CYC-Online 27 APRIL 2001
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old books

From Barbed Wire to Geraniums

Diepkloof: Reflections of Diepkloof Reformatory
Alan Paton, David Philip, Cape Town 1986.

The name Alan Paton conjures up immediately the internationally famous author of Cry the Beloved Country amongst many other writings, and the equally renowned champion of the liberal cause in South Africa. What is less widely known is that Paton was principal of Diepkloof Reformatory near Soweto for the thirteen years from July 1935 to June 1948. Clyde Broster has assembled a small selection of Dr Paton's works revolving around his Diepkloof days, some poetry, some autobiography, some storytelling in his almost biblical style, some drama, and a closing section on “Some Thoughts on Education and Reform."

These were the worst days of institutionalisation, especially within the reformatory system in South Africa, with the dialogue between adults and youngsters being largely mediated through the ponderous rules and machinery of the place. It is a great tribute to Paton that he was nevertheless acutely aware of the individual boy, his limits, his folly, his tragedy. He took great risks at Diepkloof by saying what he had to say to the boys, not as individuals which would have been almost impossible, but through the changes he made to rules and routines which affected them as a group of six hundred. Yet he succeeded in communicating to them his belief in them, and his trust, which enabled him to carry out during those thirteen years what he justifiably calls a transformation.

Broster's selection is unsatisfying in its brevity, but hopefully will point the reader to the fuller texts in such books as Towards the Mountain and Debbie Go Home.

"Education", writes Paton. “is not solely a matter of the impact of personality on personality; it is just as importantly a matter of the impact of environment on personality". Dr Paton has been remembered as the “man who pulled up the barbed-wire fences at Diepkloof Reformatory and planted geraniums instead". But this was just an outward and visible sign of his tireless and brave work of replacing an austere and punitive with a purposeful and meaningful community.

See Paton's short story Ha'penny also in this issue of CYC-ONLINE

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