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Alan Paton

To a small boy who died in Diepkloof Reformatory

Easy questions to cut your teeth on!

Keith Tankard
Updated: 20 June 2012
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A young boy has died in the Diepkloof Reformatory. His death shocked the poet who appears to have believed that the boy should not have been there at all because his offence was quite trivial.

Paton paints a bleak picture of the justice system in South Africa, where so many people were somehow involved and yet their work did so little for the upliftment of the inmates or of the nation.


Allan Paton was born in Pietermaritzburg (South Africa) in 1903. He started his career as a teacher but soon took a strong interest in race relations, joining the South African Institute of Race Relations in 1930.

In 1935 Paton left teaching to become principal of Diepkloof Reformatory for urban Black boys. There he introduced many humane reforms.

He first achieved fame for his novel, Cry the Beloved Country which was published in 1948. The story exposed race relations in South Africa of that era.

Merely a few months after the publication of the novel, the National Party came into power in South Africa and the system of social engineering called Apartheid was born.

Paton then became more involved in politics, becoming National President of the Liberal Party.

In 1964, he gave evidence in mitigation of sentence at Nelson Mandela's treason trial.

Paton died in April 1988 at the age of 85.

Have you looked at the questions
in the right column?
Read the left column and then answer
the following questions:

"Small offender, small innocent child
With no conception or comprehension
Of the vast machinery set in motion
By your trivial transgression."
  • What is a reformatory? (2)

[Need help?]

  • Although the poet does refer to the child as an "offender", he is nevertheless not convinced that he should have been locked away. What words does the poet use to convey this impression? (2)

[Need help?]

  • What is this "vast machinery set in motion"? (4)

[Need help?]

"Clerks are moved to action by your dying;
Your documents, all neatly put together,
Are transferred from the living to the dead."
  • Comment on the ironic use of the word "moved". (4)

[Need help?]

"Here is the document of birth
Saying that you were born and where and when,
But giving no hint of joy or sorrow,
Or if the sun shone, or if the rain was falling,
Or what bird flew singing over the roof
Where your mother travailed."
  • Explain the impersonal nature of a birth certificate. (4)

[Need help?]

  • Why would the poet have used the word "travail" to describe the mother's response to the birth? (4)

[Need help?]

"Here is the last certificate of Death;
Forestalling authority he sets you free,
You that did once arrive have now departed
And are enfolded in the sole embrace
Of kindness that earth ever gave to you."
  • Why is "Death" spelt with an uppercase "D"? (2)

[Need help?]

  • Is the poet deliberately personifying "Death"? Explain your conclusion. (2)

[Need help?]

  • The poet sees a great irony in the child's death. What is it? (3)

[Need help?]

"Here is the warrant of committal,
For this offence, oh small and lonely one,
For this offence in whose commission
Millions of men are in complicity
You are committed. So do I commit you."
  • The poet deliberately juxtaposes the word "commit" and "committal". There is a deep irony in this. Explain what it is. (4)

[Need help?]

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