Alan Paton: Biography, Books & Quotes

Instructor: Christina Boggs

Chrissy has taught secondary English and history and writes online curriculum. She has an M.S.Ed. in Social Studies Education.

Few people have captured the turmoil of apartheid in South Africa better than author Alan Paton. In this lesson, you will learn about Paton's life, how he got his start as a writer, and his significant works.

20th Century South Africa

Before getting into the details about Alan Paton's life and his work, it's important to understand what was going on in South Africa during the 1900s. Up until World War II, Africa was largely controlled by European countries. Through the 1800s and early 1900s, Western leaders carved out their own little strongholds on the African continent and set up their own governments. After World War II, African imperialism was on the decline, largely because it was way too expensive for many European countries to maintain widespread empires. Countries gradually shifted from white European control into the hands of the native people living there.

South Africa, however, was an exception to this general trend. A very small white minority continued to rule over the black majority. Under Dutch and English control, South Africa had always had some degree of segregation, where white South Africans and black South Africans lived separately. Eventually, this system escalated into a policy of apartheid, a word that literally means 'apartness' or living apart. Segregation was enforced brutally, and black South Africans were treated as second-class citizens with few opportunities and even fewer rights.

Into this way of living came Alan Paton. He eventually became an activist and a writer who focused on the negative effects apartheid had on the people of South Africa.

Alan Paton's Early Life

But first, Alan Paton was born on January 11, 1903 in Pietermaritzburg, South Africa. Paton's parents were very strict and very religious, especially his father. Growing up, his dad physically punished Paton and his siblings when they stepped out of line. Exposure to that kind of force had a lasting effect on Alan Paton; throughout his life he had an aversion to violence.

Paton graduated from the University of Natal in 1925 and went to work as a teacher. Around this time, he married his first wife, Dorrie Francis Lusted. He taught for about ten years before accepting a job as the director of the Diepkloof Reformatory, a reform school for juvenile delinquents. All of the students at the school were African.

Paton saw the inhumane treatment of his students and worked hard to change the school's policies. Instead of repeatedly punishing the young men, Paton wanted to focus on rehabilitating them so that they could be successful when they were released back into society. Paton even traveled abroad to Europe and the United States to see how other prisons and reform schools were run so he could improve his own school. On one of his trips, Paton began writing his first book, Cry, the Beloved Country, which he published in 1948. Paton quit his job as the school's director that same year to be a writer. Cry the Beloved Country expresses many of Paton's feelings towards apartheid and the state of his native South Africa: 'The tragedy is not that things are broken. The tragedy is that things are not mended again.'

Life as an Activist

After quitting his job as a teacher, Paton wrote numerous books, but also dedicated a lot of his time to improving the social and political situation in South Africa. In 1953, he and his wife Dorrie went to work at a tuberculosis clinic in KwaZulu. Alan Paton saw firsthand the horrifying affects of segregation and was alarmed by the new policies enacted by the South African government. Paton was once quoted as saying, 'There is only one way in which one can endure man's inhumanity to man and that is to try, in one's own life, to exemplify man's humanity to man.' And Paton did just that, through his extensive work as an activist.

Paton founded the Liberal Party of South Africa and served as the party president from 1955 to 1968. His goal was simple: find a way for white and black South Africans to coexist peacefully and equally. In 1968, the South African government passed a law that banned any political party that allowed people of different races to be members, bringing an end to the Liberal Party.

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