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Okanogan author with South African roots is committed to human rights

Having grown up in a middle-class South African family, author Bea Alden knows how “a deep societal wrong can seem to be acceptable and customary.”

Bea Alden
Bea Alden paints scenes around her in Okanogan.

In these times, she is concerned about diminishing respect for human rights in the United States and around the world.

While Bea is now often absorbed in painting the scenic mountains, rugged rocks and soft foliage she sees around her home in the Okanogan Highlands, she remains attuned to how governments treat their people.

She and her husband, Leon, moved there in 2006 when he retired as pastor at Pioneer United Methodist Church in Walla Walla. They wanted to live in the country.

In 2000, Bea retired from a 20-year career in the insurance industry and decided to write a book recounting and reflecting on her early years and how “a child born into such a culture and, not exposed to any alternative view, might easily learn to reflect the abuses of that society,” she said.

“This phenomenon is not confined to South Africa,” she pointed out.

The title of the book, Liongold, is a metaphor for a comparison between the gold mining industry and the golden lions, which symbolize South Africa. White gold barons made fortunes and, with black labor, created modern cities, which afforded a comfortable existence for white families through exploitation of the native people and the native environment.

The book describes how no one in South Africa, black or white, escaped the effects of apartheid’s written and unwritten rules about race, class, money and roles of men and women.

In addition, Bea draws a parallel in her book between the “indescribable cruelties the government enacted behind the scenes” and violence in her own home.

The veil of secrecy in which she grew up was also part of her family life because her father, who she describes as “a brilliant chemical engineer,” was bipolar and shifted from being nice to “being weird, violent and ugly,” she said.

Her mother, a piano teacher, was ambitious for a more socially prominent place in Johannesburg Society than their family could afford, Bea said.

In the 40s and 50s, many women had Cinderella illusions of gaining prestige through their marriages, she added.

Her mother, however, saw there was more. She joined the Black Sash movement with other white women, who stood in rows outside government buildings to protest apartheid in the late 1950s. Many whites, as well as blacks who worked against apartheid were put under house arrest or “disappeared,” Bea recalled.

The British nuns teaching at the Anglican girls’ school Bea attended also expressed their opposition to apartheid. When the nuns wanted to build a recreation center for the school’s servants, the government “disallowed the project on the grounds that the area was ‘not zoned for blacks.’”

Liongold describes how black women who did the housework of the white housewives—such as in her home—lived different lives from her middle-class family.

They ate from tin plates, not china. They rode in green busses, not the red ones like white people rode, and they were forced by law to live in separate areas from whites. All public facilities were segregated.

“We did not see the violence happening behind the scenes,” she said, “but when I was 11, my eyes were opened by reading Uncle Tom’s Cabin, realizing that we did not call the Africans ‘slaves,’ but their lives were not much different from U.S. slaves,” Bea said.

“Under apartheid, only whites voted and participated in government,” she said. “For them housing, education and jobs were much superior to the conditions for native people. Whites almost wiped out the native African experience.

“One of the evils was that the system took people who disagreed and shut them up. They would be arrested and held without trial, or would simply disappear,” she said.

So Bea carries that awareness into her life here today. She is concerned that the fear stirred on 9/11 in the United States, “has led us bit by bit to put up with an erosion of individual rights” from the “sometimes intrusive airport security checks to denial of habeas corpus—a right to prevent detention without trial—for prisoners at Guantanamo, for example.

“I believed that is one thing a civilized society would not do,” she said. “It’s disillusioning given the ideals America says it has.”

Bea worries that U.S. politics could be running into a cycle toward repression with even, perhaps, religion falling prey to repressive politics, as it did in South Africa. She is uncomfortable with the feelings of enmity between the right and left wings in this country.

“I hope it’s a cycle that will turn around,” she said.

Bea shared how her life progressed to living in the United States. She studied social work at the University of Witwatersrand and earned a bachelor’s degree in English and psychology at the University of South Africa in 1966.

She and her first husband came to Rochester, N.Y., from 1960 to 1963 for his doctoral studies on radiation biology. In the 1960s, Bea was delighted to find college students protesting.

“It seemed like paradise,” she said. “Americans seemed to have open minds. The United States was a place of opportunity, growth and change compared with the fascist South African regime.”

Later that marriage dissolved, and Bea met and, in 1978, married Leon Alden, a United Methodist pastor in Kennewick.

“It was culture shock adjusting to being a pastor’s wife,” she said. “I was not into teas or baking casseroles. It was also hard to be a pastor’s wife and not be able to express my political opinions freely, except my opinions about South Africa.”

For many years after moving to the United States, Bea felt she could do little to assist those suffering under apartheid except give talks to women’s, church, business, school and community groups to “extend knowledge about what an evil system apartheid was.”

Then she learned about Amnesty International, a global movement to end human rights abuses, and began writing letters on behalf of prisoners of conscience around the world.

She appreciated having a way she as an individual could help free prisoners.

For Bea, the Gospel message is summed up in the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus’ teaching people to care for the least and not to judge “but to learn to accept each other, to look at our differences and resolve them.”

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