Listening to an audio book is a good way to revisit a book read a long time ago. I first read Alan Paton’s Cry, the Beloved Country decades ago, when apartheid was still firmly entrenched and the idea of multiracial democracy seemed like an impossible dream. If anything, the situation in South Africa in the 1970s was even worse than when the book was first published in 1948 because there had been the Sharpeville massacre, Nelson Mandela was behind bars on Robben Island and the activist Ruth First had been killed by the South African security forces. I read Cry, the Beloved Country through the prism of these events and felt that everything was hopeless
Reading it today when South Africa is a multiracial democracy, I notice different aspects of the novel. The plot revolves around the spiritual journey of the pastor Stephen Kumalo whose son Absalom Kumalo has been corrupted by life in Johannesburg. Like Stephen’s sister Gertrude Kumalo, Absalom went to the city for work and lost contact with his family. Using pitiful savings scraped together over many years, Stephen travels from the village of Ndotsheni, in Natal to find out what has become of them.
Authors – from Tolstoy to Balzac to Dickens – have explored the corrupting influence of city life on the impressionable young, but Paton’s Johannesburg is corrupted by something bigger and more evil than glitter. Here the haves and have-nots are separated by skin colour, and the divide is signalled in countless ways, in ways we might know about such as the segregation of trains and townships, but also in ways we might not, such as when a handshake ‘in the custom of the Europeans’ displaces customary tribal ways of greeting.
European farming has disrupted the village economy and despoiled the environment, and displacement of the rural population into the mines is the consequence. There are few options for women in this distorted economy: either the humiliations of domestic service, or the better-paid but degrading option of prostitution or selling illegal booze. High levels of unemployment and the absence of any family structure mean that crime is endemic, and Stephen is shocked to find that his son Absalom, not much more than a boy, has shot and killed a white man and is on trial for his life in a society fearful of black violence.
What makes this even worse is that the instigator of this crime is Absalom’s cousin Matthew, the son of Stephen’s brother John. John is a callous businessman and rabble-rouser who cynically sabotages Absalom’s defence by engaging a lawyer for his son to betray the truth of Absalom’s guileless testimony.
The moral complexity is heightened because the murdered man, Arthur Jarvis, is a prominent activist for racial justice. (And as it turns out, he comes from the hills above Ndotsheni, where his father, James Jarvis has a productive farm that was originally farmed by the indigenous people). Paton shows a grief-stricken James browsing through Arthur’s papers to learn about the big picture reasons for the social problems South Africa has created for itself, a fictional device which enables not only the placement of a cogent argument for change, but also shows the magnitude of the loss. It’s not just a father’s loss, it’s a loss for the future of the country.
The novel explores how a good man might negotiate a world like this. Stephen has been insulated from it by his work as a pastor in a remote location, but even he faces the threat of unemployment as his congregation declines. Fortified by a faith that never wavers, he has nothing to offer the prodigals except a return to the village, and ultimately it is the work and the money of another good man, a white man, which leads to agricultural reform and renovation of the damaged land. Without labouring the point, Paton makes it clear that restorative intervention using profits gained through the labour of others, is a white obligation not an act of generosity or pity.
The depiction of black activism, viewed today, might seem problematic, especially since it was authored by a white man. There seem to be few options: patient resignation and prayer has no effect except perhaps as a balm for the soul; impotent rabble-rousing like John Kumalo’s has to be very prudent indeed because the police are watching him and he must always stop short of generating any real protest; and the strike for wage justice goes nowhere. But in 1949, even before the events that shocked the world in the 1960s, Paton knew, I think, that the whites held all the cards. Black people had no power, neither economic nor political, and the world did not care. (You only have to watch the film A United Kingdom to see just how little the world cared about racial equity in that era). At that time and in those circumstances Paton was making the case that morally the initiative ought to come from white people.
Alan Paton did not live to see the new South Africa, and he did not achieve his ambition to persuade white South Africa to share its power, for reasons of justice and survival. But while his moderate – yes, perhaps too limited – ambitions did not achieve political change, he (and other writers) did raise awareness around the world and contributed to a recognition that a regime so corrupt at the core had to be pressured into change.
The narration by Michael York is well done, faltering only in the depiction of the Afrikaaner accent.
Author: Alan Paton
Title: Cry, the Beloved Country
Narrated by Michael York
Publisher: Blackstone Audio Books, 2008
Source : Kingston Library