Biographies of Famous South Africans
Special South Africans


Those who have inspired us. Those who have defined us.
Those who have shown us our common humanity.

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Alan Paton
11 January 1903 - 12 April 1988

Alan PatonAlan Paton was born in Pietermaritzburg a few months after the Anglo-Boer War had ended. There was still a strong animosity between Boer and Brit. His parents were English, but held comparatively liberal political views and taught their children that Afrikaners had a right to preserve their own culture. Paton was educated at a high school for white boys, Maritzburg College in Pietermaritzburg, and then Natal University, where he majored in math and physics. At the university he not only gained an education, but also broadened his understanding of Afrikaners, Blacks, Indians and Coloureds (persons of mixed ancestry). He was especially active in the Student Christian Association, a society dear to Paton’s hero, the South African political leader Jan Hofmeyr. Unlike Paton, Hofmeyr was of Boer descent, but he urged his fellow Boers to abandon bitter memories and to work for the good of all South Africans. As a young man Paton also learned to speak both Afrikaans and Zulu.

In 1925 Paton began teaching at the white high school in Ixopo. (His love of the area shows in Cry, the Beloved Country, from the first two sentences on). While teaching in Ixopo, Paton met Doris Olive Francis, whose husband was ill with tuberculosis. In 1928, three years after her husband died, she and Paton were married. The newly married couple moved to Pietermaritzburg so that Paton could take a more promising job at his old high school. Six years later he suffered a severe attack of typhoid and was hospitalized for more than two months.

During his recuperation he decided he didn’t want to spend the rest of his life teaching the sons of the rich. By that time Jan Hofmeyr was Minister of Education, so Paton asked his advice. Hofmeyr and the Prime Minister, Jan Christian Smuts, had just gotten three reformatories for delinquents under age 21 transferred from the justice department to the ministry of education. Hofmeyr advised his friend to apply for the job of warden at all three places. Paton did apply, despite his lack of experience in the criminal justice system, and was appointed in 1935 as warden of Diepkloof Reformatory for African Juvenile Delinquents, a grim place outside Johannesburg enclosed by a barbed-wire stockade. Even Hofmeyr said, “It is hard to know what can be done with it,” but Paton was excited - at the age of 32 he’d been given a prison to turn into a school.

Like the young white man from the reformatory in "Cry, the Beloved Country", he felt he had a chance to change the lives of young blacks. It held 400 boys (later more than 600), mostly blacks of the Xhosa ethnic group. He was appalled at the joyless atmosphere, and, every morning, at the stench. After supper and a full workday on the prison farm, the boys were locked up for 14 hours. Given a free hand, Paton transformed Diepkloof. His changes brought some joy to the place, Cry, the Beloved Countryeliminated the morning stink, and also ended the typhoid outbreaks that had previously caused many deaths. When World War II broke out in 1939, Paton tried to enlist in the South African army, but education officials considered him too valuable to let go. By the time the war ended in 1945, Paton was considered an authority on criminal rehabilitation, but he wondered how other countries ran penal institutions for the young. To find out, he financed an eight-month study trip.

He didn’t leave home with the intention of writing a novel while travelling. What started him off, that September afternoon in Norway, was a tour of the cathedral of Trondheim. The beauty of its famous rose window made him yearn to write about his beautiful homeland and its people. As Paton explains in an Author’s Note to "Cry, the Beloved Country", it was in San Francisco that friends read his manuscript and started contacting publishers. The book was first published in New York in early 1948. The novel sold well both in North America and in Great Britain. It was soon translated into some 20 languages, and made into a film in England (1952) and a musical in the United States ("Lost in the Stars", 1949). The South African edition, dedicated to Jan Hofmeyr, came out three months before Hofmeyr’s death at age 54 in December 1948. Book sales in South Africa were second only to those of the Bible, and Paton became famous. Critic James Stern in the New Republic called it “one of the best novels of our time.” And Orville Prescott, The New York Times book reviewer, wrote in the Yale Review that:
“Paton’s novel was the finest I have ever read about the tragic plight of black-skinned people in a white man’s world.”

Another event of importance to the Patons also occurred in 1948 - the coming to power of the Nationalist Party, pledged to separation of the races in every sphere of life. At Diepkloof the Patons had ignored people’s colour in forming friendships, and they could not endure the new government’s opposition to interracial association. With the success of his novel making Paton influential, he planned to become a full-time writer, but was drawn into the political arena. He was the first president of the Liberal Party of South Africa, which was founded in 1953 and forced to disband in 1968. For the next 15 years Paton’s life was dominated by activities of the racially mixed party, by writing plays for multiracial casts and audiences, and by political writing and speaking.

One play, "Mkhumbane", drew packed houses in Durban City Hall in 1960 - at a time when peaceful black protest against Apartheid at Sharpeville and Cape Town was dealt with extremely harshly by the government. For his work on behalf of the people of South Africa and against the evils of apartheid, Paton has received international recognition. In 1960 he received the Freedom Award from Freedom House. His second novel, "Too Late the Phalarope", appeared in 1953. He published a variety of books, and articles.

Paton was a public figure, hated by the Apartheid government (though it later tried to befriend him), but admired by many in South Africa and abroad. He received numerous awards and honorary degrees. Those caught up in militant resistance politics in the last two decades of the apartheid era tended to distrust his reconciliatory attitude, but after the big political changes in 1990 (two years after his death at home in Lintrose, Natal) his approach was generally accepted. Much of what he believed in is now enshrined in South Africa's Bill of Rights.


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