The Beloved Country of the title is South Africa in 1946. Racial discrimination is entrenched across the land. Young black men and women in search of jobs have little option but to leave their homes and families and migrate to Johannesburg.
Among these migrants are the sister and the son of the Reverend Stephen Kumalo, an elderly, devout minister from Ndotsheni, an impoverished rural village in Natal. Kumalo receives a letter from a fellow minister, Reverend Msimangu, telling him that his sister Gertrude is ill. He sets off immediately for Johannesburg, and on arrival is awed and overwhelmed by the big city. Fortunately, Reverend Msimangu proves to be a rock of strength amidst the turbulence. With his help, Kumalo quickly tracks down Gertrude. Her illness is of a moral kind – she has turned to prostitution and drink. Kumalo persuades her to return with him to Msimangu’s mission, promising to take her home to Ndotsheni as soon as he has located his son, Absalom.
Absalom proves elusive, however. As Kumalo and Msimangu follow one lead after another, the stories they hear from landladies and erstwhile companions become increasingly worrying. They follow his trail to a reform school, only to be told that he has recently been released and is living with a young woman. They find the young woman, but she has not seen or heard from Absalom for several days.
The ministers return to the mission station. At dinner, the talk is of the murder of a white man, Arthur Jarvis, shot by robbers in his Johannesburg home. Jarvis is well known as a champion of racial equality. Kumalo is seized with fear that his son is somehow involved in this dreadful crime. Tragically, his fears are justified. Absalom is finally located, by the police, and arrested for Jarvis’s murder. Kumalo’s suffering is compounded by the fact that Arthur Jarvis grew up near Ndotsheni. Kumalo remembers him as a young bright boy, smiling and happy.
Arthur’s father, James Jarvis, lives on a large farm in the hills above Ndotsheni. When the police bring news of his son’s death, he travels to Johannesburg. There he discovers how little he really knew his son. He learns for the first time of Arthur’s courageous efforts in the cause of black rights. In his son’s writings, James finds ideas that directly challenge his own prejudices. James is surprised, and angry. But, at some level, the ideas take root and begin to change the way he looks at the world.
In the midst of Absalom’s murder trial, a random coincidence throws Jarvis and Kumalo together. Kumalo recognises Jarvis immediately. With great fear and shame, he confesses to Jarvis that it was his son who killed Arthur.
Absalom is sentenced to death. Jarvis and Kumalo return home to Natal. Their experience has changed them, and has subtly bound them together. In his quiet way, Jarvis makes a series of interventions to ease the poverty of Kumalo’s parish. Kumalo befriends Jarvis’s grandson, and assists him in his attempts to learn Zulu. Across the gulf of racial segregation, the two old men find hope in each other; and, in their own small way, they work toward repairing some of the damage suffered by their beloved country.