A writer's reflections

By

Alan Paton kindly accepted our invitation to pause in his novel-writing and contribute an essay to The Home Forum. We could hardly anticipate that this elder statesman of international literature would offer such rare personal reflections, including even a reference to our newspaper. We thank him very much.

Rabindranath Tagore wrote these words in his ''Gitanjali'':

On the day when death will knock at thy door, what wilt thou offer to him?

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Oh, I will set before my guest the full vessel of my life - I will never let him go with empty hands.

All the sweet vintage of all my autumn days and summer nights, all the earnings and gleanings of my busy life will I place before him at the close of my days when death will knock at my door.m

Words such as these moved Yeats to the depths. Yeats could never have written them, just as Tagore could never have written like Yeats. What they had in common was their love of the word.

I have had a love of the word since I was very young. I also have had a love of the Word, the one that was in the beginning. The first love has been almost perfect, the second imperfect. But even at the age of eighty I still ask that the imperfect love could be perfected. Then I shall give my guest the full vessel of my life.

There are some things that I could read for ever. The 23rd Psalm, George Herbert's ''Love,'' Francis Thompson's ''Hound of Heaven,'' A. E. Housman's ''Loveliest of trees . . .'' Blake's ''Tiger, tiger, burning bright,'' some of the stanzas of Tagore's ''Gitanjali,'' some of the stanzas of Fitzgerald's ''Rubaiyat,'' Shakespeare's ''The quality of mercy . . .'' Yeats's ''The Lake Isle of Innisfree.'' I often read Vachel Lindsay's ''General William Booth Enters Into Heaven'' in public, but I don't trust it, because my voice tends to break down when I come to the last seven lines. I apologize for all the things I have left out. I must mention two things more - the ''Holy Mountain'' of Isaiah, and the ''New Heaven and New Earth'' of John on Patmos.

Why could I read these poems for ever? I suppose it is because they evoke some deep response from the soul. Perhaps I should exclude the ''Rubaiyat'' on that account, but it has a beauty all its own, which atones for its philosophy of ''let us eat and drink, for tomorrow we die.'' There are many miracles in man's evolution, but one of the greatest is the word, the beginning of language, and the beginning of literature.

When I look back on my past life, I often marvel at the fact that for my first forty-five years I was a model public servant, honest, industrious, and with a great respect for the authority of the state. For the next thirty-five years I decided that I could not accept the new laws that poured out of the parliament, the laws of apartheid, the laws that were to separate the races of South Africa, and in particular the white race from all others, in every conceivable place and on every conceivable occasion, in trains, buses, hospitals , hotels, schools, universities - the list is endless. Mixed racial marriages are unlawful. In l953 we founded the Liberal Party of South Africa, which decided to oppose these laws by every possible means, except those of violence; and also to oppose the harsh new security laws, which were ostensibly intended to control communism, but in fact were intended to control and destroy any kind of opposition to apartheid.

I was very nervous about my decision to use my writing and my speaking to oppose the government. I did not take up the task of opposition with a glad cry. I was committing an act of defiance, and I didn't like it. But the alternative was to become a pseudo-Christian. Therefore I decided to defy.

From that day my life changed. Wherever I went, to Durban, or Cape Town, or Johannesburg, the security police were waiting for me. We did not speak, but each knew who the other was. They would park their cars outside my house. On one occasion they searched me and the house. They knew my every movement. They warned me that I was running the risk of being ''banned'' under the Suppression of Communism Act. This was a supreme irony, because I abhorred the doctrines of Marx-Leninism. When a niece of mine died in Pietermaritzburg, they attended the funeral. They did not join the mourners, but stood outside their cars, with hard implacable faces. Their presence did not please my niece's family who were formal and conservative. I felt I should not have gone.

My life was like that for fifteen years. But others paid much more for their beliefs, because, I presume, they were not so well-known. Mr. Peter Brown, once chairman of the Liberal Party, was banned from public life for ten years. To a large extent he was banned from private life also. He could not be present at the birthday parties of his own children, because he was forbidden to ''attend any gathering.'' Helen Joseph, Winnie Mandela, Mewa Ramgobin, and many others paid this heavy price. Banning affects different people in different ways, but not one of them abandoned his or her beliefs.

In l968 the government made it a criminal offence for any member of one racial group to make common political cause with any member of another group. In no circumstances could the Liberal Party have broken up into separate racial parties. Therefore we disbanded. We had our farewell meeting at the Caxton Hall, Durban. I told the security police, of whom there were eight present, that for fifteen years I had pretended to be indifferent to their continuous surveillance , but that in fact I had not liked it at all. Since that night in l968 I have not seen them again. Others have not been so lucky.

Well that's enough of sorrow. My life has been happy rather than sorrowful. I could recount my blessings but there's not enough space.

Has life taught me any lessons? Many, but especially one. And that is that the only way to make man's inhumanity to man endurable, is to try to exemplify in our lives man's humanity to man. Jesus taught that long ago, and so did Francis, so did Ignatius, and many others.

What is the future of my country? It will become a non-racial country, but whether by painful evolution or by cataclysm, no one knows. If by cataclysm, the blacks will recover, the whites never.

I write this article for The Christian Science Monitor partly because I was asked, and partly because I think it is the best international newspaper in the world. I - and I say this with a blush - actually believe what I read in it. But I admire it most because it gives no shrift to any belief in the irredeemable wickedness of man, nor in the futility of human endeavor. It is a newspaper of sober and responsible hope. Long may it live.

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