This Day In Literary History
On January 11th, 1901, the legendary South African writer and activist Alan Paton was born in Kwa-Zulu Natal, South Africa, the son of a civil servant.
After earning his Bachelor's degree at the University of Natal, Paton became a high school teacher. Later, in 1935, he took a job as principal of the Diepkloof Reformatory for black African juvenile offenders.
Disgusted by the prior mistreatment of the boys at the reformatory, and hoping to truly rehabilitate them, Paton introduced a series of progressive reforms, all of which were considered highly controversial by his fellow white South Africans.
The most controversial reform was his new honor system, whereby offenders would be allowed to work outside the reformatory. Some boys who proved their trustworthiness would even be allowed to live outside the reformatory with a foster family.
Paton's reforms proved to be a huge success. During his fourteen years as principal of Diepkloof Reformatory, some 10,000 boys were granted outside leave, and less than 1% failed to return.
When World War II broke out in 1939, Alan Paton volunteered for military service, but was rejected. So, he traveled around the world, visiting juvenile correctional facilities in other countries. He also began working on his first novel, which would become an all-time classic and an international bestseller.
Cry, The Beloved Country (1948) told the story of Stephen Kumalo, a black pastor from the small village of Ixopo, who receives a letter from a priest in Johannesburg asking him to come and help his sister Gertrude, who is ill.
Kumalo's son Absalom had gone to Johannesburg to look for Gertrude, but never came home. So, Kumalo decides to go to the city himself. When he arrives in Johannesburg, Kumalo finds that Gertrude has become a prostitute and an alcoholic, but he convinces her to return along with her young son.
Then Kumalo begins searching for his own son, Absalom. The trail leads him to discover that Absalom served time in a reformatory, impregnated a girl, and is now facing execution for allegedly murdering a man during a burglary.
The victim was Arthur Jarvis, a white activist for racial justice - and the son of James Jarvis, Kumalo's neighbor in Ixopo. James and Arthur had been estranged, but after reading his son's writings, James decides to carry on Arthur's work on behalf of oppressed black South Africans.
Meanwhile, Kumalo and his son Absalom are reunited. Before he is executed, Absalom marries the girl he impregnated. She decides to return to Ixopo with her new father-in-law. Back home, Kumalo, with help from James Jarvis, tries to restore the barren farmlands of his village.
Cry, The Beloved Country would become a classic, as it explored the societal and political changes in South Africa that would lead to the introduction of the apartheid system in that country.
The novel was published in 1948, and later that same year, the right wing National Party would seize power. Within the next few years, they would pass the legislation that defined the apartheid system, stripping black South Africans of their citizenship and civil rights.
In 1953, Alan Paton founded the South African Liberal Party, (SALP) which fought against the apartheid laws. Paton would serve as president of the SALP until the late 1960s, when the party was outlawed by the apartheid regime because its membership was comprised of both blacks and whites.
Paton's friend, Bernard Friedman, would later found the Progressive Party. Paton's anti-apartheid activities often raised the ire of the regime. In 1960, the South African Secret Police learned that Paton's party was receiving donations from international sources.
Legally, they couldn't stop the transactions, so when Paton returned from a trip to New York City, (where he received the Freedom Award) the secret police confiscated his passport and didn't return it for ten years.
Alan Paton would write other memorable novels, which also dealt with racial injustice in South Africa, as did his short story collection, Tales From a Troubled Land (1961).
He also wrote collections of essays; his last one, Save the Beloved Country, was published posthumously in 1989. He died in 1988 at the age of 85.
Beginning in 1990, as the result of violent resistance at home and mounting opposition around the world, South Africa's apartheid system slowly but surely came to an end, culminating in the African National Congress's landslide victory over the National Party in the 1994 election.
Quote Of The Day
"The truth is, our civilization is not Christian; it is a tragic compound of great ideal and fearful practice, of loving charity and fearful clutching of possessions." - Alan Paton
Today's video features a clip from a rare 1960 Canadian TV interview with Alan Paton. Enjoy!