Paton Explores South Africa’s Racial Divide in Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

Alan Paton’s Cry, the Beloved Country presented a compelling story of two fathers in South Africa—one white, the other black—whose individual stories merged in a tragedy of unintended murder. The book cast light on the social inequities of South Africa’s system of apartheid.

Summary of Event

Alan Paton wrote Cry, the Beloved Country (1948) just prior to the establishment of the Afrikaans Nationalist Party’s apartheid government in South Africa in 1948. Social conditions in South Africa at that time were determined by race, as the white minority government separated South Africans’ living and working areas according to racial designations Racial and ethnic discrimination;South African apartheid South Africa;apartheid Apartheid of white, colored Asian, and black. The institutionalized discrimination against black South Africans and the forced segregation of South African society led to the demise of indigenous South African cultures, including the breakup of tribal clans, families, and villages. This demise and the ensuing migration of black South Africans to urban mining and industrial townships formed the background for Paton’s story of Zulu pastor Steven Kumalo searching for a missing son who has left his rural homeland to seek his fortune in Johannesburg. Cry, the Beloved Country (Paton) [kw]Paton Explores South Africa’s Racial Divide in Cry, the Beloved Country (Feb., 1948) [kw]South Africa’s Racial Divide in Cry, the Beloved Country, Paton Explores (Feb., 1948)[South Africas Racial Divide in Cry, the Beloved Country, Paton Explores] [kw]Racial Divide in Cry, the Beloved Country, Paton Explores South Africa’s (Feb., 1948) [kw]Cry, the Beloved Country, Paton Explores South Africa’s Racial Divide in (Feb., 1948) Cry, the Beloved Country (Paton) [g]North America;Feb., 1948: Paton Explores South Africa’s Racial Divide in Cry, the Beloved Country[02370] [g]Africa;Feb., 1948: Paton Explores South Africa’s Racial Divide in Cry, the Beloved Country[02370] [g]United States;Feb., 1948: Paton Explores South Africa’s Racial Divide in Cry, the Beloved Country[02370] [g]South Africa;Feb., 1948: Paton Explores South Africa’s Racial Divide in Cry, the Beloved Country[02370] [c]Literature;Feb., 1948: Paton Explores South Africa’s Racial Divide in Cry, the Beloved Country[02370] [c]Social issues and reform;Feb., 1948: Paton Explores South Africa’s Racial Divide in Cry, the Beloved Country[02370] Paton, Alan Perkins, Maxwell Weill, Kurt Anderson, Maxwell

Alan Paton.

(Library of Congress)

Paton’s first attempt at writing a novel was wholly successful: Cry, the Beloved Country was quickly and widely accepted as a literary classic. Upon reading the manuscript in 1946, Maxwell Perkins immediately arranged for its publication in the United States by Charles Scribner’s Sons. In 1949, Pulitzer Prize-winning writer Maxwell Anderson and German composer Kurt Weill adapted the novel into the Broadway musical Lost in the Stars. Lost in the Stars (Anderson and Weill) Film versions of the novel were released in 1952 (also known as African Fury) and in 1995. The novel became assigned reading in American and British college literature courses and exposed the racist apartheid government that would rule South Africa for the next forty-six years.

In the novel, Kumalo is a kind and naïve man, as a result of his sheltered life in the village of Ixopo, located in the Drakensberg mountain area of northern South Africa. As he travels from country to mining camp, city, shantytown, and back home, he encounters the Zulu, Afrikaans, and English languages—a hint at the cultural complexity of living in South Africa at that time, even for a simple rural pastor. The story begins with Kumalo’s plans to find his son and a wayward sister in the distant city of Johannesburg. Neither sister Gertrude nor son Absalom has written or sent word to the family in years. At the train station in Johannesburg, Kumalo’s naïveté is demonstrated as he is cheated by a con artist while trying to buy a bus ticket to the mission house where he will stay.

As his search for Absalom begins, Kumalo quickly realizes his tribal ways are obsolete in this urban world, finding improper living arrangements, prostitution, and thievery—among other illegal and immoral activities—at every turn. His brother John has become a political leader, trying to provide new values for the displaced population of blacks in Johannesburg and openly discarding the conservative views of his pastor brother. The more Kumalo learns about his missing son, the more he realizes that as young people leave the shelter and influence of their tribes, they need something to replace the moral authority and the cultural institutions now missing from their lives. When Kumalo’s sister Gertrude is found working as a prostitute and bootlegger, he encourages her to find redemption through rejuvenating her family ties. In the end, however, she abandons her infant child and disappears again, alleging that she wants to enter a convent in order to avoid the temptations of the world.

As the pastor gets close to finding Absalom, news arrives of a murder by “native” burglars of a white social reformer named Arthur Jarvis. The victim is the son of James Jarvis, a farmer from the same area of South Africa as Kumalo. Kumalo finds Absalom in prison, arrested for the murder to which he confesses. He has been living with his pregnant girlfriend and has been involved in criminal activity with his cousin—the son of John Kumalo—and another young man. All three had entered the house of Arthur Jarvis, but it was Absalom who had shot Jarvis after discovering that the house they had entered was occupied. The two other young men obtain legal assistance with the help of John Kumalo and deny that they were part of the crime, leaving Absalom to bear the sentence of death for murder while personifying the new values by refocusing blame rather than facing the truth.

Kumalo arranges for the marriage of his son. He brings his new daughter-in-law and the abandoned child of his sister back to Ixopo to live. There, he resumes his ministry, and as his son’s sentence is carried out, he becomes transformed and newly committed to helping his parishioners thrive in hopes that they will not need to leave the shelter of their Zulu home. Nonetheless, the destruction of the land brought about by drought and lack of education hangs over his head as he befriends the young son of Arthur Jarvis. The young boy wanders into Kumalo’s yard one day, beginning a relationship that holds great significance for Kumalo, his people, and the boy’s grandfather, James Jarvis. Through this friendship and through the efforts of the elder Jarvis, the Zulu people are provided with milk, education, and even a new church that represents new hope for the congregation’s ability to rise above the looming threat of apartheid policies.

In the years preceding the publication of Cry, the Beloved Country, young men and women left their countryside villages and tribal lifestyles, while the tribal chiefs became increasingly influenced by government policy. Although other accounts of migration and urban life for black South Africans focused on the theme of social change, Cry, the Beloved Country presented the harshest view of the material and moral destitution that had engulfed black South Africa. Imagery based on real landscapes served as a metaphor for the breakdown of the tribal family, as Paton described failing crops, overgrazed valleys, and eroded soil.

In contrast, the 1949 film African Jim African Jim (Swanson) (also known as Jim Comes to Jo’burg) depicted fertile cornfields, fat cattle, happy children, and good hunting. The reason given for the young rural man’s journey to Johannesburg (or Jo’burg) is to earn money for marriage, since he must abide by the tradition of giving cattle to the bridal family. African Jim implies commercial and romantic success for Jim in a happy ending quite different from the fate of Kumalo’s son Absalom, one that represents tradition and modernity as wholly compatible.

Mine Boy, Mine Boy (Abrahams) a 1946 novel by Peter Abrahams Abrahams, Peter , also tells of a migration to urban and township life from the rural homeland. Poverty in the rural north leads the main character, Xuma, from his home to Johannesburg seeking work and opportunity. In the end, the struggles of the miners and other inhabitants of the mining camp where Xuma stays are redeemed by the author’s establishment of a humane and nonracial portrait of life in urban townships.

In Cry, the Beloved Country, criticism of the race-based government and of the tribal chiefs as pundits for the Union of South Africa are couched within dialoue, speeches, essays written by the late Arthur Jarvis, and poetic prose that appears to be the musings of Kumalo. The novel’s harshest literary critics pointed to the portrayal of the murder victim, his father, and other benevolent white characters that appear and provide generosity, kindness, free legal advice, and gestures of friendship. White South Africans thus were represented as heroic, but black South Africans were portrayed in various lights: Some characters were aimless (such as the son of Kumalo), some were wayward (such as the sister of Kumalo), and some were selfserving (such as the brother of Kumalo).

While Paton made it clear that his liberal Christian view of white benevolence was desperately needed to transform the Union of South Africa into a truly unified nation, he left the issue of blame open to include both black and white South Africans, a decision that reflects his bias, according to literary critics, and provides the great controversy contained in his novel. True to character, Paton became a founding vice president of the South African Liberal Party in 1953 and eventually served as president of the party.


The exposure of the racist regime controlling South Africa and the presentation of the complex and multiple perspectives of the South African people was delivered via the journey of Steven Kumalo in Cry, the Beloved Country. Paton won critical acclaim for using Kumalo’s journey as a metaphor for South Africa’s potential transformation to democracy. His novel is therefore considered an exceptional contribution to both literary and political history. Cry, the Beloved Country (Paton)

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Alexander, Peter. Alan Paton: A Biography. New York: Oxford University Press, 1994. A study of Paton’s personal and professional nature, not only as an acclaimed author and revered political reformer, but also as a man struggling with the travails of everyday life.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Baker, Sheridan, ed.“Cry, the Beloved Country”: The Novel, the Critics, the Setting. New York: Scribner, 1968. The novel is presented alongside a collection of literary criticism and analysis of the novel.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Gerstung, Estella, ed. Readings on “Cry, the Beloved Country.” San Diego, Calif.: Greenhaven Press, 2001. Anthology of different interpretations of the novel by scholars in the field. Bibliographic references and index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Seekings, Jeremy, and Nicoli Nattrass. Class, Race, and Inequality in South Africa. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 2005. Chapter 2, “On the Eve of Apartheid,” compares the three literary accounts of black migration to Johannesburg during the pre-apartheid era discussed above.

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Categories: History