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"Alan Paton: A Biography"

By Peter F. Alexander

Oxford University Press, 510 pp.; $35

"Long Walk to Freedom: The Autobiography of Nelson Mandela"

By Nelson Mandela

Little, Brown, 558 pp.; $24.95

Two striking incidents from these estimable books intimate the depth—but also the ironies—of Christian faith in modern South Africa. Alan Paton (1903-88) won worldwide renown when in 1948 he published "Cry, the Beloved Country," an intensely powerful novel of interracial antagonism, murder, despair, and (at the end) forgiveness. When in the 1950s and 1960s he helped guide South Africa's Liberal Party as a voice for nonviolent, multiracial reform, he was subjected to serious harassment from the South African government even as he won the support of many reformers inside and outside of his country.

Before he became widely known through his writing and political activities, however, Paton had served as the superintendent of a juvenile prison for nonwhites at Deipkloof, south Johannesburg. As a humane and largely successful administrator, Paton tried to promote inner direction, as well as outward conformity, in his charges. To that end, in 1935 or 1936 he introduced a daily half-hour of Bible study. Not long thereafter one of the boys was accused of stealing fish from a nearby store. When Paton asked his black staff for advice, they urged him to use corporal punishment to get at the truth. But after only a few cuts of the cane, the lad sprang up and accused Paton of "crucifying me." He then called the African warder who was accusing him "Judas," the black vice-principal "Herod," and Paton "Pontius Pilate." Paton was deeply moved, apologized profusely, and let the boy go. Later the same afternoon, Paton went searching for the lad ...

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In the Magazine

July 17, 1995

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