Study Guide

Cry, the Beloved Country Power

By Alan Paton

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From Ixopo the toy train climbs up into other hills, the green rolling hills of Lufafa, Eastwolds, Donnybrook. From Donnybrook the broad-gauge runs to the great valley of the Umkomaas. Here the tribes live, and the soil is sick, almost beyond healing. Up out of the valley it climbs, past Hemu-hemu to Elandskop. Down the long valley of the Umsindusi, past Edendale and the black slums to Pietermaritzburg, the lovely city. Change here to the greatest train of all, the train for Johannesburg. Here is a white man's wonder, a train that has no engine, only an iron cage on its head, taking power from metal ropes stretched out above. (1.4.1)

As Kumalo travels by train, he comes to see a cross-section of different towns and cities in South Africa. He sees barren places and slums before he reaches Johannesburg. But in addition to being impressed by the different places in South Africa, he is also struck by the technologies that he sees. He appears to be thinking of the train to Johannesburg as "a white man's wonder." In what sense does this technology of transportation belong to the "white man"? What are some of the political implications of this assumption that it is primarily the "white man" who controls and understands the technology that unites the South African nation?

Tixo, watch over me, he says to himself. Tixo, watch over me. (1.4.27)

Kumalo often uses this word Tixo for God, which Paton explains in his glossary in this way:

I rejected the Zulu word for the Great Spirit as too long and difficult. This is the Xosa world. It is also difficult to pronounce, but may be pronounced "Teeko," the "o" being midway the "o" in "pot" and the "o" of "born." (Glossary)

Paton's choices here indicate his own power as an author. Paton identifies an audience here, since he assumes it will be an audience of people unfamiliar with both Zulu and Xosa, who won't want to be bothered with any words that are "too long and difficult." He wants to give us the feeling of something exotic and foreign-sounding that we won't find too challenging, so he chooses a word for God, Tixo, that he admits his character Kumalo would probably not use. What do you think of the choices Paton makes here? If you were writing a novel about a culture not your own, would you make similar word choices?

So they walked till they came to Claremont and Kumalo was shocked by its shabbiness and dirtiness, and the closeness of the houses, and the filth in the streets.

— Do you see that woman, my friend?

— I see her.

— She is one of the queens, the liquor sellers. They say she is one of the richest of our people in Johannesburg. (1.6.7-10)

Obviously, Msimangu and Kumalo do not approve of this illegal alcohol trade among women in Johannesburg. But think about it: these "queens, the liquor sellers," finally have an opportunity to make some money on their own, and to live outside of these relatively traditional family structures that men like Kumalo assume they should adopt. Yes, what they are doing is technically illegal. But we can sympathize with the desire among these women to get a little power of their own, when they seem to have so little authority in other parts of Cry, the Beloved Country.

Because the white man has power, we too want power, [Msimangu] said. But when a black man gets power, when he gets money, he is a great man if he is not corrupted. I have seen it often. He seeks power and money to put right what is wrong, and when he gets them, why, he enjoys the power and the money. Now he can gratify his lusts, now he can arrange ways to get white man's liquor, he can speak to thousands and hear them clap their hands. […] But there is only one thing that has power completely, and that is love. (1.7.82-3)

Msimangu's point that power corrupts and that sometimes, black leaders with power lose all self-control, doesn't seem to us to be limited according to race. Lots of white politicians who get a taste of power really go nuts. We've seen plenty of examples in recent history. People with power do crazy things sometimes, regardless of race, gender, or any other factor—it's human nature… or is it?

Who knows if [Absalom] weeps for another self, that would work for a woman, pay his taxes, save his money, keep the laws, love his children, another self that has always been defeated? Or does he weep for himself alone, to be let be, to be let alone, to be free of the merciless rain of questions, why, why, why, when he knows not why. They do not sit and let him be, but they ask, ask, ask, why, why, why,—his father, the white man, the prison officers, the police, the magistrates,—why, why, why. (1.14.100)

Why does it matter that Absalom has no idea why he has done the things that he has done? Can Absalom take any kind of responsibility for his life when he is so ignorant of the reasons for his own actions? Is Absalom anything more than a symptom of larger social problems? Does he truly have a character of his own?

The Judge does not make the Law. It is the People that make the Law. Therefore if a Law is unjust, and if the Judge judges according to the Law, that is justice, even if it is not just.

It is the duty of a Judge to do justice, but it is only the People that can be just. Therefore if justice be not just, that is not to be laid at the door of the Judge, but at the door of the People, which means at the door of the White People, for it is the White People that make the Law. (2.22.4-5)

Paton's use of this strategic capitalization, where it is "the People that make the Law," makes this passage seem to echo the Bible or a sacred text. Why do you think Paton chooses to emphasize these terms "Law," "People," and "Judge" in this manner? What do you think of the narrator's final statement that it is for "White People" to reform the "Law" because they are the ones who make it?

In fact, here is a cool historical fact: F.W. de Klerk, the last president of the old South African regime, was actually essential to the process of destroying apartheid, organizing elections for all of South Africa's citizens, white and black, and smoothing the transition to the first truly democratically elected president in South African history, Nelson Mandela. So Paton's vision that it would require cooperation among people of different races to end apartheid peacefully turned out to be totally true.

The native policemen are smart and alert. They stand at their posts like soldiers. Who knows what they think of this talk [of John Kumalo's], who knows if they think at all? The meeting is quiet and orderly. So long as it stays quiet and orderly, there is nothing to be done. (2.26.19)

Here, the narrator portrays John Kumalo giving a speech about equal wages while white and black police officers look on. The white police officers all murmur to each other that Kumalo is dangerous. But the narrator does not try to tell us what the black policemen are thinking. The narrator only asks, "who knows if they think at all?" Are there other moments where the narrator does not seem to know what his characters are thinking? What are the limits of the narrator's power? Why does he step back from putting words in the mouths of these black police officers?

But a Judge may not trifle with the Law because the society is defective. If the law is the law of a society that some feel to be unjust, it is the law and the society that must be changed. In the meantime there is an existing law that must be administered, and it is the sacred duty of a Judge to administer it. (2.28.11)

The judge seems to imagine himself as nothing more than the human arm of the Law. He can't make the laws or change them; all he can do is execute them. But is it possible for a judge to make decisions with absolutely no regard for his personal biases and opinions? Can judges be that objective? Why do you think Paton might be emphasizing that judges are not to blame when "the law and the society […] must be changed"?

— Inkosana? That's little inkosi, isn't it?

— It is little inkosi. Little master, it means.

— Yes, I know. And what are you called? What do I call you?

— Umfundisi. (3.31.61-4)

As Kumalo trains the youngest Jarvis in Zulu, there is still a subtle acknowledgement of this boy's status because of his family and because of the color of his skin. So, Kumalo calls the boy inkosana, meaning "little master." It's a term of affectionate respect for the child of a chief or boss. But Kumalo does not call the little girl who comes to deliver the letter to him in chapter 2 anything of the kind. This conversation between Kumalo and the youngest Jarvis presents some interesting power dynamics, because it seems that the youngest Jarvis has a lot of power, even though Kumalo is so much older than he is.

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