KwaZulu-Natal-born author and anti-apartheid activist Alan Stuart Paton was born on the 11th of January 1903. This year thus marks 118 years since his birth and it is well worth remembering his important contributions to Durban and beyond. Paton is perhaps best known for his acclaimed novel Cry, the Beloved Country – a poignant tale of racial injustice which protested against the unequal structures that eventually paved the way for apartheid. It was a novel that was hailed as “revolutionary” by many and has been recognised for creating global awareness about the inequality of South Africa and the apartheid state. But who was Paton, and why was he such an advocate for social and political justice?
Paton was born to a Scottish immigrant father, James Paton, and Eunice Warder James, who was the daughter of English immigrants. Paton’s father, James, was an incredibly strict man and often resorted to corporal punishment as a means to discipline his son. From an early age, Paton openly opposed this physical violence and authoritarianism at large. This would later shape his views against the violent apartheid state. His father, however, was also an avid lover of literature and this sparked the young Paton’s love affair with words, which lasted a lifetime.
Paton’s career and his fight for justice
Paton completed his Bachelor of Science Degree at the University of Natal and went on to earn a diploma in Education. From 1935 – 1949 he worked as the principal of the Diepkloof Reformatory for young African men. During this time he introduced a number of progressive reforms that many deemed as controversial. These changes included home visitation rights, the allocation of work permits, and open dormitories. These changes proved immensely positive and in Paton’s principalship, less than 5% of the 10 000 men that were given home visitation rights failed to return to the reformatory.
In 1953, Paton co-founded the Liberal Party of South Africa which fought against apartheid and its repressive policies. Paton led the party until it was forced to dissolve in the late 60s. He continued to oppose apartheid, mainly through his literature, until his death in 1988. In April 2006 he was posthumously awarded the Order of Ikhamanga Award which recognised his:
“Exceptional contribution to literature, exposing the apartheid oppression through his work and fighting for a just and democratic society.”
Celebrating Paton at The Old Court House Museum
Paton and his life’s work are celebrated in the ‘Movers and Shakers‘ exhibition at the at the Old Court House Museum. The exhibition showcases a number of 3D figures, all of whom represent a historical figure of importance to Durban’s history. Here you can learn about Paton and other pertinent characters to Durban’s history, including Albert Luthuli and Gandhi.
Paton’s important and courageous work inspires us to fight for what is right. In his words:
“Let me not be afraid to defend the weak because of the anger of the strong, nor afraid to defend the poor because of the anger of the rich.”