Blanche Herman was born on 30 November 1927 in Athlone, Cape Town, the youngest of five children. Although her parents were not political, they were actively involved in local civic associations. Her mother, Sophia Herman, was active in the food committees of the 1940s. Blanche stated:
She would organise the queues in Athlone as the lorries came and saw that each one got her share without doing herself more. We had to go two, three o’clock in the morning to get our place in the queue to get our two cups of sugar. It was largely women: Katie White, Gladys Smith and Hettie September. The government had arranged that vans came around to certain locations in certain areas. They were loaded with rice one week and sugar the next week.
Blanche was educated in Athlone and attended Trafalgar High. Her fellow students included Alex La Guma, who shared political interests with Blanche’s brother. During the 1940s she began to attend Communist Party of South Africa (CPSA – later renamed the South African Communist Party -SACP) meetings in Athlone, where the activist James La Guma (her future father-in-law) spoke. She soon started to distribute Party literature. According to Alex la Guma, at the branch, “They were proud of her – because she sold lots of Party literature and could be relied upon to do a job of work.”
In 1950 she took up nursing at St Monica’s Home, the first institution in Cape Town where Coloured women could train as nurses. Here she specialised as a midwife. She said, “I couldn’t go for a longer course, I finished quickly so I could help augment the income at home. It was a tough time we were going through.”
In 1954, Blanche married the writer and prominent CPSA activist, Alex La Guma, with whom she had two children, Eugene and Bartholomew. Politically she became increasingly active, first in the formation of Federation of South African Women (FSAW) and within the underground Communist Party – the National Party declared the CPSA illegal. At this time, Alex was an organiser for the Congress-allied Coloured Peoples Congress, while Blanche was the family breadwinner. According to Alex, “She was one of the most popular and well-liked midwives in the district where we lived and was kept busy all the time. But she always found time for political work among women.”
In 1957, in response to the Nursing Act (No. 69) of that year, Blanche organised a demonstration of 300 nurses. She was detained under the 90-day solitary confinement laws in 1963 and subsequently banned.
In 1966, Alex and Blanche went into exile, traveling to the United Kingdom, where she started to work as a midwife, then as a sister at the City of London Maternity Hospital. Between 1970 and 1977, she was a manager at the Soviet Weekly. She and Alex subsequently moved to Cuba, where he acted as the African National Congress (ANC) representative for the Caribbean. In 1985 Alex died and Blanche returned to London. In 1992 she returned to Cape Town.
- Scanlon, H. 2007. “Representation and reality: Portraits of Women’s Lives in the Western Cape 1948-1976”. HSRC Press: Cape Town.