A heartbroken old black priest prays on a mountaintop, hands clasped and head uncovered. ``It is the dawn that has come, as it has come for a thousand centuries, never failing. But when that dawn will come, of our emancipation, from the fear of bondage and the bondage of fear, why, that is a secret.'' These are the closing lines from South African novelist Alan Paton's first book, ``Cry, the Beloved Country.'' The book is now 40 years old, but the fictional priest's musings are more relevant than ever to blacks - and whites - here in Dr. Paton's troubled homeland and beyond. Witness the fact that ``Cry, the Beloved Country'' still sells some 100,000 copies a year.
Chatting with a reporter about the years since he penned those lines, Dr. Paton describes himself as neither pessimist nor optimist about the future of his country, but as ``a man of hope.'' He sees no quick solution for South Africa: ``The problems are too complicated.''
The 85-year-old Paton, who has had three different careers - teacher, writer, and leader of his country's multiracial Liberal Party until it was outlawed in 1968 - considers the dream of a unitary South African state with universal suffrage ``pretty well unrealizable.''
He sees more hope in some form of federal arrangement, though he notes there could hardly be a single unit of a federation in South Africa that would not have a majority of blacks. But he believes that, though some whites ``would kick up a fuss,'' most whites would finally accept rule by blacks.
Paton vehemently opposes sanctions against South Africa. ``I just don't see the point of destroying a country's economy to achieve some great `moral' purpose. It seems just absolute rubbish to me.''
The walls in his comfortable study at home are plastered with mementoes of his life: awards and plaques, the originals of several newspaper cartoons, many books, and an inscription that begins, ``Go placidly....''
He jumps up to pour tea. He scrambles to find a quote from Shakespeare that underscores his attitude toward one of his three professions - politics. He finds it in Hamlet, Act I: ``The time is out of joint./ O cursed spite,/ That ever I was born to set it right.''
He mutters about the ``element of duty in politics'' and the fact that there's ``no guarantee you'll achieve anything.''
Paton considers himself a ``liberal'' in a country where it is often invidious to be so tagged. He defines liberalism this way: ``It's a devotion to the rule of law. It's a belief in the rights of man against the state, a distaste for authoritarianism.''
He reconsiders this. ``You could say a hatred of totalitarianism,'' he says finally, adding: ``It's also a tolerance of otherness and other people. A true liberal doesn't think everybody should be the same or think the same; whereas if you're an ideologist, you do.''
Liberals also ``do not believe the end justifies the means''; nor do they believe in the sort of centralized government or economy that ``kills individual initiative, as it certainly did in Russia.''
In contrast to his political life, Paton says his writing and teaching provided ``definite creative pleasure.'' Writing, he adds, gave him ``an entry into the world.'' Paton plans no major works in the future, but autobiography, ``Journey Continued,'' is coming out soon.
A lifelong Christian, Paton believes that Christianity is a powerful force for good in the country. Whites, particularly, can ``go down on their knees and give thanks that so many blacks are Christians,'' he says. He laments that ``the awakening of Afrikaner Christianity has been so long delayed,'' but sees hope in the fact that the biggest Afrikaans church, the Nederduitse Gereformeerde Kerk (Dutch Reformed), has ``come out and said it was a mistake for it to support apartheid and to think that apartheid was the will of God for this country.''
Paton is a member of the Anglican Church in South Africa, which is headed by the controversial black archbishop, the Rev. Desmond Tutu. While ``not a wholehearted admirer'' of Reverend Tutu, Paton considers him ``very charismatic. I think he once said whites regarded him as the devil incarnate. Well, he's much more like an imp than a devil. And I wish him luck.''
South Africa, with all its problems and conflicts, can be an awkward place to live, Paton notes, and many people, including intellectuals, have emigrated, fearing the future. But would he prefer to have lived his life elsewhere, in a country with fewer problems? His father came to South Africa in 1900, he said, ``and I often thought: Why didn't he go to Canada, instead?''
In the end, Paton says, ``I'm quite glad he came here.''