Study Guide

John Kumalo in Cry, the Beloved Country

By Alan Paton

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John Kumalo

John Kumalo is our Kumalo's little brother. He owns a shop in Johannesburg, but his real pride and joy is his politicking. He gives rousing speeches about taking back what white employers owe to their black employees and seizing a share of South Africa's profitable mining profits for the black community. And actually, we think this is all fair enough. But the book keeps telling us that John is corrupt and selfish, that he only wants to give speeches because he enjoys having the spotlight. He doesn't have any real passion for social change.

We say that the book tells us about John's unworthiness because it doesn't really show us. We do know that John is kind of a jerk on a personal level. After all, John abandoned his first wife Esther and is living with another woman outside of marriage (something the book clearly expects us to find morally shocking). And even though John knows that his son Matthew was with Absalom the night of the botched burglary, he still hires a lawyer to make the case that Matthew wasn't anywhere near his cousin when he shot and killed Arthur Jarvis. John has no problem with making Absalom look bad in front of the judge.

But none of this says anything about his political corruption. The most damning things we find out about John Kumalo actually come straight from the narrator's commentary or from Msimangu's descriptions. So, while Kumalo and Msimangu are watching John give a speech, the narrator sums up:

There are some men who long for martyrdom, there are those who know that to go to prison would bring greatness to them, these are those who would go to prison not caring if it brought greatness or not. But John Kumalo is not one of them. There is no applause in prison. (2.26.20)

In this passage, the narrator comes right out and tells us that John gives his speeches for the applause. He would never go to jail for the sake of the cause of black liberation, because he won't get endless praise and attention in prison. John is all flash and no substance.

But we do find it striking that the only black politician in Cry, the Beloved Country also receives such strong criticism from the narrator, particularly since we don't actually see the effects of John's corruption directly in the novel. Cry, the Beloved Country gives us two particular points of concern.

First, John's speeches keep returning to the gold mines and money, which are particularly hot-button issues for the white authorities who don't want to lose their profits. What if John's pressure on the workers to strike leads to violent clashes with the cops?

The second issue for Paton seems to be that John's political and moral ideas do not support the whole idea of law. So, the first sign of John's bad faith (from the novel's point of view) comes in his initial conversation with Kumalo and Msimangu:

I do not wish to offend you gentleman, but the Church too is like the chief. You must do so and so and so. You are not free to have an experience. A man must be faithful and meek and obedient, and he must obey the laws, whatever the laws may be. It is true that the Church speaks with a fine voice, and that the Bishop speaks against the [racist] laws. But this they have been doing for fifty years, and things get worse, not better. (1.7.42)

It's absolutely right that John wants to protest unfair laws that keep black people from seeking better jobs and better pay. But the novel claims that he goes too far: he doesn't want to obey any laws, either church laws or traditional social rules.

John's complete disgust with the idea of being "faithful and meek and obedient" contrasts strongly (and negatively) with the book's characterization of its heroes, Kumalo and Msimangu. Obviously, John's stubborn and headstrong nature is a big moral problem for Cry, the Beloved Country, even if his frustrations with the way things are—with the fact that "things get worse, not better"—seems totally justified to us.

John Kumalo in Cry, the Beloved Country Study Group

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