Alan Paton wrote Cry, the Beloved Country about his native country, South Africa, in 1946. In the 60 plus years since, it has become a classic. When I was an undergraduate at Duke in the 1970’s, this book was required reading in a class that I did not have to take. In preparation for a trip to South Africa this month, I recently read it for the first time. The book creates a narrative about the sequence of events in the later life of Reverend Stephen Kumalo, a black, native South African who lives in Ndotsheni, Natal, an area of South Africa. In Kumalo’s Natal, many residents have left for jobs in the mines or in Johannesburg. As the population of the tribes has increased, the land given to them through various means has been insufficient to support the younger generations. In fact, the land of South Africa is an engaging theme throughout the novel. In Kumalo’s world, Johannesburg has grown into a major metropolis with all the benefits and detriments of a big city. As the largest city in South Africa, it is on the front of the increasing conflicts between the governing and minority white population and the majority black African population.
The time, the people, and the events that Kumalo encounters on the trip comprise the richness of this book. Kumalo leaves Natal for a trip to Johannesburg to find his sister, Gertrude. He finds her only to discover that she is not physically sick but has become a prostitute and bootlegger. He finds his brother, John, and discovers that he has become a leader of the black movement for freedom, while cautiously being more of an orator than an open law-breaker. He finds his son, Absalom, after Absalom has been arrested for the murder of a prominent white engineer, Arthur Jarvis, who has been leading the national discussion about freeing the blacks.
I usually write reviews of non-fiction books but the beauty of a novel is in the way the author weaves the story’s narrative until the end. In the event that someone reads this review and opts to read Cry, the Beloved Country for the first time, I have chosen not to write a descriptive narrative about the way the story ends but instead about its ending paragraph. The book ends with Reverend Kumalo meditating on a mountain top at dawn. Kumalo has a reason for his personal journey to the mountaintop, but Paton uses the ending as a metaphor for the dawn of the emancipation of native South Africans. The book ends with a prophetic sentence that is almost a question: “But when that dawn will come, of our emancipation, from the fear of bondage and the bondage of fear, why, that is a secret.”
I selected Cry, the Beloved Country because it was a book that I had never read and a book that argued for equality of the races in South Africa long before there was an organized international outcry against apartheid. In fact, the book was written before the Afrikaner Nationalist Party won the 1948 election and implemented the official policy of apartheid. Paton’s description of the trials and tribulations of the blacks in South Africa was risky given his status as a free white South African.
Paton’s incorporation of the readings of Abraham Lincoln into the novel indicates that he believed that whites in South Africa could see the importance of helping the blacks achieve liberation and financial independence even though for a white to do so was unpopular at the time. It took nearly 50 years after the publication of this book for apartheid to end, but it probably would not have ended as quickly as it did had there not been a group of whites like Paton who continually pushed to end the practice.
Cry, the Beloved Country describes the land that attracted the first white immigrants to settle it, the black tribesmen who were natives, and the tribes who migrated to South Africa. All of them loved the land and cherished it in many ways. I enjoyed reading the book given the retrospective viewpoint we have post-apartheid, and I look forward to my visit to South Africa.