This is a peice I wrote about 4 years ago (10th grade) about a book that remains one of my favorites, and a subject that I sill find intriguing.
The twentieth century will be marked in history for its many civil rights movements, none of which was more tremendous than the anti-apartheid movement of South Africa. Alan Paton was an author and a political activist who created the South African Liberal Party, and who would later become one of the most prominent voices of opposition to apartheid; the South African government’s policy of racial segregation and discrimination against the black majority population of the country.
Born to a white farming family in South Africa in early twentieth century, Paton grew sympathetic to the anti- apartheid cause as he watched first hand a socially frayed country where “fear loomed over everything.”1 Throughout his life, Paton published his views on apartheid, crime, and justice in South Africa in a body of works, of which the novel Cry, the Beloved Country would become the most renowned. Thought by many as the initial and the most compelling novel to emerge out of the crises in South Africa; Cry, the Beloved Country brought into spotlight the problems that plagued Africa’s southern tip, and set a precedent for other critical South African pieces of literature that would later surface.
In Cry, the Beloved Country, Paton deals with three different accounts, one of the land of South Africa and the great tribes that once presided across its plains; another of the search of a father, Stephen Kumalo, an old rural black minister for his son Absalom in a large corrupt city; and finally an old rural white man, James Jarvis’s confrontation with the loss of his son. The story combines all of these elements to illustrate a glimpse into, and an explanation for, the condition of South Africa during the 1940’s and beyond.
A masterfully depicted social commentary, Paton’s Cry, the Beloved Country deals with a variety of issues that South Africans, both black and white, of the 1940’s had to face. The author begins at “a lovely road that runs from Ixopo into the hills… grass covered and rolling, they are lovely beyond any singing of it.”2 He moves on to describe the various locations of South Africa as they would have been in the mid twentieth century, carrying the novel forth through the eyes of a set of dynamic and believable characters.
The author comments on a variety of topics, from moral values, family and relationships, to comparative looks at rural and urban environments, and the South African judicial system; all weaved into the novel’s underlying themes of reunification and emancipation. Paton describes the injustices implicated on the black Africans, their poor living conditions, and the crimes committed by the black Africans, which led to further support for apartheid in the white community, as a vicious circle set into motion as described by a character:
“The tragedy is not that things are broken. The tragedy is that they are not mended again. The white man has broken the tribe. And it is my belief that it cannot be mended again. But the house that is broken, and the man that falls apart when the house is broken, these are tragic things. That is why children break the law, and old white people are robbed and beaten.”3
Paton continues to emphasize through a black reverend, and later through a white anti-apartheid activist that “it suited the white man to break the tribe. But it has not suited him to build something in the place of what is broken.”4 This of course, draws from the history of exploitation of native Africans in the past few centuries, when South Africa, no longer a refuge from the modern age of industrialization “became a Mecca for fortune hunters and empire builders”5 due to its large gold and diamond reserves. These white dominated industries did not see it suitable to “build in the place of what was broken” for they were taking advantage of the cheap labor of desperate black worker-ants. As the author puts it through the words of the deceased son of James Jarvis:
“It was permissible to develop our great resources with the aid of what labor we could find… permissible to use unskilled men for unskilled work. But it is not permissible to keep men unskilled for the sake of unskilled work… It is not permissible for us to go on destroying family life when we know that we are destroying it.”6
Nevertheless, Paton does not create antagonists in the white population; but rather, staying true to the spirit of liberation through reunification, encourages dialogue, cooperation, and unity between all the people of South Africa in order to rebuild anew what has been broken. This is best exemplified in the numerous small, yet significant instances, which Paton has drawn from history, of positive interactions between black and white South African populations. Throughout the novel, many white men express their allegiance to the cause of the black freedom movement; as portrayed at a particular incident where a character observes a white man carry black men in his car in support of a strike against the transportation system.7
Deeply religious, Paton makes a great deal of biblical allusions in his writing. Akin to biblical tales, the main characters in Cry, the Beloved Country seem to be men of good faith who meet misfortune at every turn, yet continue to be compassionate and merciful, taking refuge in God. Paton illustrates Christianity as a bridge spanning over the bitterness and social gaps present in South African Society; and the church as a divine sanctuary where bonds are restored.
“They went into a room where a table was laid, and there he met many priests, both white and black and they sat down after grace and ate together… And he told them all about these places, of the great hills and valleys of that far country.”8
Indeed, the Church and the Christian faith played a crucial role in the development of South Africa in two fundamental ways. There were key figures in the church that supported apartheid and believed the difference in color to be a physical manifestation between barbarism and civilization, heathendom and Christianity. In the 1950’s they justified their views by stating apartheid to be “[a] divine calling and [a] privilege- to convert heathen to Christianity without obliterating the [self] national identity”, in which they could through “the armor of racial purity and self preservation” avoid being “submerged in the black heathendom of Africa.”9 Many in the white population, therefore, would join segregationist reformed Churches, developing exclusionist religious branches.
Black South Africans also displayed “strong religious ethics”10, but in contrast joined evangelical churches founded by English missionaries, who encouraged social integration. Paton does not make any mention of the former movement, but rather chooses to explore the inclusive movement in detail, which was contrary to the segregationist Church movement of the 1940’s. Paton’s selection is effective as he attempts to shed into light as to what is possible in South Africa’s future.
Cry, the Beloved Country is a stirring commentary that manages to expose the injustices that were taking place in the Southern African tip by conveying characters into situations that South Africans of the time had to face. Paton’s story is meant to transcend beyond segregationist boundaries in an attempt to unite the people of South Africa through characters to whom they can relate to.
So it is perhaps ironic that Cry, the Beloved Country’s ultimate downfall comes where it struggles to reinforce the relationships between black and white characters. Throughout out the novel Paton shows awareness and deep concern pertaining to the black South Africans’ plight, yet is seems as if he is, at least to an extent, oblivious of the power and ability of black South Africans’ to address these issues.
This is evident through many ordeals where the white man ultimately ends up saving the black man by challenging long held views, that of his own or society, or in other cases the judiciary system of government. A particular instance of this relationship is shown where Stephen Kumalo, the black rural reverend, has to turn to a benevolent white lawyer to represent his son in a criminal court.
This relationship seems reasonable in its limited range; but the novel falls short where most of the interactions between the white and black characters are within the limited dynamics of the benevolent and the needy. In this respect, Paton remains effective in perpetuating his intentions, but has reduced apartheid in South Africa into somewhat simplistic terms, evading from exploring in detail the acts of defiance against the oppressive apartheid system by non-whites, and black self-empowerment.
Paton finds his strength in his unique writing style, and his ability to tell the story through simple words, arranged together to make intricate prose. When a reader first picks up this book, it can be hard to grasp due to the unfamiliar style and the foreign use of punctuation, which is probably due to Paton’s South African schooling. For instance the novel itself is written without quotation marks, instead preceding quotes with a dash ‘-’; in long dialogues between characters, this can be rather confusing, but the reader will certainly be comfortable with Paton’s writing style after a few chapters or so. Most fascinating, are Paton’s description of settings and sceneries and his ability to draw profound concepts from the simplest of conditions:
“In the deserted harbor there is yet water that laps the quays. In the dark and silent forest there is a leaf that falls. Behind the polished paneling the white ant eats away the wood. Nothing is ever quiet, except for fools.”11
1 Allister Sparks, The Mind of South Africa (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1990), p. 162.
2 Alan Paton, Cry, the Beloved Country (New York: Macmillan, 1986), p. 3.
3 Paton, Cry, the Beloved Country, p. 25.
5 Sparks, The Mind of South Africa, p. 120.
6 Paton, Cry, the Beloved country, p. 145.
7 Ibid., p. 50.
8 Ibid., p. 21.
9 D.F. Malan, “Apartheid: A Divine Calling,” Anti-Apartheid Reader, (New York: Mermelstein 1987) p. 95.
10 Sparks, The Mind of South Africa, p. 250.
11 Paton, Cry, the Beloved Country, p. 190.
Mallaby, Sebastian. After Apartheid – The Future of South Africa. New York: Times Books, 1992.
North, James. Freedom Rising. New York: Macmillan Publishing Company, 1985.
Paton, Alan. Cry, the Beloved Country. 3rd ed. New York: Collier Books, 1986.
Seidman, Ann. The Roots of Crisis in Southern Africa. Trenton: Africa World Press, 1985.
Sparks, Allister. The Mind of South Africa. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1990.
Tambo, Adelaide . Preparing for Power – Oliver Tambo Speaks. New York: Geroge Braziller, 1988.
Thomas, Antony. Rhodes: The Race for Africa. London: BBC Worldwide Publishing, 1996.