Ah, but Your Land Is Beautiful
(1983), an anti-apartheid novel by South African author Alan Paton offers a fictionalized account and analysis of his life as a political organizer in South Africa and his rise to the presidency of South Africa’s Liberal Party. Containing a mix of real and fictional characters, it involves many of Paton’s real-life contemporaries in the anti-apartheid movement, such as Archbishop Trevor Huddleston and Helen Joseph. The novel takes place between 1952 and 1958, some of the harshest years with respect to racism and political instability in South Africa. Through his recollections, Paton illuminates a deep but complicated love for his homeland, which has been fraught with many cases of human rights abuse. The novel’s name ironizes a statement often said to Paton by naive outsiders describing his homeland; to Paton and countless others in South Africa, its beauty is a painful and difficult one.Ah, but Your Land Is Beautiful
consists of six sections, each telling the stories of people living under intense prejudice and terror, who are forced to choose whether to accept or resist this burden. Paton illuminates how these intense conflicts emerge out of long-standing racial hatred between whites, blacks, Indians, and mixed-race, or “Colored” individuals. The first section considers the Defiance Campaign, a movement launched in 1952. This movement snowballed partly from the actions of a teenaged Indian girl, Prem Bodasingh, who broke the law by reading at the Durban Municipal Reference Library, an institution reserved for whites. Ms. Bodasingh entered the library repeatedly, risking imprisonment and worse. Though Ms. Bodasingh’s efforts seemed ineffectual at the time, they inspired many others to protest segregation in South Africa. In response, the government increased the penalties for protesting apartheid. The Defiance Campaign eventually ended because the risk of state-sponsored harm grew too great.
The second section of the novel examines the difficult situations faced by many government employees who were anti-apartheid sympathizers. The Nationalist Party, which was in power, forced employees to be loyal to colonial views. Sadly, the systematic formalization of white nationalist thought in government policy gave many white people the resources to protest, while depriving would-be black activists of speaking out. Paton illuminates this in the case of a black headmaster who wished to join the Liberal Party but didn’t out of desperation to protect his students, and thus, his job.
Considering the tension between white descendants of Dutch colonists and those of English-speaking colonists, in the third section, Paton traces this tension back to the Boer War of the mid-19th century. In mid-20th-century South Africa, the Afrikaners, remembering the shame of being defeated in the Boer War, deeply resented the British. Paton also acknowledges that the Anglican Church voiced dissent about apartheid, though the Afrikaners’ Calvinist interpretations of the Bible, which supported apartheid, usually prevailed.
Afrikaner political and religious leader Dr. Jan Woldemade Fischer, who worked in the Justice Department and was an orchestrator of apartheid policy, features in the fourth section of the novel. He was widely supported and celebrated by university leaders, politicians, and church bureaucrats throughout South Africa. Ironically, he was also infatuated with a Zulu girl. He convinced her to meet him in a public park, where he was caught and tried for violating the very “Immorality Acts” he helped implement. Sentenced to death, he committed suicide.
The fifth section concerns individuals who continued to do good despite the inhumanity and oppression commonplace in South Africa in the mid-20th century. One woman, a white nun and medical doctor, dedicated her entire life to helping ill black people. She was brutally murdered by a black mob. Paton chronicles many other unthinkable crimes committed by whites, blacks, and Indians. The novel’s final section, “Into the Golden Age,” examines the recent political changes in South Africa, again in an ironic
light, as its purported triumphs have been anything but. The Afrikaner Nationalists in power at Paton’s time of writing, though supposedly humane, envision a South Africa that is peaceful because it has become totally segregated. Paton laments that people conceive of segregation as good for a nation, expressing a great ambivalence about South Africa’s future.