The Blind of Ezenzeleni
Symbolism, Imagery, Allegory
When Msimangu brings Kumalo to the center for black African blind people at Ezenzeleni, Kumalo is in a really bleak place. He feels a sense of despair and pointlessness because he has seen Gertrude, John, and Absalom, and he realizes that his hopes for reuniting his family are about zero. He tells Msimangu, "There is nothing in the world but fear and pain" (1.13.24). But Msimangu tells Kumalo that way of thinking is sinful: you have to have hope, even when things seem at their worst.
At Ezenzeleni, Kumalo sees proof of Msimangu's hopeful advice. The residents of Ezenzeleni receive double prejudice, since they are black and disabled. But they don't let their social oppression bring them down. Instead, they work for their living, which gives them a sense of purpose. Kumalo observes:
It was a wonderful place, this Ezenzeleni. For here the blind, that dragged out their days in a world they could not see, here they had eyes given to them. Here they made things that he for all his sight could never make. […] He talked with the people, and the blind eyes glowed with something that could only have been fire in the soul. It was white men who did this work of mercy, and some of them spoke English and some spoke Afrikaans. Yes, those who spoke English and those who spoke Afrikaans came together to open the eyes of black men that were blind. (1.13.29)
There are a bunch of things happening in this passage. First, spiritually speaking, the blind people at Ezenzeleni clearly represent Paton's faith in the strength of the human spirit to overcome challenges if given the tools to do so.
Second, economically speaking, this whole section of the novel is like Alan Paton's version of the old adage, "If you give a man a fish, he will eat for a day. Teach a man to fish and he will eat for a lifetime." The people at Ezenzeleni have been trained to weave baskets out of branches of willow, and these baskets give them a profession that they can use to earn their own money and support themselves.
Kumalo's later decision to ask for help to reform the farming of Ndotsheni follows on the same principles as Ezenzeleni: he wants to make Ndotsheni self-supporting, so that its people don't have to leave the village for the city of Johannesburg to make enough money to live on.
Third, socially speaking, the idea of blindness is closely tied to issues of race. If you literally can't see color, of course it makes sense that a lot of biases and prejudices about race would fall away. In this space of Ezenzeleni, white people and black people come together to give the blind an opportunity to work in a community to support themselves. So blindness takes on this additional symbolic force as the thing that allows both the people funding this project and the people benefiting from it to set aside questions of race.
Sigh—Sometimes Paton Just Doesn't Quite Get It
One last word about this passage: this section on Ezenzeleni is another place where we could imagine Paton coming in for criticism for his paternalism. We discuss this idea of "paternalism" in our "Character Analysis" of Father Vincent. For this passage, we will just say: Paton is addressing an economic reality when he says, "those who spoke English and those who spoke Afrikaans came together to open the eyes of black men that were blind." Book of the whole problem of South Africa's racist economic policies is that, in spite of the fact that white people made up a small minority of the overall population, they still held on to a vast majority of South Africa's wealth.
At the same time, there is something a bit condescending about Paton's portrayal of white people donating money to poor black people so that they can make a living. Ezenzeleni offers a process of empowerment for its black residents, but it nonetheless depends on the charity and generosity of an elite class of white donors for it to function. Of course, Ezenzeleni is clearly doing good for its residents, and Msimangu generously donates his time there to show his support of the project. Still, Paton does not represent grass-roots organizations and movements developing from within the black community, which seems to be an oversight.