Cry the Beloved Country uses the simple story of the Reverend Stephen Kumalo, and 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 contextual vignettes. There are conversations are between white people, worrying over native crime, or the unenforceability of pass laws, or how to divert 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 10 to a room with nowhere else to go, some erecting shacks from scrap metal and cardboard boxes, knowing that 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 Arthur Jarvis, the murder victim of the main narrative, who ponders what it can possibly mean to be a South African, when South Africans of different colours experience such vastly different realities.
This context, interspersed through the narrative like a series of overheard conversations, elevates the novel from a family tragedy set in a particular time and place, 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 in on high walls, fierce dogs, and denial of a common humanity.
The narrative describes the Reverend Kumalo’s realisation that for the new generation of black South Africans, the tribal system is broken beyond repair. They have been forced out of the rural areas and into the cities, 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 neighbouring township. 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, rather than ignoring them as he has always done before.
In interviews following publication of the book, Paton noted that his primary intended audience was white South Africans. The book is a heartfelt message 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 and the destruction of hope and beauty. It is also a promise for mercy, forgiveness and redemption, for those brave enough to walk a different path.