Alan Stewart Paton (11 January 1903 – 12 April 1988)
Ah, but your land is beautiful: Indeed we couldn’t agree more – especially with the autumn light making the hills look so magical.
This month we honour respected South African author, anti-apartheid activist, essayist and poet, Alan Paton, one of KZN’s most distinguished sons, and one of the heroes of the Valley of a 1000 Hills – as 12 April marks 33 years since he died.
Reading through his biography and paging through his many books, one perhaps forgets how deeply rooted Paton was in KZN. He was born (in 1903) and schooled in ‘Maritzburg, he went to University of KwaZulu Natal, Pietermaritzburg, taught in Ixopo, holidayed in Park Rynie, spent time in Durban and moved to Botha’s Hill, where he lived until his death, aged 85 in 1988.
Fellow Botha’s Hill resident, Linda Cross remembers chatting to Paton and his wife, Anne, on occasion, at the local supermarket. As a young teacher herself, he often asked after her work and her pupils: “He had a great sense of humour and was very interested in what I was up to at school. Despite his rather stern appearance, he was an absolute delight!”
Paton was a pro-active and vociferous anti-apartheid political campaigner. His biographer Peter Alexander summarises Paton as: “He was commonly spoken of as South Africa’s most famous novelist by those who admired his political stance, and as a dangerous radical by those who did not. He wrote frequently for the newspapers, particularly the liberal English press, and the message of his vigorously expressed articles was unvarying: South Africa was heading for a precipice, black nationalism and Afrikaner nationalism were on a collision course, the country must do a U-turn away from Apartheid before time ran out.”
His seminal novel Cry the Beloved Country is one of the most read and perpetually studied South African works. “In Cry the Beloved Country, Paton transformed the Valley of a Thousand Hills into one of the most sacred places of the mind.” Says Biographer, Peter Alexander.
“I cannot describe my early response to the beauty of hill and stream and tree as anything less than an ecstasy,” says Paton. “My world was the world of hills and grass and rain and mist and of birds, seen and unseen, and of the crying of the trains on their way to Johannesburg.”
He also wrote a stage musical (with composer Todd Matshikiza: Mkhumbane), collections of poems, essays and short stories, and copious letters and articles – many to the local newspapers – mostly endorsing his socio-political beliefs.
“I am something more than a writer. I am a member of an imperfect and unjust human society which has its home in a most beautiful country,” wrote Paton.
Honouring Paton is Denis Hurley Centre’s Street Lit book vendor, Mxolisy Mavimbela, one of a team of formerly homeless people who earn a living from selling pre-read books. He is photographed by his Botha’s Hill home.
The Alan Paton Center in Pietermaritzburg
For more information about Alan Paton, his published work or the role he played during the Apartheid era, the Alan Paton Center in Pietermartizburg is the best source of information today. Visit their website to find out more about opening times and resources.