Where It All Goes Down
Ndotsheni, High Place, and Johannesburg, South Africa
The general setting of Cry, the Beloved Country is the country of South Africa. As we've mentioned, it's the "Beloved Country" of the title. But we talk a bit about the general themes of racial oppression in South Africa as a whole in "In a Nutshell." Here, we want to focus in a little more on the three specific settings of the book: the city of Johannesburg, the village of Ndotsheni, and the farm of High Place.
What's So Bad About Johannesburg? Paton's Answer: Everything
Johannesburg is the big boogeyman of Cry, the Beloved Country. Clearly, Alan Paton is not a fan of cities in general, or of this city in particular. After all, Johannesburg became the giant city that it is today thanks in part to the amazing wealth of South Africa's gold and diamond mines, which are the source of a lot of the racial inequality and the economic immorality that Paton wants to criticize with Cry, the Beloved Country.
The European businessmen who first came to South Africa to make their fortunes off these mines felt that they needed to keep the wages of black miners low to maximize their profits. So South Africa's mining industry has a long, violent history of racial oppression. Paton refers to this history several times in Cry, the Beloved Country, when he talks about John Kumalo's threats of miners' strikes (inspired by the real-life 1946 miners' strike over unequal pay for black workers, which ended in violence) (source).
Paton disapproves of both the artificially low salaries of the miners and of the violence of the white cops who shut them down. He also criticizes the greed these mines seem to bring out in everybody, no matter the color of their skin. At the end of chapter 23, where the narrator lays out debates over the discovery of a new vein of gold at Odendaalsrust, he ties together the mines and the dangers of city life: "No second Johannesburg is needed upon the earth. One is enough" (2.23.17).
The novel's negative view of Johannesburg as the fruit of South Africa's greed, racial oppression, violence, and social disorder becomes increasingly clear over the course of the book. It's pretty obvious even from the start of the book that something is going wrong with the city setting. When Kumalo first discusses the idea of going to Johannesburg in search of his sister, brother, and son, his wife complains: "[Absalom] went to Johannesburg, and as you said—when people go to Johannesburg, they do not come back. They do not even write anymore" (1.1.63). The way that she talks about Johannesburg in this passage makes it sound like the city eats people. And as we discover from the sad fates of Absalom and Gertrude, it's kind of true …
Not That the Countryside Is Always So Much Better…
So if Johannesburg is so bad, what alternative does Cry, the Beloved Country provide? Well, obviously, there's the countryside. But it's not as simple as that. There are two visions of country life that we see in this book.
The first is in Ndotsheni. The book begins by telling us how beautiful the valley is where Ndotsheni is located. Yet, the land is growing sick: "the rich green hills break down. They fall to the valley below, and falling, change their nature. For they grow red and bare […] Too many cattle feed upon the grass, and too many fires have burned it" (1.1.3). So what worries Paton here is erosion of the land from overuse, overgrazing, and overpopulation. Because there just isn't enough good land to support the people of the valley of the Umzimkulu River in their traditional farming ways, more and more of them are moving to Johannesburg to find new work opportunities. And we know what Paton thinks happens to these people in Johannesburg: nothing good.
The second model of country life is Jarvis's farm at High Place. This farm is located in the hills above the Umzimkulu River valley and above Ndotsheni. It's a carefully tended farm, which doesn't have the same problems of erosion and barrenness that have hit Ndotsheni: "It holds the rain and the mist, and they seep into the ground, feeding the streams in every kloof. It is well tended, and not too many cattle feed upon it, and not too many fires burn it, laying bare the soil" (2.18.1). Because Jarvis does not make the same demands on his land that the poorer people of Ndotsheni do, High Place is staying healthy and prosperous while the crops in the valley wither.
In order to make Ndotsheni more like High Place, Jarvis sends Kumalo an "agricultural demonstrator." This young man's job is to teach the people of Ndotsheni all kinds of useful farming ideas like crop rotation and irrigation. With more careful tending of the land, Cry, the Beloved Country suggests, Ndotsheni will be able to keep more of its young people on the farms. Oh, maybe not all of them, but there won't be as much of a population drain as there is now, when all of the kids seem to travel to the cities.
To be totally honest, this method Paton proposes of slowing down urbanization by improving farming opportunities seems a bit like trying to stuff a genie back into a bottle. Once waves of people start moving to the cities, it's tough to stop that migration and keep them back in the country. But we get into this issue in our section on "Symbols, Imagery, Allegory" on "The Tribe."