Paton sees a deterioration in relations between South Africa’s white and black inhabitants which he believes may have reached a point of no return. While he populates his novel with white South Africans characters who exhibit enlightened attitudes to the country’s black population, he fears that by the time whites as a whole understand the injustices experienced by African blacks, it will be too late. South African blacks will have already reached an irreconcilable level of hatred.
Cry for the broken tribe, for the law and the custom gone … cry aloud for the man and children bereaved. Cry, the beloved country, these things are not yet at an end.
Paton uses multiple voices to dramatise the differing attitudes within the country and examine the causes for the breakdown. One of the factors he points to is the destruction of the tribal system and the failure to replace it with anything that had the same cohesive effect.
Alongside the breakdown in human relationships, Paton points to a fracture in man’s relationship with the land they inhabit. The novel opens in the remote village of Ndotsheni, in the Natal province of eastern South Africa. It’s presented as an idyllic place yet by the second paragraph Paton’s tone has changed to show how the lush green of this setting is fragile. “Keep it, guard it, care for it, for it keeps men, guards men, cares for men. Destroy it and the man is destroyed”, implores his narrator. What Paton shows is how this appeal has been ignored and instead, the land has been exploited in the rush for gold. Its young people have deserted the farms, flocking to Johannesburg in search of work only to be sucked up by its noisy, polluted, over-crowded streets and exposed to prostitution, crime and destitution.
Paton relays his message through a dramatic rendering of multiple and dissonant voices and through individual stories. The novel homes in on one man in particular, Kumalo – a simple, devout Zulu clergyman in Ndotsheni who travels to Johannesburg to help his sick sister. While in the city he hopes to find news of his son and brother, both of whom disappeared after they left Ndotsheni for the city.
What he discovers leaves him disheartened and alienated. He finds his sister living a life of prostitution and alcohol, his brother has become corrupted by a love of power and his own importance and his son is accused of being an accessory to the murder of a young white man campaigning to improve conditions for black Africans. Kumalo sees evidence everywhere of the breakdown of community and values, of the exploitation of workers in the gold mines and the gaping racial and economic divisions that are threatening to split his country. Returning to his village he begins a friendship with James Jarvis, a white farmer, the father of the murdered man. In his grief over his dead son, Jarvis re-examines his attitudes towards the country’s black population and begins to act to improve life for those who live hear his farm. Together both fathers reach an understanding and they vow to build on the ruins of the tragedy.
What impressed me about this novel wasn’t simply that it is written so beautifully, or that his characters are so well-rounded but that Paton doesn’t simplify the issues or offer any easy solutions. He provides a portrait of goodness, through people like Kumalo’s clergyman friend in Johannesburg, to balance the darkness. His ending suggests there is hope if somehow, someday more people can come together like Jarvis and Kumalo to work as one for their country. But he also acknowledges that it will take individual courage to overcome fear and take the first steps necessary for mending a broken nation. As Kumalo sits alone in the mountains on the day of his son’s execution, he sees darkness engulfing the land but he also sees that the dawn of black emancipation must come. It will not happen in his lifetime but come it will just as the morning dawn “has come for a thousand centuries, never failing.” And then they can sing “for all the people of Africa, the beloved country, Nkosi Sikelel iAfrika, God Save Africa.”
Cry, the Beloved Country is a novel of social protest but it is also a cry for one’s land, for justice and for hope. It’s as powerful now as it was when I first read it more than thirty years ago.