This is what visitors to South Africa said in the 1950’s : Ah, but your land is beautiful. The South African writer Alan Paton (1903 – 1988) wrote this sentence in his book several times. Yes, a beautiful land, but what about the politics and the rule of law and the mutual understandings? In the wake of the latest elections in South Africa we can still ask the same questions about this beautiful land. Faces have changed, colours have settled at other spots, but there is still so much to be desired. 

Alan Paton, son of Natal, set this book in the 1950’s, a time when the apartheid rules had been instigated by the NP. White rule was invading every nook and corner of life. In the “historical novel” Paton introduces historical characters like Chief Albert Lutuli and Archbishop Clayton. Other characters in this book are fictitious. All together this book is hard hitting. It is a reminder of the days that are still in the memory of so many people. And it should be in the historical memory of so many others. 

Alan Paton himself was one of the founding fathers of the Liberal Party in South Africa. And this party is present in the book as a force with a different message against the mainstream thinking. The Liberal Party tried to be an unifying force across barriers of colour, race and creed. This brought close attention by the security forces, that wanted to obstruct any voice that did not sing the same song as the Nationalist Party. 

The book starts with the Defiance Campaign and it takes us to the coastal city Durban. Here the young woman Prem Bodasingh enters a library and so breaks the colour bar for she is not allowed to be there. As a person of Indian extraction she is not allowed to enter that library. Her action set into action a chain of events reaching to the highest spot in the Education Department of the province Natal. And Prem spends time in prison. The chairman of the Education Department, mr. Mainwaring, is a staunch defender of the apartheid rules. His son Hugh though is a young student leader who joins the Defiance Campaign. 

The second part is titled ‘The Cleft Stick’. One of the civil servants at the Education Department is William Johnson. He does not want to punish Prem. Two schools, a native school and a white-only school have held meetings to have their students meet other. This is now forbidden. The principal of this whites-only school, the famous ex-cricket player Robert Mansfield, meets Johnson on this issue, but there is no way for him to continue with this interscholastic meetings. He is caught in this cleft stick. In this very same part the land issue arises as well for the issue of the ‘black spots’ come to the fore. The areas where whites live and where blacks live have to be separated completely. Black people who live a a designated white area have to leave. 

In the third part “Come Back, Africa” we see the rise of the Liberal Party, the rise of the land issue, father Huddleston takes center stage at a land issue at Sophiatown. Robert Mansfield receives hatemail.  We are introduced to a civil servant, high up in the hierarchy of the Department of Justice, who writes letters to his aunt, in which he gives an insight into the workings of South African justice. Gabriel van Onselen, the writer of all these letters, is a staunch supporter of dr. Hendrik (Verwoerd) and he hopes this man with clear and lucid ideas will be the next Prime Minister. On a charge of treason 156 are arrested.

In the fourth part “Death of a Traitor” we see a blossoming relation between Prem and Hugh, both young and members of the Liberal Party. A white pastor refuses black worshipper at a funeral, for black people are not allowed to worship with whites in a white area. This brings the reader to the relationship between Church and State. A famous white nationalist, working at the Department of Justice,  is caught out with a black lady, the man had stated clearly earlier in his life that a relationship like that is an act of treason. The judge knows about that.  

In the fifth part “The Holy Church of Zion” we witness that Prem is shot down while visiting Robert Mansfield. A nazi sympathizer executes a bomattack on the house of Mansfield and is caught in his own act and blows himself to pieces. Another impressive moment is the Holy Church of Zion churchservice on Maundy Thursday, where an important white judge washes the feet of his former maid and kisses these feet. A white man is told that he is in fact a coloured man, with immense repercussions not just for himself but also for his wife and three children. Four young white man throw a black man from a footbridge into a river, these young men are sentenced to one year in prison. The actions to keep the black spots, with Emmanuel Nene in a leading role, is still going on.

The sixth part is the final part. “Into the Golden Age”, that is what the new prime minister promises. The former PM Strydom has passed away. Now dr. Hendrik takes the reins of the country. He is one of the leading architects of seperate development. 

This book tells about the past, but we cannot forget the past. When we forget, the past will follow us and take us over. Alan Paton shows different sides in his novel. Van Onselen writes from the viewpoint of the Afrikaner mood. Robert Mansfield is the famous person who takes an infamous (from an Afrikaner side) stand. Paton shows the main issues of the political world of the 1950’s, but he tells in in the way of human interactions.

This book is another great feat of this famous writer.     

Alan Paton – Ah, but your land is beautiful – 1981

Alan Paton

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I enjoy reading about Africa. New books. Old books. By African writers. By non-African writers. Novel. History. Travel. Biographies. Autobiographies. Politics. Colonialism. Poetry.

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