Study Guide

Cry, the Beloved Country The Tribe

By Alan Paton

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The Tribe

Both Msimangu and Arthur Jarvis claim that the main cause of rising crime rates in South Africa is the breaking of "the tribe." Msimangu tells Kumalo: "The tragedy is not that things are broken. The tragedy is that they are not mended again. The white man has broken the tribe. And it is my belief—and again I ask your pardon—that it cannot be mended again" (1.5.58). Well that sounds believable, but what does the tribe mean in this novel?

Paton makes some references to specific tribes in Cry, the Beloved Country. For example, Kumalo and his fellow Ndotsheni residents are Zulu, Mrs. Lithebe is Msutu, and Mr. Letsitsi is Xosa. However, this book doesn't really focus on differences between the black residents of South Africa. Instead, it emphasizes the different experiences of white and black people in South Africa. When Paton uses the tribe rather than the name of a particular tribe, he appears to be setting up a contrast between black Africans and "the white man."

Rather than referring to a specific cultural group or people, which would be one way of defining "tribe," Paton appears to use the term to mean something broader: the traditional moral and social relations that organized the lives of the peoples of southern Africa before European colonization.

Wait, So Who Is Supposed to Pick Up the Broken Pieces Now?

Talking about the tribe allows Paton to discuss the responsibility that white people in South Africa bear for the oppression of the black people they have colonized and exploited. When he talks about white people breaking apart the tribe, he means that the arrival of white settlers forever changed the ways of life for black South Africans.

Still, we do want to note that, while Paton uses this language of the tribe to express a liberal point of view for his time, it has become a really old-fashioned and problematic way of looking at race relations.

Here's the thing: Cry, the Beloved Country assumes that, if the white man broke the tribe, it is then his responsibility to fix it. Arthur Jarvis writes: "[The tribe] was destroyed by the impact of our own civilization. Our civilization has therefore an inescapable duty to set up another system of order and tradition and convention" (2.20.15). But how can one "civilization" decide what's best for another group?

It seems pretty condescending to us that Arthur assumes he both can and should "set up another system of order" for black South Africans, to replace the tribal system for them. It shows a lack of faith in the ability of black South Africans to figure out social systems for themselves. And it also assumes that, once this new "system of order" is in place, that it will be specifically for black people, rather than a shared social system for both white and black South Africans.

We know that Cry, the Beloved Country does not support segregation at all. People of all races attend Arthur Jarvis's funeral, and the novel views this diversity as a totally positive thing. However, Alan Paton's liberal vision still appears to take for granted at least some degree of separation between races, even if it's not legally required and even if there is more equality between white and black political structures. It's like Paton can't imagine a South Africa where one society serves all of its citizens, regardless of the color of their skin. And admittedly, that probably was really hard to imagine in 1948.

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