Friday, January 15, 2010

Alan Paton Shed Light on the Darkness of South Africa

This article is not properly characterized as a “book review.” It is, rather, a tribute to an internationally renowned African author in the days after his death. The article appeared in the New York City Tribune on April 26, 1988.

A Soldier for Freedom, Alan Paton Shed Light on the Darkness of South Africa

Alan Paton, whose first novel, Cry, the Beloved Country, thrust him onto the world stage as a literary and social leader, died on April 12 at the age of 85. In his lifetime -- which spanned the history of South Africa from just after the end of the Second Anglo-Boer War through two world wars to the present day -- Paton was a teacher, an advocate for prison reform, a liberal political leader, a world-renowned novelist and a humanitarian. His death diminishes the world.

Cry, the Beloved Country brought worldwide attention to South Africa’s racial strife. It was transformed into a movie and later into a musical play by Maxwell Anderson and Kurt Weill, Lost in the Stars.

Paton’s penetrating look into the dehumanizing aspects of South Africa’s society on the brink of change from a (for that era) liberal regime to the racist regime of Daniel Malan and Hendrik Verwoerd’s National Party gave Westerners their first (and, perhaps, most lasting) impression of apartheid.

Paton proved a puzzle to many in the United States who oppose apartheid, the system of racial classification and segregation that has characterized South Africa for most of the past 40 years. In the United States, opposition to the South African system seems inevitably to go hand in glove with support for sanctions against that country. Paton challenged this notion from the start.

In 1984, Paton wrote an open letter to Bishop Desmond Tutu, who had just won the Nobel Peace Prize. Responding to calls for sanctions, Paton said:

“I do not understand how your Christian conscience allows you to advocate disinvestment. I do not understand how you can put a man out of work for a high moral principle.

“It would go against my own deepest principles to advocate anything that would put a man — and especially a black man -- out of a job.

“I think your morality is confused just as was the morality of the church in the Inquisition, or the morality of Dr. Verwoerd in his utopian dreams. You come near to saying that the end justifies the means, which is a thing no Christian can do” (Johannesburg Sunday Times, Oct. 21, 1984).

Paton was nothing if not consistent in his disapproval of sanctions. Like his liberal colleague, Helen Suzman, who for many years was the sole voice in parliament representing the anti-apartheid, pro-free enterprise Progressive Federal Party, Paton argued that it was the expansion of the economy and the growth of a substantial black middle class that would be the engine of change.

Experience has proved him correct. As blacks gained in economic power in the 1970s, the government was forced to grant them more political and civil rights. Black trade unions were legalized, job restrictions were ended, the infamous pass laws were repealed.

In the second and final volume of his autobiography, Journey Continued, scheduled to be published in South Africa on April 29 and later this year in the United States, Paton wrote passionately of his hope for positive social change. He argued for the release of Nelson Mandela and the need to include Mandela and his associates in the negotiations for post-apartheid South Africa. But he also reiterated his belief that sanctions are counterproductive, that they will achieve little in the way of reform or broader political participation.

In the final chapter of Journey Continued, Paton noted that “our future has become the concern of many of the governments and the ordinary people of the world. They have every right to concern themselves and to bring pressure to bear upon us. I believe they are utterly mistaken to think that sanctions and disinvestment will bring beneficial change. You cannot change a society for the better by damaging or destroying its economy. Sanctions are intended to be punitive, and punishment is not the way to make people behave better.”

It has been a cruel mistake for the U.S. Congress to impose sanctions against South Africa. American sanctions have created more than 100 white millionaires in South Africa while creating substantial black unemployment. The inflation caused by sanctions affects the poor most harshly, while rich whites -- the intended targets of sanctions -- are insulated by affluence. White families may have to give up their Mercedes or their beach bungalows; black families may have to go without food or clothing. Alan Paton, compassionate observer of political realities, knew this would happen. His words, informed by 85 years of living in South Africa, go unheeded by the U.S. Congress. Why?

Richard Sincere is a research associate at the Ethics and Public Policy center in Washington D.C. He writes frequently on U.S.-South African relations.

1 comment:

David deV said...

Paton also warned Tutu that sanctions would result in mass unemployment, high rates of violent crime, and squatter camps. Maybe Archbishop Tutu will acknowledge that Paton was right and Tutu wrong