Study Guide

Cry, the Beloved Country Contrasting Regions: The Countryside and Johannesburg

By Alan Paton

Contrasting Regions: The Countryside and Johannesburg

Down in Ndotsheni I am nobody, even as you are nobody, my brother. I am subject to the chief, who is an ignorant man. I must salute him and bow to him, but he is an uneducated man. Here in Johannesburg I am a man of some importance, of some influence. I have my own business, and when it is good, I can make ten, twelve, pounds a week […] I do not say that we are free here. I do not say we are free as men should be. But at least I am free of the chief. (1.7.37-9)

Kumalo keeps seeing evidence that Johannesburg destroys traditional values and social relations. But from John's point of view, since he has figured out ways to make the system work for him, he thinks the freedom of Johannesburg is great. Back in Ndotsheni, he would be responsible to a chief and he would have no status. But in Johannesburg, he can make a name for himself. So John represents another point of view novel's criticism of city life: for John, the lack of structure and support is actually a positive good. Of course, Kumalo does not respect John because he is corrupt and selfish, so—that's the flip side of the city's freedom, that it really does represent opportunity, depending on what you are willing to do for it.

Msimangu explained that Alexandra was outside the boundaries of Johannesburg, and was a place where a black man could buy land and own a house. But the streets were not cared for, and there were no lights, and so great was the demand for accommodation that every man if he could, build rooms in his yard and sublet them to others. Many of these rooms were the hide-outs for thieves and robbers, and there was much prostitution and brewing of illicit liquor. (1.8.35)

The main difference we are tracking in our "Contrasting Regions" theme is between the village life of Ndotsheni and the city experience of Johannesburg. But of course, there are lots of contrasts within Johannesburg, as well. Msimangu points out that, yes, there are designated areas where black people are allowed to buy property in Johannesburg. But the city government doesn't take care of these areas, so they are run down, dangerous, and overcrowded. In effect, racist divisions in Johannesburg mean that there are two separate cities there, with very different characteristics.

Oh my husband, why did we leave the land of our people? There is not much there, but it is better than here. There is not much food there, but it is shared by all together. If all are poor, it is not so bad to be poor. And it is pleasant by the river, and while you wash your clothes the water runs over the stones, and the wind cools you. (1.9.73)

Obviously, the racism of South Africa makes the lives of the people in the Shanty Towns worse than they might be otherwise. But a lot of the criticisms that Paton offers of city life are urban problems rather than specifically racial problems. So, here, this woman regrets leaving the countryside because there is a stronger sense of community and the land is cleaner and healthier back home. And complaints about the lack of social structures or law and order in cities appear in novels of Prohibition-era Chicago or 19th-century Paris as much as they do in Cry, the Beloved Country about Johannesburg. Johannesburg is worse than these other places because it is a violently segregated city, but part of the issue is that Paton doesn't like the crowding and environmental issues that are just part of having cities in the first place.

Kumalo would pick the child up, and put his hand under the shirt to feel the small warm back, and tickle and poke him, till the serious face relaxed into smiles, and the smiles grew into uncontrollable laughter. Or he would tell him of the great valley where he was born, and the names of the hills and rivers, and the school that he would go to, and the mist that shrouded the tops above Ndotsheni. Of this the child understood nothing; yet something he did understand, for he would listen solemnly to the deep melodious names, and gaze at his uncle out of wide and serious eyes. And this to the uncle was pleasure indeed, for he was homesick in the great city; and something inside him was deeply satisfied by this recital. (1.10.4)

Even just talking about Ndotsheni makes Kumalo feel happier. Here, Kumalo uses his storytelling about Ndotsheni to bond with his young nephew, Gertrude's son. This scene really makes us think about the unifying power of storytelling: Gertrude's son has never seen any of the places Kumalo describes, "yet something he did understand." When Kumalo passes on his family history and stories of home to his nephew, it gives Gertrude's son a sense of home that he may not have had before now.

Yes, it was true what Msimangu had said. Why fear the one thing in a great city where there were thousands upon thousands of people? His son had gone astray in the great city, where so many others had gone astray before him, and where many others would go astray after him, until there was found some great secret that as yet no man had discovered. But that he should kill a man, a white man! There was nothing that he could remember, nothing, nothing at all, that could make it probable. (1.13.9)

The fact that "so many others" have gone astray in Johannesburg before and after Absalom reminds us that Absalom's story is supposed to be an example or type rather than a unique, individual experience. Since this is a novel encouraging social reform, Paton doesn't want to suggest that Absalom is the only kid out there driven to crime by his circumstances and peer pressure. So the novel implies that there are many Absaloms, struggling to find a sense of purpose in Johannesburg, and until South Africans reform the education system, there will be many more over the coming years.

It was permissible to allow the destruction of a tribal system that impeded the growth of the country. It was permissible to believe that its destruction was inevitable. But it was not permissible to watch its destruction, and to replace it by nothing, or by so little, that a whole people deteriorates, physically and morally. (2.20.14)

What does "permissible" mean here? Why would it be "permissible," according to Arthur Jarvis, to destroy traditional tribal structures because they were impeding "the growth of the country"? Who has the right to decide when it is or is not permissible to change someone else's way of life? And doesn't it sound condescending to claim that black South Africans are deteriorating "physically and morally"? According to whose standards? Why does Arthur Jarvis get to judge? Argh.

And perhaps a second city will grow up [around the new gold mine], a second Johannesburg, with a second Parktown and a second Houghton, a second Parkwold and a second Kensington, a second Jeppe and a second Vrededorp, a second Pimville and a second Shanty Town, a great city that will be the pride of any Odendaalsrust. But isn't that name impossible? (2.23.14)

These places that Paton names are all suburbs of Johannesburg. They cover a big range of social classes, from wealthy Parktown and Houghton to the deeply poor Shanty Town. What Paton is saying is that this new gold mine in Odendaalrust might start a new Johannesburg. But even with all of this gold wealth, this new city will still have the same stark divides between economic classes that the current Johannesburg has. Unless South Africans change their attitudes towards gold, all of the gold in the world won't change the divisions that have made South African society so violent and unstable.

They rise, and the new teacher says, can we not sing Nkosi Sikelel' iAfrika, God Save Africa? And the old teacher says, they do not know it here, it has not come here yet. The new teacher says, we have it in Pietermaritzburg, it is known there. Could we not have it here? The old teacher says, we are not in Pietermaritzburg here. We have much to do in our school. For she is cold with this new teacher, and she is ashamed too, because she does not know Nkosi Sikelel' iAfrika, God save Africa. (3.30.62)

Nkosi Sikelel' iAfrika is a famous anti-apartheid song that has now become part of South Africa's national anthem. The fact that the new teacher wants to sing it with her students shows the song's growing importance to freedom and liberation movements in the 1940s. And the old teacher's embarrassment over not knowing the song also proves that the song is like a password proving that you are part of the movement for political reform in South Africa.

Why was there a compulsion upon him to pray for the restoration of Ndotsheni, and why was there a white man there on the tops, to do in this valley what no other could have done? And why of all men, the father of the man who had been murdered by his son? And might not another feel also a compulsion and pray night and day without ceasing, for the restoration of some other valley that would never be restored?

But his mind would contain it no longer. It was not for man's knowing. He put it from his mind, for it was a secret. (3.36.43-4)

We have talked about differences between Johannesburg and Ndotsheni and between white and black areas of South Africa, but this mountain is another kind of place entirely. When Kumalo reaches the top of the mountain, where he goes to meditate during moments of extreme spiritual stress, he gets extra perspective on these racial and social issues. The mountain provides a mystical, ambiguous place outside of the sharp divisions of landscape and setting the structure the rest of the novel.

Ndotsheni is still in darkness, but the light will come there also. For it is the dawn that has come, as it has come for a thousand centuries, never failing. But when that dawn will come, of our emancipation, from the fear of the bondage and the bondage of fear, why, that is a secret. (3.36.56)

Alan Paton cannot deny that things are not looking good yet for liberal politics in South Africa. The narrator affirms that "light will come" to Ndotsheni some day—but he can't say when that will happen. So for now, while Ndotsheni has improved with the introduction of this new farming consultant, the contrasting areas of black and white residence will continue to be very different, according to the racist laws of South Africa.

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