Blanche La Guma

Blanche La Guma (née Herman) was born in 1927 in Athlone, South Africa. She trained as a nurse and midwife in the 1950s.  Blanche married the famous novelist Alex La Guma in 1954 and they both pursued activism against the Apartheid regime. She was particularly concerned with the discrimination against Black nurses and was a member of the Communist Party. Following the restrictions placed on her husband, Blanche became the sole provider for her family through her earnings as a midwife. They were exiled from South Africa in 1966 and subsequently lived in London until they moved to Havana in 1978. While in London, Blanche chose to complete a six-month refresher course in midwifery and conducted house calls in 1967. During this time, she had to live at the hospital and thus ran away several times a week so she could spend a few hours with her children. She was part of a nursing association called the North London Group which overworked their nurses, according to Blanche. Through the association, she acquired work as an auxiliary nurse at the City of London Maternity Hospital in Islington. She worked part-time from 8am-3pm so she could look after and educate her children. Blanche could start nursing in England without having to complete a test, because the nursing standard was quite high in South Africa. In fact, she was trained by British nurses from St Thomas’ hospital who had travelled to South Africa. In 1970, she was promoted from staff nurse to sister-in-charge of the lying-in ward after the Matron, who was impressed by her work and  instructed her to apply. Blanche maintained her rebellious spirit during her time as a nurse and sought to improve maternal care within her hospital. However, she resigned in 1971 because she felt overlooked and quarrelled often with the Matron. Later that year, she became an office manager for Soviet Weekly, which was “a magazine and information bureau that provided the West with photos and stories in English about news and developments in the republics of the Soviet Union”.


Key quotes:

“I spoke my mind the entire time I worked as a nurse in England.”

“Because of what I had endured in South Africa, I felt I was able to take on anything and succeed.”-140

“My main task, though, was to manage and inspire the nurses. I felt that I got the best out of them. You can only run a ward under strict discipline, but you must be flexible too.” -140

“I grew frustrated because we were understaffed, and I certainly couldn’t do the work all on my own. Matron would schedule only four training nurses to work with me, and quite often these nurses had been instructed by her to attend their training lectures. Sometimes I had a qualified staff nurse with them, yet even she would be taken from me to work in another ward, leaving me as the only qualified nurse on duty. That really made my blood boil.”-141.


“She’d adopted a bullying attitude and thought I was afraid of her. But she didn’t know I’d been through the mill in South Africa and had defied the Special Branch, and so had no qualms about defying her. I had learned a lot from my lawyers, Himie Bernadt, Henry Brown and Albie Sachs. I knew my rights. I knew how to stand up for myself against those trying to exploit me and defend my dignity. I was prepared to lose my job in defence of my dignity, just as my father had.” 142-43.

“No one at the hospital knew I was married to a famous author. In fact I never mentioned that Alex was an author until one of the doctors met a white colleague from South Africa who told him about Alex and our life fighting apartheid. I was suddenly elevated in their eyes. The Assistant Matron told everyone, ‘You know, La Guma’s husband is an intellectual!” They were impressed not with the man for who he was, but because he was an intellectual. One of the nurses even asked me how I had managed to ‘catch an intellectual’. This was typical of the class-conscious attitude of people in England. They didn’t understand how I was able to keep Alex. They thought I wasn’t good enough for him, that I wasn’t in his class.”-143.


“I got on well with all the nurses. What knocked me for a loop was how my promotion set me apart from them. I had started out as a staff nurse and enjoyed knowing the other nurses as friends. But when I became a nursing sister and was put in charge of the ward, I was told I mustn’t go into the staff nurses’ room anymore. ‘I don’t understand,’ I said to Alex. ‘I was with these girls all the time and now I can’t go into their room.’ ‘As a communist you’ve been studying this very class system’ he said. ‘This is it. You’re living it now.’ I then saw the true picture.” -143


References:

1-13 Roger Field, Martin Klammer, and Blanche La Guma. In the Dark with My Dress on Fire: My Life in Cape Town, London, Havana and Home Again (Jacana Media, 2011)