kahle Blanche. 

Written by Nadia Joseph, Research & Content Lead, August 2023

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