Reality of Life Under Apartheid South Africa

Book Title: Cry the Beloved Country

Author: Alan Paton

Vintage Publishers (London)

Alan Paton’s book aptly titled, Cry the Beloved Country was the international mobiliser of popular awareness of South Africa’s wicked politics. The book was set in South Africa, but written in Trondheim, Norway and finished in San Francisco (US).

Paton, a white liberal, tells the story of a father who goes to the city of Johannesburg seeking his delinquent son. His search takes him through a web of murder, prostitution, racial hatred, poverty, crime, hopelessness, neglect and, ultimately redemption.

We learn to understand the problem of race relations in South Africa and its impact on people’s lives through the journey of Reverend Kumalo. He receives a letter from a mission house in Johannesburg. The letter informs Rev Kumalo that his sister was very sick. In reality, the sickness of Rev Kumalo’s sister is an allegory of South Africa during the dark days of apartheid (1948 to 1994).

On arrival in Johannesburg, Reverend Kumalo is robbed at the busy Jozi station, a baptism of fire, but, with hindsight the tip of the iceberg. On a journey to save his sister Reverend Kumalo stumbles into bigger societal and family problems. His brother has become a respected campaigner against apartheid and has denounced the church. His son Absalom has just been released from a correctional services facility and then murders a white man who was working closely with anti-apartheid activists trying to find a permanent solution to the native crime problem. While at the same time his sister had become a prostitute and a shebeen queen. Nerve-racking. Perhaps riveting stuff for moviegoers. Reverend Kumalo’s son was sent to the gallows for murder, his sister disappeared on the night she was meant to leave with him to start a new life back home in the village.

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The tragedy though is that Cry the Beloved Country resembled the reality of life in apartheid South Africa. These were not the imaginations of an over-zealous writer.

Cry the Beloved Country is a profoundly distressing book. This is worsened by Paton’s tacit approval of the death penalty that allows the judge to send a young man to the gallows on flimsy evidence. Yet, Paton remains the only writer for me who knew the important principle: if you mess up, you must clean up. The book enjoins white to play a greater role in rebuilding South Africa because they had either benefited from apartheid or allowed fear to rule their lives.

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Paton’s potent manuscript is a must read for all, even today. In one paragraph he captures what is perhaps the greatest stumbling block to true reconciliation: “I have one great fear in my heart, that one day when they (white people) turn into loving, they will find we are turned into hating”.

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by Bhekisisa Mncube