A trade unionist and political activist, was the elder of two children born to an itinerant cobbler, Arnold, and his wife Jemima. While the domestic circumstances of the LA Guma family, which was of French-Malgasy origin, are obscure during this period, it is known that La Guma was orphaned when he was but five years old. He and his sister, Marinette, were at first cared for by a washerwoman and later adopted by an uncle, James Mansfield, who lived in Parow on the outskirts of Cape Town.
At the age of eight La Guma got his first job, working long hours at a Parow bakery. When his guardian moved to Cape Town a year or two later, he could attend school. While in Standard 2, he was forced to abandon his education to help support the household. After working as a messenger for a while, La Guma entered an apprenticeship as a leather worker in 1907. Being an avid reader and preferring to spend his pocket money at the second-hand bookstalls on the Grand Parade, he all the while advanced his own education.
Even before he had reached teens, La Guma had started identifying with the struggles of the labouring poor. He was deeply impressed by R. Tressall's The ragged trousered philanthropists that recounted the life and struggles of the English working classes. Growing up in poverty in recession-hit Cape Town in the period following the South African War (1899-1902), La Guma was no stranger to the privations and discontent of the labouring classes. He got his first taste of spontaneous working-class political action when he participated in the so-called 'hooligan riots' that engulfed Cape Town for several days in 1906.
In 1910 La Guma and two friends, responded to an advertisement for 'Cape boy' labour in German South West Africa (Namibia) out of desire for adventure. At the age of sixteen La Guma thus found himself on the dock at Luderitz where he was indentured to a German cattle farmer for a few years. He subsequently worked for a while on the railways under harshly exploitative conditions. The outbreak of World War I (1914-1918), however, found him labouring on the diamond diggings around Kolmanskop. Because of poor working conditions on the diamond fields, La Guma together with a few fellow diggers formed a workers' committee in 1918 and organised a strike. This venture ended with striking workers being led from the diamond fields under armed guard.
Blacklisted from working on diggings, La Guma drifted through several jobs during the next three years. In 1919 he was arrested, but fined only one shilling by a sympathetic magistrate for his part in organising a campaign against coloureds having to wear the 'blik-pas', a metal identity disk worn on the arm. Impressed with the aims and militancy of Clements Kadalie's Industrial and Commercial Workers' Union (ICU), La Guma was instrumental in setting up an ICU branch at Luderitz the following year and was elected branch secretary.
In 1921 La Guma returned to Cape Town at the request of Kadalie who recognised that the young man's enthusiasm for the workers' cause and his organisational ability would be an asset to the rapidly growing ICU. His first major assignment for the ICU was to revive its Port Elizabeth branch that had lapsed after police had suppressed an ICU demonstration in the city in October 1920. Having proven his mettle as an organiser in Port Elizabeth, La Guma was elected assistant general secretary of the ICU in 1923 and returned to Cape Town. Here he helped establish an efficient administrative system for the organisation and had a hand insetting up its official organ, the Worker's Herald, published from April 1923 onwards. It was in the ICU of the early 1920s that La Guma met John Gomas who was to become a close associate throughout his active political career.
La Guma joined the Communist Party of South Africa (CPSA), South African Communist Party (SACP) after 1953) in 1925 and was elected to its Central Committee in 1926. Being one of Kadalie's closest lieutenants, he went to live in Johannesburg in the same year because the ICU had moved its headquarters there. However, he returned to Cape Town at the end of 1926 after being expelled from the ICU in a purge of CPSA members.
La Guma subsequently devoted his energies to the CPSA and the African National Congress (ANC). In 1927 he was elected secretary of the Cape Town branch of the ANC and the following year became the organisation's secretary for the Western Cape. In February 1927 he travelled to Brussels, Belgium, as CPSA delegate to the first international conference La Guma was invited to tour Germany and give lectures. He surprised audiences with his fluency in the language. He went on to visit the Soviet Union (USSR) in the company of ANC president, J. T. Gumede. Later that year he returned to the USSR at the invitation of the Soviet government to celebrate the tenth anniversary of the October Revolution (1917).
La Guma is reputed to have displayed Africanist leanings already in the early 1920s by expressing a desire for the emergence of stronger black political leadership and being sceptical of the value of white workers to the revolutionary movement. He argued that white workers, realising that their privilege rested on the exploitation of the black proletariat, could not be relied upon to support any revolutionary initiative. This tendency was greatly strengthened by his experience at the Brussels conference and his visits to the USSR where he held discussions with Bukharin and other officials of Communism International (Comintern) on strategies for achieving black liberation in South Africa. It is thus no surprise that he returned to South Africa an ardent exponent of the Comintern's new approach to the 'colonial question': establishing independent, democratic, 'native' republics as a step towards the overthrow of capitalism in the colonial empires. La Guma adopted this controversial stance because he felt the empowerment of a black political leadership to be crucial to the success of communism in South Africa. He also argued that this strategy would win a mass base for the CPSA by harnessing the nationalist aspirations of blacks, especially within the petty bourgeoisie.
Although a committed communist, La Guma fell foul of the CPSA hierarchy during this period because he was not prepared to toe the CPSA line strictly and because his Africanist sentiments alienated him from its largely white leadership. In 1929 La Guma was expelled from the CPSA for breach of discipline when he canvassed for an opponent of Douglas Wolton, CPSA chairperson, in the general elections of that year. Three months after being readmitted in 1931, La Guma was expelled a second time for ignoring a CPSA directive that he refuse aid from non-CPSA unions in a strike he was helping to organise. Heated clashes with Lazar Bach, one of the more doctrinaire members of the CPSA, over this and other issues did not promote his cause.
After four years in the political wilderness, La Guma re-entered active politics as a founder member of the National Liberation League (NLL), a largely coloured political organisation that sought to unite blacks in a common stand against segregation. He was elected secretary at its inaugural conference in 1935 and was editor of its newspaper, the Liberator, published for a few months during 1937. La Guma played a prominent role in the NLL's anti-segregationist protests and is accredited with having composed the organisation's anthem, 'Dark Folks Arise'. He was, however, expelled from the NLL in April 1939 largely as a result of his insistence that the organisation restrict its leadership to blacks. Objecting especially to the prominent role that white CPSA leaders such as Sam Khan and Harry Snitcher were allowed to play in the organisation, he allowed his CPSA membership to lapse. In July 1939 La Guma, together with a small group of followers, formed the National Development League (NDL). The NDL, with its policy of fostering black economic independence under black political leadership, lasted but a few months. In 1939 and again in 1940 La Guma stood unsuccessfully for election to the Cape Town City Council as the "Working Man's Candidate'.
Thoroughly disillusioned with politics and with the South African left wing La Guma, at the age of 46, understated his age in order to join the Indian Malay Corps in 1940. He rationalised this move by taking issue with the left-wing stance that the working class should wash its hands of the Second World War (1939-1945) as matter strictly between the imperialist powers. He argued that the Second World War was an anti-Fascist war-in reality a continuation of the Spanish Civil War-and that socialists thus had a duty to volunteer. He spent seven years in the Corps, attained the rank of staff sergeant and saw service in East and North Africa.
Upon being demobilised in 1947, La Guma rejoined the CPSA, was elected to its Central Committee and served in this capacity until the CPSA's dissolution after the passage of the Suppression of Communism Act of 1950. In the meantime he was also involved in an abortive attempt to revive the African Political Organisation and was unsuccessful in a third attempt at being elected to the Cape Town City Council in 1947.
Disillusioned with the SACP's apparently tame response to state repression and wanting to make up for years of neglect. La Guma spent most of the 1950s with his family. During these years of political isolation he was frustrated as he witnessed the inexorable advance of segregationist measures under apartheid laws. Indeed, he resigned his job as foreman at a Cape Town firm in protest at being demoted to make way for a white employee.
La Guma re-entered protest politics in 1957 when his son Alex (J. A. La Guma) was arrested on a charge of high treason in December 1956 for his role in the Congress of the People. He was elected president of the South African Coloured People's Organisation at its first national conference in 1957. With age and ill health catching up on him and his consequent irascibility not contributing to his popularity, La Guma decided once more to retire from active politics in 1959. He was nevertheless arrested with the declaration of a state emergency that followed the Sharpevillle shootings in 1960, and was detained for three months. La Guma's health failed rapidly after this. Suffering a cerebral thrombosis a few months after his release from prison, he died a few months later of a fatal heart attack at Groote Schuur Hospital.
In 1923 La Guma married a childhood sweetheart, Wilhelmina (Minnie) Alexander, the daughter of a carpenter who was active in the African Political Organisation. In Minnie, La Guma found a lifelong companion who supported his political activities despite his frequent absences from home, the economic sacrifices and the personal risks involved. Of their marriage a son, Alexander, the celebrated novelist, and a daughter, Joan, were born.