Article abstract: Through his writings and political work, Paton both foresaw and helped to effect fundamental changes in the shape of South African society.
Alan Stewart Paton was born in Pietermaritzburg, Natal, South Africa, on January 11, 1903. His father James was a stern authoritarian from Scotland, and his mother Eunice was a mild schoolteacher of British ancestry. The family was of the Christadelphian faith, which Alan would leave as a young man. A good student, Alan attended the Berg St. Girls School, a coeducational facility, and accelerated quickly. Though timid and shy, he enjoyed performing and role-playing. In 1914, Paton earned a scholarship to attend Maritzburg College, one of South Africa’s oldest schools. He graduated at the age of fifteen with many prizes and honors.
In 1919 Paton entered Natal University College on an Education Department bursary to become a science teacher. While there, he published poems in the Natal Witness and the campus magazine, acted in plays, began a novel, and was active in the debating society. Paton developed a circle of friends known for their puns and clever repartee. He joined the rugby, tennis, and cricket clubs and was selected as a dapper dresser by a campus journal. Though short of stature—he never grew taller than 5 feet 7 inches—his pale blue eyes and straight brown hair made him a fairly attractive man.
While at the university, Paton abandoned Christadelphianism, thus distancing himself from his family. He became president of the Students Representative Council and in July 1924 was their delegate to an Imperial Conference in England. It was his first trip abroad, and it opened his eyes to how other nations regarded his country’s treatment of Africans, Indians, and other nonwhites.
An interesting series of jobs helped Paton develop into a world-renowned author and social reformer. In 1925, fresh out of the university, Paton had great ambition but no clear path. He took his first position as a teacher in Ixopo, a village southwest of Pietermaritzburg. His three years there were challenging, and he was known more for his strict disciplinary practices than for his effectiveness as an instructor. In 1928, Paton accepted a post teaching at his alma mater, Maritzburg College. He joined a Christian men’s organization, Toc H, that focused on community and social service and soon becoming a senior administrator. Paton remained active with the organization through much of his life.
He continued writing poetry while aspiring to become a headmaster at the college. He befriended and deeply admired Jan Hendrik Hofmeyr, a rising politician who eventually became prime minister, and hoped to follow his mentor into politics as well. However, though Paton dropped many hints over the years, Hofmeyr, in his ascendance to higher and higher posts, never saw fit to offer preferment. In 1930, Paton enrolled for a master’s degree at Natal University College and joined the South African Institute of Race Relations, a small group of liberal thinkers addressing issues of race in the nation. His awareness of the injustices of South African society was growing steadily. Throughout his thirties, Paton wrote poems, short stories, and the beginnings of plays and novels that never reached fruition.
His career took a turn in 1935 when he applied for and was appointed headmaster at Diepkloof, a black prison that was being changed into a reformatory. Located outside of Johannesburg, Diepkloof was a shambles of squalor and filth when Paton arrived. With a clear mandate and strong pedagogical vision, he set about transforming Diepkloof into a civilized institution, using fairly radical theories that emphasized freedom over captivity and incorporated personal psychology as a factor in the teacher-student relationship. Under Paton’s leadership, Diepkloof saw a great drop in the rate of escapes and the successful implementation of many innovative techniques. Paton wrote little at Diepkloof but gathered mental prototypes for characters that would later appear in his fiction. He considered his thirteen years at Diepkloof some of the happiest and proudest of his life.
In 1946, Paton began to foresee the end of his tenure at Diepkloof. The rise of the Nationalist Party to political power promised a rollback of the reforms that Paton had modeled so successfully. He traveled on sabbatical to visit prisons in Britain, Sweden, Norway, and the United States. He was also considering what his next career move would be.
It was in a hotel in Trondheim, Norway, that Paton penned the words that would become the first paragraph of Cry, the Beloved Country. The novel deals with a Zulu pastor, his son, and the ambitions and crimes that engulf them on their separate journeys from rural Ixopo to the great city of Johannesburg. It is a very South African novel, and the injustices of race and apartheid are central themes. Paton completed the novel during his travels. While in the United States in 1947,...
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