Cry, the Beloved Country was written by Alan Paton and was first published in Great Britain in 1948. It is set in the South Africa of the 1940s (1946 to be precise) – a country fraught with racial tensions and searching desperately for a solution to its problems. Apartheid was instituted only four months after book was published.
This is a touching, evocative book which offers much to think about. It is often quite beautifully executed, and the portrait of the main character, the Reverend Stephen Kumalo, is poignantly vivid. The turmoil and confusion and poverty and physical beauty of South Africa is enthralling, as is the passion of the handful of South African characters who are committed to seeing justice one day served in their country. The book’s white author obviously sees the cruelties and petty injustices of white minority rule clearly, and he became a prominent critic of apartheid in the years after its instatement.
However, this book also offers a stark reminder to those of us who are concerned with social justice of the importance of constantly interrogating our prejudices and assumptions. For the modern reader there is much in Cry, the Beloved Country to cringe at, despite the fact that at its time of publication it was unquestionably very progressive. In this novel the criminals are black (or ‘native’) and the victims of their crimes are white. We hear much praise for the white South Africans struggling for justice: a young social worker, a political activist, a generous farm owner, unnamed motorists who offer lifts to black passengers – and almost none for their black counterparts. The corruption of black officials and politicians is made heavy and frequent allusion to. White characters are fleshed out, flawed, confused, humorous and three dimensional; although many of the black characters are very compelling there is far too much of the ‘noble savage’ in them for comfort. The reader is encouraged to feel an overwhelming admiration for the white characters who reach out across the colour line – there is a particularly nauseating scene where a little white boy delights an elderly black man by deigning to enter his house and speak a few words of his language – however, when black characters do the same the event is treated as un-extraordinary.
Perhaps the most troubling line of this book is one that is quite regularly quoted. After an encounter with Stephen Kumalo’s brother (an offensive caricature of a black politician: corrupt, bull-like, adulterous and mercenary), Kumalo’s friend Msimangu declares “I have one great fear in my heart, that one day when they [white South Africans] are turned to loving, they will find we [black South Africans] are turned to hating.” Commenters can no doubt add to criticisms of this statement (and more particularly of the fact that it is quoted so frequently and eagerly by white authors) but the naïveté of the suggestion that black South Africans had not “turned to hating” well before the 1940s is offensively unperceptive. The silence of the disempowered should never be mistaken for complaisance.
Rayuela is a white twentysomething from Melbourne, Australia. She hopes one day to write a book with such powerful arguments it ends racism forever.