Alan Paton appears at Maropeng

The “Long March to Freedom” Exhibition is being relocated from the Fountains Gardens to Maropeng.  There are probably not many people alive whose grandparent is represented in the exhibition. I believe that I am the only person who, in addition to being an immediate descendant of one of the heroic figures in “The Long March to Freedom”, also works for the Cradle of Humankind World Heritage Site.  (The Official Visitor Centre of the site comprises of Maropeng and Sterkfontein).

The facial likeness of my grandfather is a good one, although he has been given a body which is about 20cm taller than his real height, so instead of being noticeably shorter than me at around 1.65m, his statue depicts a man of about 1.85m, which makes him taller than me, and somewhat more athletic looking than he actually was.

Besides this, the attention to detail is impressive.  For example, the detail of the missing index finger on his left hand is faithfully captured in the sculpture.  He lost the finger after one of the boys from the Diepkloof Reformatory (where he was once the principal) bit his hand reportedly in retaliation for Alan Paton giving the boy a beating.  Some of the inmates of Diepkloof Reformatory remembered Alan Paton as a harsh disciplinarian, whilst others remembered him as “the man who pulled up the barbed wire and planted geraniums”.   Of course this is long before I was born, so I cannot comment on whose memories were the more accurate.

The Alan Paton I knew in real life often wore the stern and serious expression which is well captured in the sculpture by Rosamund O’Connor.  Yet he was also fond of jokes, so when he received his monthly National Geographic and saw that it had a picture of a chimpanzee on the cover, he showed it to me, saying “Look, Anty, you are on the front cover of National Geographic!” to which I replied “No, grandad, that is not me, that is you.”  Unimpressed by my insolence, he went on to try the same line on my brother, Nic. To my delight my brother (without prompting or consultation) also said “No, grandad, that is you!” And I believe we had a point, because his facial expressions, particularly those of his mouth, were indeed often slightly simian.  Whether his lips were puckered, pouted or tightly closed as though sucking a lemon, he had the ability to present an unmistakable resemblance to some kind of ape, a theme which led to much banter and mythology in the Paton family.

Although Alan Paton was a conservative Christian in many ways, he was a firm follower of Darwin’s theory of evolution, and he displayed an impressive grasp of its general principals.  In fact, he was a science teacher and had no tertiary education in literature or the arts, which may take many people by surprise. He was had a broad interest in natural history and I believe he was (more than any other single individual) instrumental in developing my particular interest in birds.  Indeed, his two famous novels have birds which form important motifs in the narrative. In Cry the Beloved Country there is regular reference to the titihoya, known in English as the Black-winged Lapwing.  The “forlorn crying” of this bird may represent nostalgia for the innocence that may once have existed in rural areas, or may represent the Ixopo area, which is the heartland of this near threatened endemic bird and home to both the Jarvis and the Kumalo families.  In Too Late the Phalarope the phalarope plays a critical symbolic role.  This bird is usually seen off shore, but which occasionally ventures to inland dams and wetlands, where it is a rare and sought after species amongst birders.  The protagonist of the book and his father are united by the arrival of such a bird, but unfortunately their reconciliation is transitory and soon, like the bird, is seen no more.

Alan Paton was also influential in my developing a love for traveling, word games, card games and the rather eccentric game of croquet.  Croquet is a very mean game in which the best avenue to success is destroying the planned moves of your opponents. Bishop Ambrose Reeves, of whom Alan Paton was the biographer, reputedly called out on the croquet field “That’s the way! Bash them up! There’s the good Christian spirit!”  The dry wit and irony displayed by Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu was not unprecedented amongst the historical clergical leadership of the Anglican Church. In his visit to the Maropeng, Tutu declared controversially the he considered that the Cradle of Humankind World Heritage Site “should be considered a sacred place!”

The arrival of the Alan Paton statue amidst the esteemed gathering of heroes in “The Long March to Freedom” at Maropeng is a special thrill for me.  Now, not only are my most ancient ancestors represented at Maropeng, but one of my most recent ancestors now appears there too. I have a real sense that Maropeng is the home of my ancestors to a degree that is remarkable, profound and complete.