Study Guide

Cry, the Beloved Country Politics

By Alan Paton

Politics

— It suited the white man to break the tribe, [Msimangu] continues gravely. But it has not suited him to build something in the place of what is broken. I have pondered this for many hours and I must speak it, for it is the truth for me. They are not all so. There are some white men who give their lives to build up what is broken.

— But they are not enough, he said. They are afraid, that is the truth. It is fear that rules this land. (1.5.60-1)

Cry, the Beloved Country lays out a strong vision of what is wrong with South Africa: white people came in and broke up "the tribe." But they haven't given the black communities of southern Africa any kind of social, political, or economic opportunities to replace the traditional options these groups have lost. We talk a bit about some of the issues with Paton's way of talking about the tribe in "Symbols, Imagery, Allegory." Here, we want to ask: what kinds of new opportunities do you think Paton has in mind to rebuild the lost tribe? What does he seem to envision replacing "what is broken"?

— That is a pity, says Msimangu. I am not a man for segregation, but it is a pity that we are not apart. They run trams from the centre of the city, and part is for Europeans and part for us. But we are often thrown off the trams by young hooligans. And our hooligans are ready for trouble too. — But the authorities, do they allow that? — They do not. But they cannot watch every tram. And if a trouble develops, who can find how it began and who will tell the truth? It is a pity we are not apart. (1.6.2-4)

In our "In a Nutshell" section, we mention that Cry, the Beloved Country was published in 1948, the same year that the Afrikaner National Party declared its official policy of apartheid? So it was written primarily in 1946, before this party chose the term in apartheid. We wonder, in the aftermath of the beginning of apartheid, if Paton would have chosen to give Msimangu this line that "It is a pity we are not apart." The term "apart" takes on this horrible, violent meaning in the context of apartheid that we do not think Msimangu means to suggest here. What do you think he means? Does Msimangu want some mild form of segregation?

The fear in [Gertrude's] eyes is unmistakable. Now she will reveal herself, but his anger masters him, and he does not wait for it.

— You have shamed us, he says in a low voice, not wishing to make it known to the world. A liquor seller, a prostitute with a child, and you do not know where it is? Your brother a priest. How could you do this to us?

She looks at him sullenly, like an animal that is tormented.

— I have come to take you back. She falls on to the floor and cries; her cries become louder and louder, she has no shame. (1.6.55-9)

All of the narrator's descriptions of Gertrude in this passage imply some kind of sketchy gender politics. So Kumalo yells at Gertrude that she has shamed him, and she looks at him "like an animal." Even worse, when Kumalo demands that she come back to Ndotsheni with him, Gertrude actually falls to the floor crying.

The novel says that "she has no shame," but we feel like she has no self-esteem. Kumalo scolds Gertrude like a child, emphasizing what he thinks she has done wrong. He shows very little sympathy for the things in her life that may have brought her to prostitution. And honestly, it's a little frustrating, since most of this book is about gaining our sympathy for Absalom, who actually killed someone. Why does Cry, the Beloved Country show so comparatively little sympathy for Gertrude?

There were so many [people walking to boycott the buses] that they overflowed into the streets, and the cars had to move carefully. And some were old, and some tired, and some even crippled as they had been told, but most of them walked resolutely, as indeed they had been doing now these past few weeks. Many of the white people stopped their cars, and took in the black people, to help them on their journey to Alexandra. Indeed, at one robot where they stopped, a traffic officer was talking to one of these white men, and they heard the officer asking whether the white man had a license to carry the black people. I am asking no money, said the white man. But you are carrying passengers on a bus route, said the officer. Then take me to court, said the white man. (1.8.119)

Once again, as with the center for the blind at Ezenzeleni, Paton takes care to emphasize when it's white people who are helping black people achieve something. Here, a white driver has been stopped by the cops for driving some black people to help them keep up the bus boycott.

We've mentioned before that we think Paton gives all of these examples of white people helping black people to emphasize the good will of liberal members of the white population. He doesn't want black people to hate white South Africans, because such hatred might lead to violence. However, we also want to add that we think he includes these liberal, helpful white figures because he wants to encourage white readers to follow these positive models of decent behavior towards the black South Africans around them.

— Will [Absalom] ever return? [the reform school employee] asked, indifferently, carelessly. — I do not know, she said. She said it tonelessly, hopelessly, as one who is used to waiting, to desertion. She said it as one who expects nothing from her seventy years upon the earth. No rebellion will come out of her, no demands, no fierceness. Nothing will come out of her at all save the children of men who will use her, leave her, forget her. And so slight was her body, and so few her years, that Kumalo for all his suffering was moved to compassion. (1.10.83)

Kumalo is drawn to Absalom's girl precisely because she is so pathetic. He sees that she has "no fierceness" to demand anything for herself, not even from Absalom, who has gotten her pregnant and then abandoned her. Are there any woman characters in this book who do offer "rebellion" or "fierceness"? What does Kumalo's attitude towards Absalom's girl reveal about his ideals of womanhood?

There was a system whereby a native could live at Ndotsheni, and go to work at his will on the adjoining farms. And there was another system whereby a native could get land from the farmer, and set up his kraal, and have his family there, and be given his own piece of land and work it, provided that he and his family gave so much labour each year to the white farmer. But even that was not perfect, for some of them had sons and daughters that left for the towns, and never came back to fulfill their portion of the contract; and some of them abused the land that they had; and some of them stole cattle and sheep for meat; and some of them were idle and worthless, till one had to clear them off the farm, and not be certain if their successors would be any better. (2.18.10)

Jarvis's main concern about race relations in South Africa at this point in the novel—before he hears of his son's murder—is about labor. After all, Jarvis is a wealthy farm owner in rural South Africa. Most of the workers on his farm are probably black. By pointing out the ways in which the lack of opportunity for black people in rural areas is also affecting the ability of white farmers to find good, committed workers, the novel seems to be saying, "Look! The economic impact of these racist laws is hitting the oppressed black population the worst, but white employers are losing profits, too." Paton is appealing to the wallets of more conservative readers.

Now these men [who profit off the gold mine shares] will spend the eighty shillings, and make more work for other people, so that the country will be richer for the eighty shillings. And many of them give generously to the boys' clubs and girls' clubs, and the social centres, and the hospitals. It is wrong to say, as they do in remote places like Bloemfontein and Grahamstown and Beaufort West, that Johannesburg thinks only of money. (2.23.12)

The idea that the white men who make huge profits off the gold mines will also spend that money in the local community, and will donate some of that money to charities in the area, sounds a lot like American-style trickle-down economics to us. People who believe in trickle-down economics think that it's good to have fabulously wealthy people around because they are the ones who spend money to keep businesses alive.

The only problem is, there is no way to guarantee (a) how far down the money will trickle, and (b) whether the money will be trickling down to the places where it is most needed. So, if a few people are getting rich off this new gold mine in Odendaalsrust, what about the miners who are actually digging the gold? Are they making a living wage?

For the voice has magic in it, and it has threatening in it, and it is as though Africa itself were in it. A lion growls in it, and thunder echoes in it over black mountains.

Dubula and Tomlinson listen to it, with contempt, and with envy. For here is a voice to move thousands, with no brain behind it to tell it what to say, with no courage to say it if it knew. (2.26.2-3)

Why might a voice that speaks "as though Africa itself were in it" be potentially dangerous to Alan Paton's particular message of brotherly love between the black and white communities in this book? Why does Paton appear to be so critical of John Kumalo and his message of wage equality for black workers? What do you think of John Kumalo's ethics as a character? Do you think that he is a good politician?

It was a thing the white man had done, knocked these chiefs down, and put them up again, to hold the pieces together. But the white men had taken most of the pieces away. And some chiefs sat with arrogant and blood-shot eyes, rulers of pitiful kingdoms that had no meaning at all. They were not all like that; there were some who had tried to help their people, and who had sent their sons to schools. And the Government had tried to help them too. But they were feeding an old man with milk, and pretending that he would one day grow into a boy. (3.31.3)

The chief we meet in Cry, the Beloved Country only achieves one thing: he goes to the magistrate (a local official) with Kumalo's proposal for new farming education, and the magistrate talks to Jarvis about Ndotsheni's agriculture. When the chief goes with Jarvis and the magistrate to mark out land for the new dam, he puts one of the little flag markers in the wrong place, because he doesn't know what he is doing. This chief is no leader; he is a classic figurehead. So what does Paton think the purpose of these chiefs could be now that "the tribe" has been broken? What are some of the pros and cons of keeping at least the form of the old tribal system alive, even if these chiefs have very little real power?

More and more [Kumalo] found himself waiting for news of Jarvis's return, so that the people might know what plans were afoot; and more and more he found himself thinking that it was Jarvis and Jarvis alone that could perform the great miracle. (3.33.2)

One of the tough things about reading this book is that Paton is dreaming of peaceful reform in South Africa, and since the white characters have all of the power, it's kind of up to them to decide what they will change to improve the lives of the black characters.

So Kumalo wants to change Ndotsheni's farming practices, but he eventually decides that "it was Jarvis and Jarvis alone that could perform the great miracle." Jarvis has all of the money and influence, so he is the only one who can really produce change. But it's kind of ugly to think that all of Kumalo's dreams for reform will only come true depending on the wishes of his wealthy white neighbor. Jarvis is obviously a great guy, but his position of power in the novel only underlines the evil racial divisions that make life so difficult for Kumalo to manage.

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