Ah, but Your Land Is Beautiful
Ah, But Your Land Is Beautiful, like the earlier works of Alan Paton, reveals the author’s great love for his native land and its people. He writes of a grand part of the world, a country of which visitors say, “Ah, but your land is beautiful.” For Paton, however, the well-meant praise for South Africa, especially Natal, where the novelist resides, has a fearsome irony: while the land is undeniably beautiful, the lives its people lead are full of prejudice, of stress, of fear, and even of terror. Each individual, regardless of race, has to learn how to live within the stringent regulations of apartheid. Each person has to decide whether to accept the policies of segregation or to strive to change them. Conflicts arise and not only between groups of people—the whites, the blacks, the Indians, and those of mixed race known in South Africa as “Coloured.” Conflicts grow among the members of each group, too. Further, conflicts arise within the individual and must be mastered, lest they destroy the person in whom they occur.
Paton has divided his novel into six chronological sections. The first section deals with the Defiance Campaign which arose in 1952. In part, it is the story of Prem Bodasingh, an eighteen-year-old Indian girl who insists on defying the rules that forbid her to use the Durban Municipal Reference Library because she is not white. Again and again, quietly but firmly, she enters the library, to be arrested, to be imprisoned, to risk having her chances for an education ended. She does this to demonstrate the injustice of a rule which prevents her, an outstanding student in her secondary school, from using the library’s resources. The novelist uses her as a striking example of how people in South Africa tried to change the policies of the government. Her efforts were, at the time, seemingly without success. During the Defiance Campaign, rioting occurred, people were killed, and hundreds more suffered injuries. The government, in answer to the situation, stiffened the punishments for lawbreaking with intent to protest apartheid. Africans and Indians cooperated in the campaign, but the leaders had to call off the efforts because of the harm coming to their own people and the whites who helped them.
The second portion of the novel relates how people who worked for the government found themselves caught, as it were, in a cleft stick. The ruling Nationalist Party and its regulations placed them in conflict with the government if they did not share the Afrikaner views. To illustrate the problems of these people, Paton relates the difficulties facing the white, English-speaking headmaster of a school for whites, who wishes to have his students compete with students from a nonwhite school in athletics and debate. Paton also shows the difficulties of the black headmaster of a school for blacks. The two administrators only wish to help their students, but to do so becomes impossible for them; the political conditions interfere with the goals of education. Given both courage and an independent income, a person can leave teaching and enter politics to fight as a leader of the Liberal Party, as the white headmaster, Robert Mansfield, does. Without resources, the black headmaster can only try to survive professionally until retirement.
The division between whites and blacks is not the only line of tension in South Africa. Paton shows vividly how the events of history have pitted the white descendants of Dutch settlers against the people of English-speaking ancestry. In part, this conflict is rooted in the defeat of the Afrikaners in the Boer War of almost a century ago. The Afrikaners came to have political power once again and have remembered bitterly how they were “outside” for many years. The conflict between Afrikaner and Britisher has its roots in religion as well. For the Afrikaner, the policies of apartheid have the blessing of his church, as he and his coreligionists...
(The entire section is 1,405 words.)