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Alan Patonís legacy: keeping true liberalism alive
29 Jul 2009

AT the recent Alan Paton 20th anniversary conference held on the local university campus, journalist and researcher Jameson Maluleke presented a paper titled “The Need for Liberalism”, in which he advocated a return to the liberal ideals articulated by Paton.

Maluleke is happy to align himself with a definition of liberalism once given by Paton: “By liberalism I don’t mean the creed of any century. I mean a generosity of spirit, a tolerance of others, an attempt to comprehend otherness, a commitment to the rule of law, a high ideal of the worth and dignity of man, a repugnance for authoritarianism and a love of freedom.”

Maluleke sees himself as a liberal in Paton’s mould. “His description of liberalism is the best I know. What Paton tells us is that there is no such thing as radical, progressive or democratic liberalism. True liberalism does not need qualifications. Only pure liberalism can enable us to attain a common humanity.”

At school in the seventies, when Maluleke first became acquainted with Paton’s most famous book, Cry, the Beloved Country, little did he realise that “Paton’s world-view, his philosophies and religion would eventually shape my lifestyle.”

Maluleke was born at Pfukane Mission Station in 1956. “In the Great North — the old Northern Transvaal — in what is today’s Limpopo province.”

Educated at various schools in the Malamulele District, Maluleke completed his Junior Certificate of Education in 1976. Studying privately he obtained his school leaving certificate from the Joint Matriculation Board in 1980. Thereafter Maluleke obtained a BA and BA honours in literary theory and a masters in sociolinguistics via Unisa. He is currently a doctoral student at the University of Free State.

Since the late eighties — after 10 years as an administration assistant at Unisa — Maluleke has worked as a journalist for a variety of Anglican publications.

Maluleke first encountered Paton via the pages of Cry, the Beloved Country in 1975 while he was at secondary school in Malamulele. “I was in Form 11 then, and I had a scant knowledge of the problems that beset our country,” he recalls. “Employed by Unisa in 1977, I frequented the university library where I read and reread Cry, the Beloved Country several times with relish. It was my favourite novel — my bible, my reference book for social issues.”

Trying to explain why Paton’s book so impressed him, Maluleke says his younger self couldn’t understand the logic of the national leadership of the time. “Here was a prolific writer, writing objectively and honestly, without pretension or favour — who laid bare the challenges which faced our country. Paton seemed to be saying ‘Let all South Africans work together for the good of their society’.

Yet the Nationalist government saw Paton as a dissident and his writings as undesirable. Yet, a devoted Christian, Paton neither preached nor advocated revolution.”

Maluleke was so moved by Paton’s book that he decided to translate it into Tsonga, partly to share it with his fellow Tsonga speakers and also in the hope of inspiring “one of my brothers or sisters to become a prophetic writer like Paton”.

Maluleke is proud there is “such a literary masterpiece now available in Tsonga”, and it has been a set work in schools since 1997.

Paton also inspired Maluleke to become an Anglican. “After reading Paton’s writings, I became interested in his religion and in the years that followed, I too became a fully-fledged Anglican.”

Maluleke never met his hero, who died in 1988, though he subsequently met his sons David, Jonathan and their families. “I was also lucky to meet Paton’s second wife, Anne, at the recent conference.”

Liberalism is still very much alive, if unacknowledged, in South Africa today. “Our famous Constitution, the Bill of Rights and the free market economy are all products of liberalism,” says Maluleke. “The problem with us as liberals is that we have allowed opportunists to steal our show. We are ashamed to stand up and acknowledge our contributions. Despite the fact that our national leadership sound and act like revolutionaries, almost all government policies are typical examples of liberalism as an agent for transformation, reconciliation and nation building.”

Which is why Maluleke wonders why Paton has not been awarded the Isithwalandwe — “the highest honour in the Republic, which the country’s president offers a person who has tremendously contributed to the liberation struggle”.

Perhaps it’s because the word “liberal” has become a term of abuse. In his paper, Maluleke quoted Malegapuru Magoba, vice chancellor of the University of KwaZulu-Natal, who, when writing on liberalism in 1998, said that “one of the rudest things today is to call a South African, in particular a white South African, a liberal ... This is because the word ‘liberal’ has become associated with negative connotations such as racism, someone spineless, unprincipled and vague, a hypocrite, a person unable to take a strong stand or position except their own agenda or interests.”

Maluleke doesn’t agree with the statement. “I quoted it as I am anxious to bring home to fellow liberals that our meekness — shall I say, timidity — has made us an easy target for our adversaries. Today, liberals are ashamed of themselves because they have been made to believe that they sided with tyranny and oppression during the dark days of our history. I for one, will throw my light weight behind a liberal heavyweight courageous enough to stand up and refute such cheap politics.

“We in South Africa need a liberal conscience, which Paton and his ilk strove and prayed for,” says Maluleke. “A racism-free liberalism with the capacity to meet our people’s socioeconomic expectations. A liberalism that is capable of maintaining and monitoring good governance, that can guard against abuse of the Constitution and provide relief from starvation, unemployment and poverty. We need liberal ethics that can enhance transformation and nation building in our country.”

We in South Africa need a liberal conscience, which Paton and his ilk strove and prayed for — a racism-free liberalism with the capacity to meet our people’s socio-economic expectations.

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