On Alan Paton, liberalism and living meaningfully in SA

2017-09-05 12:57
(Picture: Supplied)

(Picture: Supplied)

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What is the meaning of life in South Africa? I recently took a job at a company founded and run by a black African. The staff complement is diverse and global. Before the job I was freelance and lived in a white bubble. One reason I took the job was to puncture the white bubble and connect more with Africa and Africans.

I now feel I’m contributing to the ‘Africa rising’ story; working with a cross-racial, pan-African team to build a successful organisation. What is the point of being in South Africa? Answer: to replace racial oppression with a new, enlightened vision of diversity and integration.

I recently read GG Alcock’s autobiography Third World Child. The book is profound for several reasons. Alcock proves that having a good story counts more than being a good writer. He also proves that high ideals are bull; what really counts is human connection.

All South Africans would benefit from reading his story. Alcock’s parents devoted their lives to the cause of indigenous redress. When Alcock was a boy his parents moved to Msinga, in the heartland of rural KwaZulu-Natal. They were a lone white family surrounded by amaZulu.

As the sub-title of the book puts it, ‘Born White, Zulu Bred’. One of the family’s main missions was to help local people reclaim land dispossessed by whites. They also exposed state repression and persuaded clan leaders to forsake violence. Neil Alcock, GG’s father, was assassinated in September 1984. He was 65. The police were complicit in the murder.

What would make Neil Alcock sacrifice his life for rural amaZulu? The answer is buried in his son’s book in a somewhat throwaway story.

Neil Alcock’s mother was a distant figure. He was raised by a Zulu nanny. He was a humanitarian and anti-apartheid activist not because he’d rationalised the issue (which he obviously had) but because his heart was with black people. His primary experience of maternal love was from an African woman. He repaid the favour by dedicating himself to easing the plight of her people.

Neil and his wife Creina could have lived in the bubble of white South Africa, where they would not need to engage with the reality of injustice perpetrated in their names. But they chose instead to show full solidarity with the oppressed, moving to where the oppression was worst: a poor, black, rural and dangerous part of the country.

They lived in similar conditions to the local people and shared everything. In return they received love, respect and community in buckets … but not by everyone.

And such are the potential dangers of indigenous settings. Neil Alcock, a sworn pacifist, was caught on the wrong side of a feud, killed by tribesmen of his valley.  

One can’t compare GG Alcock’s literary skills to those of JM Coetzee, but Alcock has a better story to tell. Coetzee is an exile of sorts living in Australia, where indigenous people pose no threat to white values.

One of Coetzee’s parting shots was Disgrace, a novel with a plot that pivots around the gang rape, by rural black men, of a white woman. Coetzee wrote in one of his earlier pieces, “What are we doing here? What are we doing in this barren part of the world? Why are we spending our lives in dreary toil if it was never meant that people should live here, if the whole project of humanising the place was misconceived from the start?”

GG Alcock knows exactly what he’s doing here; when he first earned enough to afford European travel he chose to visit African countries instead, such is his love of, and fascination with the continent. And Alcock is under no illusions about the challenges of being here. He gets into numerous gunfights protecting himself from criminals. Whites don’t need a reason to be here, they’ve just got to want to be here.

Third World Child comes with the dust-cover promotion: ‘Longlisted for the 2015 Alan Paton Award’. Under this dubious tribute, in smaller writing, Rian Malan says: ‘Alcock has written a gleaming assegai of a memoir…this is a fantastic book, perhaps even a landmark.’ That feels more like it.

Malan is a fan of the Alcocks; their story, and Neil’s assassination, is something of a narrative crucible in his book My Traitor’s Heart. Perhaps Rian would have been happier for the book to be shortlisted, as opposed to longlisted, for the Paton award. But what about the great man himself? What would Alan Paton have made of the Alcocks and their story?

Racist whites liked to tell Paton that if he loved blacks so much he should go live with them. Paton would patiently explain that he did not want to lower his lifestyle to their level, but rather raise blacks to his level. I don’t think he meant it in a racist or patronising way. He was simply stating that he enjoyed good things in life and felt blacks should have the same advantages.

Paton was not only liberal in his writing, but in his day-to-day dealings too. Out of respect for his black factotum (a man by the name of Sikali) Paton refused to intervene when his wife complained about the raucous parties going on in the quarters at the bottom of the garden.

He was on close terms with people of all races. The accumulated acts of cross-racial kindness count more than political correctness or fashionable left-wing ideology of the day. Perhaps the greatest tribute to Paton is the scroll black staff members gave him when he resigned as head of Diepkloof Reformatory in the wake of the 1948 apartheid election victory.

It said: “This work, and the reforms which you have wrought here have been the salvation of many thousands of African delinquents who have passed through the Institution, and will remain as a lasting monument to your memory.”

Contrast this with what the editor of Die Transvaler, a certain HF Verwoerd, wrote in 1945 about Paton’s work: “Diepkloof as an institution to reform young black delinquents is a colossal failure.”

Verwoerd decried Paton’s “mollycoddling theories” and “the loafing about the farm of black ladies and gentlemen”, to whom the white staff had been “ordered to say asseblief tog” if they wanted to get them to do anything.

Liberalism is not a political ideology, it’s an attitude of mind that calls for treating all people with open-heartedness, or at the very least with respect and dignity. Verwoerd resented black people and Paton loved them, as did the Alcock family. When we sucked on our mother’s teat it was not only for nutrients, but for the exchange of human kindness. Kindness was our first act of consumption.

For a country that once banned love across the racial divide we’ve come a long way. How ironic that the apartheid government never banned African nannies from caring for white children. And thank God they didn’t. 

- Angus Douglas is a speaker, playwright and corporate writing expert based in Johannesburg. He has produced numerous plays and presentations on Herman Charles Bosman. More recently he has turned his attention to Jan Smuts, with a talk entitled: Jan Smuts and the Soul of South Africa. 

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Read more on:    alan paton  |  jm coetzee  |  racism

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