Alan Paton (1903-1988) was a South African author and anti-Apartheid activist. He was born in Pietermaritzburg, Natal, attended school at Maritzburg College, and earned a Bachelor of Science degree at the University of Natal, followed by a diploma in education. After graduation he worked as a teacher, first at the Ixopo High School and then at Maritzburg College.

Paton served as the principal of Diepkloof Reformatory for young offenders from 1935 to 1949. During this time he introduced controversial progressive reforms at the reformatory, granting the inmates increasing freedom, including the right to reside off site. Of the more than 10,000 boys passing through the Reformatory during Paton's tenure, less than one percent attempted an escape.

Reflections on Diepkloof Reformatory
Public DomainReflections on Diepkloof Reformatory - Credit: Alan Paton

His tenure at Diepkloof was critical in the deepening of Paton’s political consciousness. During this time he wrote a series of articles concerning crime and punishment and penal reform. Reflections on Diepkloof Reformatory is a collection of Paton’s writings, poetry and philosophy relating to education and his work with young offenders; it provides a powerful insight into the complexities of South African race relations in the 1940s.

In 1946 Paton went on a tour of prisons and reformatories in Europe and America, at his own expense, to learn about new models being implemented in different parts of the world.  He began writing Cry, the Beloved Country in September of that year, while in Norway, and finished it in San Francisco on Christmas Eve, three months later.  It was published by the American company Charles Scribner’s Sons in 1948, just a few months before Apartheid became official government policy in South Africa.

The novel was a huge success, and did much to raise international awareness of the desperate plight of South Africa’s black population and the country’s tortured race relations.  In 1949 the composer Kurt Weill, in collaboration with Maxwell Anderson, composed a musical based on the book called Lost in the Stars. It ran for 273 performances on New York’s Broadway, and was subsequently made into a movie, released in 1974. In 1951 the novel was adapted into a film, for which Alan Paton wrote the screenplay, with Sidney Poitier as the Reverend Msimangu.  Another film version was released in 1995, starring James Earl Jones as the Reverend Kumalo. 

Paton wrote several other novels, as well as essays, short stories, biographies and poems, many of which challenged Apartheid and racial segregation.  He also wrote two autobiographies, Towards the Mountain (1981) and Journey Continued (1988).

In 1953 he founded the South African Liberal Party, which fought against the National Party’s Apartheid doctrine and welcomed members of all races. He remained the party’s president until it was banned by the Apartheid regime in 1968.  At the party’s last meeting, Paton made it clear that he would continue the struggle against Apartheid in other ways, saying: ‘Man was not created to go down on his belly before the state.  We refuse to make a god of preservation of racial differences.’

When Paton died in 1988, aged 85, Cry, the Beloved Country had sold more than 15 million copies in 20 languages. 

In 1989, following Paton’s death, the Johannesburg-based Sunday Times instituted an award in his name.  It honours South African writers who produce non-fiction works that are judged to demonstrate: compassion; elegance of writing; illumination of truthfulness, especially those forms of it which are new, delicate, unfashionable and fly in the face of power; and intellectual and moral integrity.