Alan Paton's beloved country still cries

From his small, lived-in study, South African writer Alan Paton must have one of the best views in the country. As he lifts his eyes from a small wooden desk, he looks across a colorful terraced garden that plunges down to a magnificent valley. Lifting his eyes to the horizon he sees the mist-shrouded Indian Ocean beyond the port city of Durban.

But in his panorama, Mr. Paton is conscious of one overriding fact: The land before him is segregated, the people divided. While the ''white'' valley below him is a setting of splendor and relative affluence, the ''black'' valley beyond contains rural poverty at its worst.

For most of his adult life, Paton has tried, as a writer and activist, to keep his countrymen aware of the human dimension of South Africa's racial policies. His efforts have earned him derision and harassment from the government - and acclaim from much of the outside world as well as from segments of the local population.

As Paton looks across the political landscape of South Africa today - 36 years after publication of his best-known work, ''Cry, the Beloved Country'' - he sees a system where racial discrimination is still entrenched.

But with his eye for detail, he also spots changes worth noting.

''While these changes aren't taking place in legislation, many changes are taking place in ordinary behavior,'' says Paton, his face intent, his voice powerful, and his words chosen carefully.

For instance, each year runners chug past Paton's home in the hills northeast of Durban in the country's premier running event, the Comrades Marathon. Paton marvels at the good-natured mixing of the races in the competition. ''The crowds and the jolliness and the happiness, it's almost unbelievable,'' he says.

Perhaps more significant, Paton says the ruling white Afrikaners are trying in their own way to climb out of ''the morass'' they have created with the policy of apartheid. But the effort will fail unless it moves well beyond the changes being considered by Afrikaners, he believes.

''The real problem with Afrikaner politics today is that it shelters behind the myth of the homelands,'' he says. The ''homelands'' are the 10 tribal reserves created by Pretoria to serve as separate living areas for blacks. With the homelands the government has tried to remove blacks from any political rights.

Paton says if the Afrikaner doesn't ''give up the homelands ... he'll never get his feet out of the morass.''

Paton rejects the extreme views for and against the new-style system of government being formed in South Africa. It brings Coloreds (persons of mixed-race descent) and Indians into the previously all-white Parliament, albeit as junior partners and in segregated chambers. Blacks remain excluded from government.

''Is this a great step forward?'' Paton asks.

His answer: ''No.''

But is it ''any kind of step forward?''

He says, ''The answer has to be yes.''

Paton says he ''can't help noting some irony'' in the fact that the new Parliament has already sparked a dispute over a policy carried out in 1968 to outlaw the multiracial approach to politics Paton had championed.

Paton was a founder of the Liberal Party in 1953, a party that had members of all races. The Liberal Party was forced to disband after the 1968 act was passed.

The government says it will consider amending or repealing the so-called Prohibition of Political Interference Act next year, because of pressure from the Colored Labor Party. Party leaders say they are taking part in the new Parliament to try to change apartheid from within.

As spring creeps across the hills surrounding Durban, Paton is busy completing his autobiography. Each morning he sits in a straight-back wooden chair writing longhand on a legal pad, using a carefully constructed chronology of events to order his writing.

''If you know what you're going to write, then I find it easy,'' says Paton. ''But you have to do this preliminary work. If you think you're just going to sit down and do it off the cuff, you'll make an awful mess of it.''

Still, it was an emotional burst of writing that started ''Cry, the Beloved Country,'' now in its 31st reprint, and launched Paton on a distinguished writing career.

The year was 1946 and Paton, principal of the Diepkloof Reformatory in South Africa, was touring prisons and reformatories in Europe.

''I had an idea that one day I'd be the director of prisons'' in South Africa , Paton recalls with a chuckle. ''I never intended to write anything at all.''

During a stop in Trondheim, Norway, Paton was taken to an evening church service by someone he met in the hotel lobby. Paton found himself strongly moved as he sat in the darkened cathedral (which had no electricity) staring through a magnificent rose window.

''When I got back to the hotel I started writing. I wrote the first chapter in my bedroom,'' Paton recalls. Even though the opening of ''Cry, the Beloved Country'' was written under ''strong emotion'' triggered by ''an intense homesickness,'' the words stayed pretty much as they were put to paper, he says.

The book began rolling off the printing presses in 1948, the same year the fervor of white Afrikaner nationalism swelled up and seized the government of South Africa. The book remains what many consider to be one of the most intelligent and compassionate accounts of race relations in troubled South Africa.

Paton says with evident pride that more schools in South Africa - including black schools - are using ''Cry, the Beloved Country'' in 1984 than at any other time since its publication.

The commercial success of the book allowed Paton to become a full-time writer.

But there were dark political developments occurring in the early 1950s as the new white Afrikaner government passed laws that tightened security and laid the foundations of apartheid, which requires segregation in all spheres of life. As an antidote, Paton and others founded the multiracial Liberal Party.

Paton defines his concept of liberalism as ''beliefs in the rule of law and a tolerance for others and otherness in general. It's not a creed, but certain values.'' He says his belief in these values ''is why I am so much at home in the United States.''

Paton relishes a story about a visit to the US in 1955. He was invited to visit a school in Connecticut, but was promptly detained at the airport and accompanied by the police to his hotel.

Paton was getting a taste of the McCarthy era. Police questioned him about his membership in the ''Friends of Russia,'' a medical aid fund. But when he explained that one of the fund's sponsors was President Eisenhower, there were frantic calls to Washington. He was released.

Paton's involvement in South African party politics caused him hardship. His passport was confiscated in 1960. And from 1953 to 1968 he was shadowed constantly by the security police. But Paton is quick to play down his troubles. ''In this country one has to distinguish very sharply between white suffering and black suffering. White people have never suffered in the way black people have had to suffer,'' he says.

To some of his critics, Paton's brand of ''liberalism'' is no longer relevant in South Africa. They argue that ''white liberals,'' because they are white and thereby beneficiaries of apartheid, cannot be expected to press hard enough for the changes needed in South Africa.

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