Alan Stewart Paton (1903 - 1988)
The Order of Ikhamanga in
Profile of Alan Stewart Paton
Alan Stewart Paton was born in Pietermaritzburg, KwaZulu-Natal in 1903. The son of James and Eunice Paton, he was brought up in the tradition of English liberalism to acknowledge the rights of others.
Alan Paton wrote one of the great novels of the 20th century, Cry, the Beloved Country, and towers among the literary icons and sons of South Africa.
Critic James Stern has called Cry, the Beloved Country 'one of the best novels of our time'.
The novel, Paton's first, changed his life. Its success allowed him to write full-time and he prolifically produced poetry, plays, articles, short stories, biographies and novels right up to the time of his death.
Among Paton's early reading were Walter Scott, Charles Dickens, Rupert Brooke and the Bible. His writing was deeply influenced by the Christian faith of his parents and the Old Testament. Paton disapproved of authoritarianism as a matter of principle. This may have contributed to Paton's radically reformist approach as the principal of the Diepkloof Reformatory for African Juvenile Delinquents between 1935 and 1948, as well as his general stance against apartheid authority and its practice.
Paton published his first poem in 1920 in the magazine of Natal University College at which he was registered for a Bachelor of Science degree.
At university, Paton's understanding of black South Africans grew. He also became active in student affairs and showed a talent for public representation.
Paton became a science teacher in 1925, teaching for three years in Ixopo where much of his famous novel, Cry, the Beloved Country, is set. He then moved to Pietermaritzburg to teach at Maritzburg College.
His commitment to engaging public interests took full form in his founding membership, as vice chairperson, of the South African Liberal Party in 1953, which challenged apartheid legislation. Paton remained in the leadership of the Liberal Party, as chairperson and then president, until its forced dissolution in 1968 under a law that prohibited multiracial party membership.
Paton believed that a novel written in South Africa was not worth publishing if it did not concern the central issues. His work expressed the social, political and moral commitment of his being and his view of life as a spiritual journey.
Some of his work, like his second novel Too Late the Phalarope, has been critically judged as superior to Cry, the Beloved Country, but nothing commanded the exceptional recognition and acclaim of his first novel.
As a dynamic work, Cry, the Beloved Country has been variously assessed according to the conditions of the times. In the 1970s, it came under critique from black political opinion for, in the words of writer Lewis Nkosi, its 'distorted, sentimental, if ameliorative vision'.
However, Nkosi writes: 'Paton's generosity of spirit, his courageous plea for racial justice, and all those qualities which have earned him the undying respect of many Africans, were not of course in question'.
Nelson Mandela, at whose treason trial Paton gave evidence in mitigation of sentence in 1964, has signified Cry, the Beloved Country a monument to the future.
Alan Paton was one of South Africa's leading humanists. Paton himself envisioned 'a great, peaceful South Africa in which the world will take pride, a nation in which each of many different groups will be making its own creative contribution'.
Though he did not live to see it, the current democratic order in South Africa vindicated his faith.
Alan Paton died aged 85, on 12 April 1988 at his home in Botha's Hill, KwaZulu-Natal.