Author and Activist Alan Paton

“There is only one way in which one can endure man’s inhumanity to man and that is to try, in one’s own life, to exemplify man’s humanity to man.” These words by Alan Stewart Paton (1903-1988) reveal the compassion and sense of justice which permeated the life and career of this renowned South African author and anti-apartheid activist. Paton is likely most famously known for his book Cry, The Beloved Country, published in New York City in 1948, just months before the Nationalist Party came into power and instituted the infamous apartheid regime which Paton would outspokenly decry throughout his life.

Born in Pietermaritzburg in the KwaZulu Natal province of South Africa, Alan Paton attended Maritzburg College and went on to earn a Bachelor of Science degree and diploma in education. His career started as a teacher at the Ixopo High School, later moving on to teach at Maritzburg College. Between 1935 and 1949, Paton was the principal of the Diepkloof Reformatory for young black boys who had broken the law. He introduced a pioneering policy requiring the boys in his care to earn privileges by proving themselves trustworthy. Based on their behavior, some were permitted to work or reside outside of the compound under the supervision of appointed foster-type families. In the time Paton was in charge of the Diepkloof Reformatory, more than ten thousand boys had been given home leave, with more than ninety-nine percent never breaking the trust that was put in them.

In an attempt to fight against apartheid legislation, Paton founded the Liberal Party of South Africa in 1953, remaining as the president of the party until it was forcefully dissolved by the ruling Nationalist Party in the late 1960s, with the reason being that by having both black and white members it was breaking the law. Although Paton was in favour of peaceful reform, others in the party tried to force reform through violence, which caused the party to be viewed unfavourably by authorities. Upon returning from receiving the Freedom Award in New York in 1960, Paton’s passport was confiscated and only return to him ten years later. He continued to be outspoken against the injustices of apartheid until his death in 1988.

Cry, The Beloved Country was filmed twice – in 1951 and 1995 – and was the inspiration behind the Broadway musical Lost in the Stars. Paton’s other works include Too Late the Phalarope, The Land and People of South Africa, Tales from a Troubled Land, Ah, but Your Land is Beautiful, and Journey Continued: An Autobiography. The Alan Paton Award for noteworthy works of South African non-fiction has been made annually since 1989. The criteria for being in line to receive this prestigious award include that the writing must demonstrate compassion, elegance of writing, illumination of truthfulness, and intellectual and moral integrity.