Alan Paton would not have shrunk from crucial change whatever the cost, writes Tony Leon

Way back in 1974, in the village of Botha’s Hill when KZN was called Natal, apartheid was at its apogee and South Africa was another country, the boarding school I attended there played host to its most distinguished resident.

Alan Paton glared at our matric class through his half -rimmed glasses and delivered a lecture of grace, passion and anger.

Years later, but long before Penny Sparrow’s infamy made such observations unsayable, Irish writer Connor Cruise O’Brien memorialised Paton’s scowl. He described the world famous writer as having ‘’the countenance of an angry baboon.”

A visit to the Fugard Theatre in Cape Town recently to watch Ralph Lawson’s mesmerising performance as Paton in the play he co-wrote “A Voice I cannot Silence” was a reminder of the accuracy of O’Brien’s observation, and how perfectly the actor brought both his famous frown and his words back to life.

There are profound paradoxes in the life and work of Paton and it is very timely to reflect on some of them, especially since, other than this newspaper’s literary award named in his honour, little is heard of him these days and even less about the creed and causes he championed.

The first of these anomalies is that Paton’s “Cry the Beloved Country”, was actually written and published a few months before the National Party won power here in May 1948.

Yet, this book which more than any other chronicle on the perils and tragedies of race segregation in South Africa –it has sold more than 15m copies, became an international moral sword against a regime not yet in place when it first appeared.

This, of course, goes to the issue that the NP’s racial superstructure was built and perfected on a base of centuries of racial discrimination which intellectuals in the orbit of the African National Congress described as ‘colonialism of a special type’.

The play commences in 1969, a year of special significance in the long night of apartheid . Paton was by then leader of the small Liberal Party, which alone in the arena of white politics proposed, without qualification, that every South African should enjoy full civil rights, including the right to vote.

Its moral clarity on this issue and its non-racial membership both insured its lack of electoral success and the wrath of the National Party government. Thus, the Prohibition of Political Interference Act was rammed through parliament to prohibit mixed race political parties.

Paton’s spartanly furnished study is the set of the play and well reflects his no-frills approach to life and politics. He had no truck with this legislative mischief and decided to close down the Liberal Party rather than temporise with a core article of its political faith.

This was moral certitude in action heedless of consequence. The more successful Progressive Party of Helen Suzman compromised on the issue, purged its multiracial membership rolls and carried on, eventually some ten years later, achieving the status of official opposition.

Detractors of the Democratic Alliance, an offspring of the Progressive Party, can be heard accusing the party of lacking intellectual moorings and moral vigour. But, then again, building a broad political tent, not a pressure group, often requires compromise and dilution, however frustrating that is for true believers. Conscience is not always the surest route to political growth, or even survival.

Another irony in the life of Paton occurred with the timing of his death. He had long prophesied on the need for racial reconciliation and the virtues of constitutional safeguards against the tyrannies of state power to whose abuses he was often subject by the security police. He famously wrote, “Man was not born to go down on his belly before the state.”

Yet this often irascible and lonely champion of freedom died in 1988, just two years shy of the sweeping changes which FW de Klerk, the nephew of Paton’s great nemesis white supremacist leader JG Strijdom, inaugurated when he turned his back on the house of racial power he inherited.

Paton who crossed swords with Nelson Mandela over the use of violence to overthrow apartheid, was unhesitating in answering the plea of Mandela’s lawyers to provide evidence in mitigation of sentence during the Rivonia Trial.
As Mandela’s attorney Joel Joffe later wrote of his response: “ He was one of that breed that was in danger of becoming extinct in South Africa – a liberal of principle and courage, who is not afraid to raise his voice against the stream. “

In the play, Paton’s second wife Anne Hopkins Paton is played with no nonsense sensibility by Clare Mortimer as the orderly, domesticated ying to his intellectual and often scatter-brained yang. She speculates as to how much pleasure Paton would have derived from witnessing, had he lived, the triumphant realisation of his seemingly forlorn quest in the form of the first all-race elections here on 27 April 1994.

But, speaking directly to the audience in the present tense –presumably with a nod to Guptanomics, Nkandla excesses and the unburied past of the Marikana massacre, Anne Paton offers a more rueful thought: “I’m glad he is not alive to see all this now.”

A few days after attending the play I had the opportunity to meet with an acquaintance who had held high office in the ANC and has now retired from frontline politics. Vehemently opposed to her party’s president, she remains unflinching in her loyalty to his party, which is still very much her own.

I thought here is a paradox which even Paton himself would have found hard to unlock. The thesis offered in its defence is that an electorally weakened ANC would be even more injurious to the economic and political health of the country than the current version. So the easy target which the opposition sees in Zuma is offset, to some extent, by the fierce party loyalty which still animates his staunchest critics within his movement.

One of the dividing lines between Paton and those in whose impassioned defence he spoke at the Rivonia trial, was their fealty to Communism and his detestation of it.

Paton had a sceptical faith on political labels and parties, though he might have appreciated –beyond irony or rational explanation – just how deep such attachments remain .

Historian Tony Judt wrote of one of Stalin’s victims being ferried off to a gulag at the height of his tyrannical purges in 1936, and how she still remained as attached to the movement as her leaders. “The system could still be fixed. This capacity, this profound need to believe well in the Soviet project, was so firmly embedded in 1936, that even its victims did not lose faith.”

The election results here on August 3rd should indicate just how many local true believers remain of the faith. But Paton would not resile from the prospects of change, however bleak. He noted, “To give up the task of reforming society is to give up one’s responsibility as a free man.”

– Sunday Times