Cry, the Beloved Country uses the simple story of the Reverend Stephen Kumalo, and the tragic events that unfold around him, to illustrate the pain and suffering of South Africa’s racially divided society. Set in 1946, two years before Apartheid became official government policy, the novel explores the very different ways in which white and black South Africans live in the ‘beloved country,’ and how they perceive and relate to one another.
The main narrative is interspersed with short interludes, snatches of dialogue in which peripheral characters voice their hopes, fears and prejudices. There are conversations between white people worrying over native crime, or the unenforceability of pass laws, or how to keep black domestic workers away from local parks. Some speakers are concerned and sympathetic, others unyielding and cold. All throw their hands up and pronounce the problems unsolvable. There are reflections from black people, some living ten to a room with nowhere else to go, some erecting shacks from scrap metal and cardboard boxes, knowing they’ll be washed away when the rains come. There are stirring political speeches by black activists, and mutterings among white policemen in response. There are the writings of the murdered Arthur Jarvis, pondering what it can possibly mean to be a South African when South Africans of different colours experience such vastly different realities.
These vignettes, interspersed through the narrative like a series of overheard conversations, provide rich context and elevate the novel from a family tragedy to a beautifully crafted commentary on the futility of racial discrimination as a means to protect privilege. Paton poignantly describes the poverty, despair and anger of the black population, while simultaneously showing the vacuity of white privilege, dependent as it is on high walls, fierce dogs and denial of a common humanity.
Reverend Kumalo comes to realise that for the new generation of black South Africans the tribal system is broken beyond repair. Young men and women have been forced out of the rural areas in search of jobs and money, and they will never return. They are beginning to take a stand against oppression, albeit tentatively, in the face of quick and brutal retribution. Revolution is brewing, and the whole country will suffer.
Arthur’s father, James, experiences a similar journey of dawning awareness. He has lived a privileged life on his hilltop farm. He has never known or cared about the people living in poverty and suffering in the valley below. It is only after Arthur’s death that he learns of his son’s efforts to challenge the status quo, his insistence that all should be treated equally. This, together with his chance encounter with Kumalo, chips away at his comfortable apathy, and persuades him to do what he can to assist the people of Ndotsheni.
In interviews following publication of the book, Paton stated that his primary intended audience was white South Africa. The book is a heartfelt call to shake off apathy and recognise that one group cannot prosper on the back of another’s suffering, except under conditions of perpetual fear and violence accompanied by the destruction of hope and beauty. It is also a promise of mercy, forgiveness and redemption for those brave enough to walk a different path.