A man of morality and conviction


New York: Charles Scribner's Sons

320 pp. Illustrated. $22.50

IN 1948, the year his first novel, ``Cry, the Beloved Country,'' was published, Alan Paton's was a voice crying in the wilderness. The principal of the Diepkloof Reformatory for black juvenile delinquents was one of a handful of prophets calling attention to the plight of South Africa's black majority at the very moment the Afrikaner Nationalists finally came to power and started fulfilling their dream of apartheid.

By the time of his death - April 12, 1988 - his political position was significantly to the right of most of his fellow critics of apartheid: Paton was not only opposed to the idea of a violent revolutionary struggle, but also spoke out, passionately and eloquently, against the Western strategies of disinvestment and economic sanctions.

Did Paton change over those four decades, or did he stand fast while times changed around him? Perhaps a little of each. ``Journey Continued,'' the second and final volume of his autobiography (``Towards the Mountain'' appeared in 1980), covers this period in his life. To some extent, Paton himself believed he had changed:

``I must say that in 1954 I was more inclined to identify politics with morality than I am today [1987],'' he reflects. As an older man, he felt less outraged by the particular injustices of his native land - perhaps because he'd lost his fervor, perhaps because he began to take a broader, almost timeless and placeless perspective on life, death, human history, and the universe. But in other respects, a certain consistency emerges: a lifelong patriotism, a loathing of violence, and a conviction that ``punishment is not the way to make people behave better,'' be it punishment for wayward youths or sanctions against reprobate nations.

For all that Paton's rightward drift distressed many of his former friends and allies and led a younger generation of radicalized blacks (and whites) to dismiss him out of hand, he can still convey, as few other writers can, the gross indecency of the racial injustices he fought against so long. Looking back, as he does in this strongly written book, on the years of that struggle, he becomes outraged anew by the unfairness, and his writing takes on power from his rekindled emotions.

Firmly anticommunist himself (he does a fine job of encapsulating the reasons for the natural antipathy he's observed between liberals and communists), Paton is scathing about the much-vaunted anticommunism of the South African government: ``It was not the totalitarian nature of communism that was abhorrent to the Afrikaner Nationalist; he was to become a pretty good totalitarian himself. What he abhorred was the supposedly egalitarian nature of the communist State.''

Paton also writes movingly of what he calls the most shameful of all acts committed in South Africa by people who have power against those who have none: the forced removal of nonwhites (Africans, Coloreds, Indians, East Asians) from land, farms, homes, and businesses they legally owned, in order to excise these ``black spots'' from areas the government chose to designate ``white.''

Morality was the keystone of Paton's parallel careers in literature and politics. As a writer, he found himself ``incapable of writing a story that does not have an emotional and moral quality.'' It was his religious faith (he was a devout Anglican) that led him to politics. Ironically, as he must ``honestly and reluctantly'' confess, he was to experience ``the joy of fully non-racial fellowship,'' not in his beloved church, but in the political party he helped found.

Much of this book is devoted to the story of the Liberal Party of South Africa, started in 1953 and disbanded in 1968, when it chose to dissolve rather than submit to a government ban on multiracial parties. Aside from the Communist Party, it had been the only multiracial party in the country. Paton elucidates the principles that held the party together - belief in democracy, tolerance, nonviolence, and the rule of law - while vividly recounting the disputes between more radical Liberals (who believed in always taking the principled stand) and more pragmatic Liberals (who preferred to moderate their demands for goals like one man, one vote, in the hope of broadening the party's appeal to the whites-only South African electorate).

While politics and the Liberal Party are at the heart of this book, Paton also describes his involvement in the world of religion. There are intriguing accounts of ecumenical conferences he attended and insightful, if idiosyncratic, portraits of leading figures like Paton's personal hero, Reinhold Niebuhr. Paton also tells what it was like to find himself a world-famous author, plunged into the realms of theater and moviemaking with the demand for adaptations of his ``Cry, the Beloved Country.'' Paton was a man who loved words, and in this book he reveals how much writing meant to him.

Looking ahead, Paton's vision of his country's future is clouded, even confused. The prophetic power he possessed was not of the sort that pretends to be able to predict the future, but closer to the biblical sort that sees the present for what it is and tries to warn people before it is too late. This parable about the difficulties of persuading his fellow white South Africans to change sounds a note characteristic of Paton's simplicity - and his depth:

I went to my brother and said, ``Brother a man is knocking at the door.''

My brother said, ``Is he a friend or enemy?''

``I have asked him,'' I said, ``but he replies that you will not know until you have opened the door.''

There you are, my brother. You will never know if the man outside is a friend or an enemy until you open the door. But if you do not open the door, you can be sure what he will be.

``That was written in 1959,'' Paton remarks. ``This is now 1987. But my brother still has not opened the door.''

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