Book Reviews PETER F. ALEXANDER: ALAN PATON

PETER F. ALEXANDER: ALAN PATON

  

According to Alan Paton, ‘The amount of effort and concentration required in writing a biography is many times greater than that required for an autobiography’ (Alexander, 395).  In my opinion, biography is the most difficult of genres and Paton, who wrote two biographies those of J.H. Hofmeyr and Archbishop Geoffrey Clayton, which did not receive great acclaim, abandoned his attempt to write the biography of Roy Campbell.  In addition to the amount of research and the travelling about to interview people, biography requires the skill of a surgeon in trying to prise the truth from various mindsets, perspectives and contexts and from the biographer’s own predilections and frame of reference. A biographer being confined to fact must suppress his imagination, intuition and emotion and confine his creativity to expression and composition. And it requires great skill to turn fact into interesting narrative.  So when a biography succeeds, it is indeed a remarkable piece of work as is Peter F. Alexander’s  Alan Paton: a Biography. 

 

Alexander gives us a holistic picture of a human being with strengths and weaknesses who dedicated his life to bringing about transformation in South Africa.  He was born into a racist society and remained ignorant of its ethos and his own conditioning until he became a young adult.  It is still difficult for most people to understand that living in a racist society you become a racist.  It does not matter whether you are black or white, your life is structured by the system in which you live because you abide by its norms and values whether you agree with them or not. Young Paton was fortunate to meet and work with many people who challenged his understanding of the South African situation and by the time he was in his thirties he was actively involved in denouncing its injustices.  His book Cry, the Beloved Country, published in 1948, the year in which the Nationalist Party came into power, brought worldwide focus on racism in South Africa and helped to power the efforts of the liberation movements.

 

The political activism of Indians and Africans in the 1940s led to the formation of various political organisations opposed to white domination and thinking white people also joined the resistance movements.  At the beginning of the 1950s, when the Nationalist government began passing laws enforcing segregation and placing inhumane restrictions on black people, white liberals felt it was time to form a political party to oppose apartheid. And in 1953, the Liberal Party was born. Alan Paton became its most dynamic leader. The party was committed to non-violence and it remained committed, even when other organisations decided that non-violence was futile and it was time to take up arms. The resort to violence went against all of Paton’s beliefs.  As a result his ideas and activities became suspect and some even disparaged his novel, Cry, the Beloved Country.  ‘Against this background of violence and political polarization the humane values of Liberals were ever more contemptuously rejected by the antagonists on both sides.’  (420) Even some of those who had been his good friends treated Paton as a collaborator and others left the party to join militant organisations.

 

Non-violent resistance is based on the belief that we should love our enemies. Violent resistance is based on hatred for the enemy and anyone engaging with the enemy is seen as a collaborator.  But people who believe in non-violence refuse to give up on the humanity of the oppressor.  They believe that human beings can change so they continue to reach out and appeal to the common humanity and conscience of those who oppress them.  Practitioners of non-violence will never cut off relations with the ‘enemy’ and because they continue to negotiate, some see them as betrayers and colluders. 

 

All the great advocates for non-violence have in their time endured some form of repudiation: Mahatma Gandhi was assassinated for his seeming ambivalence towards the British, Martin Luther King was rejected by militant formations, and now even Nelson Mandela, who openly embraced the ‘enemy’ and advocated truth and reconciliation, is seen to have given in at the expense of black people.  But these men, who refuse to give up on people’s inherent humanity, are the ones who are remembered in history with great reverence, as will Alan Paton.  It is much easier to succumb to polarization, to notions of friend and enemy and go to war.  It is far more difficult to recognise the common humanity that binds us all together and to opt for understanding, compassion and reconciliation.  People who opt for non-violence are truly heroic; it takes great courage and commitment to love rather than hate the enemy.

 

Paton predicted that the country would be transformed only with the willing cooperation of the Afrikaner people and that is what has happened.  While comrades were fighting a bloody war, Nelson Mandela was negotiating with people like P.W. Botha. 

           

However, it is sad and ironic that only after we have shed blood that we come to our senses and begin to negotiate. 

  

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