Alan Paton didn't live long enough to see his beloved South Africa reborn in freedom. By the time he died in 1988, he must have feared the brutal fortress of apartheid would only fall to a long and bloody black revolution.
He didn't live to see F.W. de Klerk's courageous determination to dismantle the racist regime without giving way to fear, or Nelson Mandela's eloquent capacity to demand racial justice without giving way to bitterness. He didn't see South Africa's first free elections or the joyous inauguration of a multi-racial democracy.
Alan Paton didn't live long enough to see the stunning transformation of the land he loved. But even in apartheid's darkest days, he never lost hope because he always believed in the basic decency of people -- both blacks and whites.
Hope and compassion shine through sadness and suffering in his 1948 novel, "Cry, the Beloved Country." It's still available in paperback, and it's still a painful and inspiring book.
"There is a lovely road that runs from Ixopo into the hills. These hills are grass-covered and rolling, and they are lovely beyond any singing of it . . . and if there is no mist, you can look down on one of the fairest valleys of Africa."
The novel tells the story of Stephen Kumalo, an elderly Zulu parson who ministers his Christian faith to the tribal people still living in the valley. But white men have taken the best land, and drought has parched the soil. The young people leave.
"Cry for the broken tribe, for the law and the custom that is gone. Aye, and cry aloud for the man who is dead, for the woman and children bereaved. Cry, the beloved country, these things are not yet at an end. The sun pours down on the earth and the lovely land that man cannot enjoy. He knows only the fear of his heart."
Fear blows through this land. Kumalo's sister has left, and so has his son. They have gone to the booming city of Johannesburg. No letters have come for many months. So Kumalo must go and find them. But he's never been to a city, and he is afraid.
Johannesburg is an urban horror of shantytowns and lost souls. Kumalo's sister has turned to prostitution, and his son has done the most terrible thing a native boy can do in this country -- he has killed a white man.
Tragically, the murdered white man was a reformer who had devoted himself to equal rights for all South Africans. "I shall do this," he had written in his journal, "not because I am noble or unselfish, but because life slips away, and because I need for the rest of my journey a star that will not play false to me, a compass that will not lie . . . because I cannot find it in me to do anything else."
Kumalo's son is convicted and sentenced to death. Before he is sent away for execution, his father arranges for him to marry the frightened teen-age girl who is pregnant with their child.
"Cry, the beloved country, for the unborn child that is the inheritor of our fear. Let him not love the earth too deeply. Let him not laugh too gladly when the water runs through his fingers, not stand too silent when the setting sun makes red the veld with fire. Let him not be too moved when the birds of his land are singing, nor give too much of his heart to a mountain or a valley. For fear will rob him of all if he gives too much."
Kumalo takes his new daughter-in-law back to the village. There he meets the murdered white man's father who owns a prosperous nearby farm. The father has read the journal of his dead son -- a son he now realizes he never knew -- and the words have engendered within him a determination to join the reform effort. He distributes milk and food to the starving villagers and helps them build a dam. He and Kumalo talk -- two fathers who have both lost their sons.
For years this book remained a powerful international political force as well as a substantial literary achievement. It sold over 15 million copies in 20 languages and stirred the world's conscience.
At home in South Africa, Paton himself continued the fight against apartheid. In 1954, he helped to found the interracial Liberal Party, and in 1960, he testified on Mandela's behalf when the black leader was tried for treason.
Thereafter, however, the times seemed to pass Paton by. Black and white revolutionaries didn't hear his book as a trumpet call to man the barricades, and they found the humble Kumalo something of an Uncle Tom.
In the 1970s, Paton himself fell into disfavor because he argued that economic sanctions would hurt the people they were intended to help.
Nevertheless, he continued to believe in the power of love, hope and compassion. His spirit speaks through his novel.
The day before the execution of Kumalo's son, the old man climbs up into the hills above the valley and keeps a vigil through the long night. As the sun rises, he prays for the condemned boy, the murdered man's father and the future.
"And now for all the people of Africa, the beloved country. Nkosi Sikelel' iAfrika, God save Africa. But he would not see that salvation. It lay far off, because men were afraid of it." White men "were afraid with a fear that was deep, deep in the heart, a fear so deep that they hid their kindness . . . . They were afraid because they were so few. And such fear could not be cast out, but by love."
Then come the terrifying words, for his land and for ours.
"I have one great fear in my heart, that one day when they turn to loving they will find we are turned to hating."
So far, that haunting fear hasn't become a frightening reality in Alan Paton's beloved country. In no small part that's because both he and his novel kept alive a noble vision of how blacks and whites could live together.
Tim Baker is a lawyer who writes from Columbia.