ALAN PATON's work touched the lives of millions of people, in his native South Africa and beyond. His first book, ``Cry, the Beloved Country,'' remains popular and timely 40 years after its publishing. A profound examination of wrenched human relationships in a racially partitioned society, it helped turn world attention toward the cruelty of apartheid and established Mr. Paton, who died yesterday at his home near Durban, as a writer of international stature. Paton's life and writings span the evolution of modern South Africa, from the building of apartheid to the stirrings of black nationalism. He felt the system's oppression himself at times. For 11 years he was prevented from traveling abroad. But his renown as a writer shielded him from the kind of direct censure that befell others who held his liberal views.
Paton's voice, appealing for reconciliation and change, was always heard - and will continue to be through his books. The second volume of his autobiography, ``The Journey Continued,'' is due this July.
This author was, in a sense, much more than a crafter of beautiful prose. His words plumbed the depth of South African experience because he plunged so deeply into that experience. He once remarked that racial matters were of little concern to him as a youth of Scottish background, growing up in Natal Province in a devoutly Christian family. That changed radically in the mid-1930s, when he accepted an appointment as principal of the Diepkloof reformatory for black delinquents in Johannesburg. Paton stayed there 13 years.
That's where his probing insights took shape. As a reform-minded principal, he first felt the sharp attacks of South Africa's white establishment. Always one who believed resolutely that South Africa could change from within, the author later helped found the multiracial South African Liberal Party. The Liberals were harassed and finally outlawed by the ruling National Party, which passed legislation prohibiting the association of whites and blacks.
Ironically, the country Alan Paton labored so valiantly to change seems today further than ever from the ideals he espoused. South Africa's most ardent, right-wing defenders of apartheid appear to be wielding increasing political power. It's a time when all whose thoughts and prayers turn to that agonized country could well remember the words Paton put in the mouth of Stephen Kumalo in ``Cry, the Beloved Country'': ``These things are not yet at an end. The sun pours down on the earth, on the lovely land that man cannot enjoy.''
In those words there's both hope and realism. Key ingredients for anyone who firmly believes, as Paton did, that mankind can improve and wants to work toward that end.