Alan Stewart Paton (1903-1988) was a South African writer and liberal leader. His novel Cry, The Beloved Country won him world acclaim for the insights it gave on South Africa's race problem.
Alan Stewart Paton was born in Pietermaritzburg in the Natal Province, a former British colony that is now part of the Republic of South Africa, on January 11, 1903. From 1919 to 1922 he attended the University of Natal, from which he graduated with degrees in science and education. At this time Paton began writing poetry and dramas. In 1925 he became the assistant master at the Ixopo High School and, in 1928, joined the staff of Pietermaritzburg College. He was appointed principal of the Diepkloof Reformatory in 1935 and retired from government service in 1948. Thereafter, Paton devoted his life to writing, lecturing on the race question, and organizing the Liberal Party of South Africa.
Paton the Activist
The Diepkloof Reformatory, just outside Johannesburg, had been administered as a prison for delinquent youths from the slums rather than an institution for their rehabilitation. Paton insisted that this defeated the purpose of the reformatory. He introduced reforms which enabled some of the young to regain their self-respect. His granting of weekend leave was considered revolutionary. To the surprise of some of his colleagues, most of the boys returned at the end of their leave.
Paton began writing Cry, The Beloved Country in 1947 while touring American and European prisons and reformatories. In 1948 Cry, The Beloved Country was published, becoming an immediate success. At the same time, the predominantly Afrikaner Nationalist party was returned to power on the apartheid slogan that white's must remain master of South Africa. To Paton and those who shared his views, it was not enough for white liberals to preach race conciliation; they had to involve themselves actively in opposition to apartheid. Early in the 1950s he took part in the formation of the Liberal Association, which later became the Liberal Party of South Africa (SALP). He was elected its president in 1953 and remained in this position until the government enacted a law making the party illegal.
The SALP welcomed South Africans of all races in its ranks and sought to establish an open society in which merit would fix the position of the individual in the life of the nation. It advocated nonviolence and set out to collaborate with the black Africans' political organizations. Like most leaders of the SALP, Paton was criticized bitterly in the Afrikaans press for identifying himself with black Africans. The underlying fear was that he and his colleagues were creating potentially dangerous polarizations in the white community.
The party, however, gained a substantial following among both blacks and whites. In 1960 the government decided to take action against it. Peter Brown and Elliot Mngadi, national chairman and Natal secretary respectively of the SALP, were banned. Some of the party's leaders fled the country, while others like Hyacinth Bhengu and Jordan K. Ngubane, were arrested and tried on conspiracy charges. Paton was spared the arrests and the bannings. The government did, however, seize his passport upon his return from New York after having accepted the Freedom House Award honoring his opposition to racism. After a little less than ten years the government returned Paton's passport. That made it possible for him to undertake a world tour (1971) during the course of which he was showered with honors in America and Europe.
Paton the Writer
As a writer, Paton was a subject of controversy in his country. Cry, The Beloved Country made a tremendous impression outside South Africa and among the English-speaking in the republic. The nationalist-minded Afrikaners dismissed it, as a piece of liberalistic sentimentality. It caused only a minor stir in the black African community, where Paton was criticized for using stereotypes in depicting his black African characters. He was accused of approaching the black Africans from white perspectives which projected them either as the victims of violent and uncontrolled passions or as simple, credulous people who bore themselves with the humility of tamed savages in the presence of the white man.
The years after 1948 were to see a long list of publications from Paton's pen. In 1953 he published Too Late, the Phalarope. This was followed by Land and the People of South Africa (1955), South Africa in Transition (1956), Hope for South Africa (1958), Tales from a Troubled Land (1960), Debbie Go Home (1961), Hofmeyr (1965), South African Tragedy (1965), Instrument of Thy Peace (1967), The Long View (1968), For You Departed (1969), Creative Suffering: The Ripple of Hope (1970), Knocking on the Door: Alan Paton/Shorter Writings (1975), and Towards the Mountain: An Autobiography (1988). In addition to these, Paton wrote a musical, Mkhumbane, for which Todd Matshikiza, the exiled African composer, wrote the music. Paton also wrote the play, Sponono, in 1965.
Among the more significant awards Paton received were doctorates in literature from Kenyon College (1962), Natal University (1968), and Harvard University (1971); the London Sunday Times Special Award for Literature (1949); a doctorate in literature and the humanities from Yale University (1954); the Freedom House Award (1960); and an award from the Free Academy of Art, Hamburg, Germany (1961).
Paton died of throat cancer on April 12, 1988 at his home outside Durban shortly after completing Journey Continued: An Autobiography. He was mourned as one of South Africa's leading figures in the anti-apartheid movement. Shortly after his death, his widow, Anne (Hopkins) Paton released a large portion of the contents of Paton's study for the establishment of The Alan Paton Centre on the Pietermaritzburg campus of the University of Natal. The university set aside space for this permanent memorial to Paton for future generations of writers and activists.
In 1996 American actor James Earl Jones and Irish actor Richard Harris starred in a film version of Cry, The Beloved Country and received critical acclaim for their portrayal of Paton's characters.
Further Reading on Alan Stewart Paton
A perceptive study of Paton is Edward Callan Alan Paton (1968). Some biographical information on Paton can also be found in the Washington Post (June 6, 1991) and the San Francisco Chronicle (March 19, 1989). Information on Cry, The Beloved Country as a film can be found in the New York Times (December 19, 1994). A brief biography of Paton appears in the A&E Television Network's on-line biography Website located at //www.biography.com.