Precursors to the Apartheid

The road to one’s true calling is rarely ever straightforward. For most of us, we take detours and navigate curves before we eventually reach our destination. Some of us spend years following an uncertain path before we are redirected to our real path. In the world of literature and writing, several examples stand out. Amor Towles, who was been receiving acclaim for his works, was an investment professional for over two decades before he returned to writing full-time. Before he wrote his timeless children’s novel, Watership Down, Richard Adams served in the British Civil Service, even ascending the ranks to become Assistant Secretary to the Ministry of Housing and Local Government. The same can be observed in the story of Sidney Sheldon. He was active in the film and television industry. He even wrote musicals for Broadway while writing screenplays. Over three decades later, when he was in his early fifties, he finally published his first novel. There was no looking back as he would establish a prolific writing career, writing eighteen novels and even a memoir.

South African writer Alan Paton also took the scenic path before he started pursuing a career as a full-time writer. Following his graduation from university, he worked as a teacher before serving as the principal of a juvenile delinquent reformatory school outside of Johannesburg. During a trip to study penal and correctional institutions abroad, post-Second World War, Paton started working on what would be his first novel. He wrote it while traveling, mostly in hotel rooms, and finished it in 1946 while he was in San Francisco. Two years later, in 1948, his first novel, Cry, the Beloved Country, was finally published. It was warmly received the world over. Literary pundits were generous in their review of the book. However, in his native country, the response was anything but warm. This lukewarm reception by his people did not stymie the novel’s success, which was even adapted into a musical and a film.

Set in pre-Apartheid South Africa, Cry, the Beloved Country commenced in the remote village of Ndotsheni, in the province of Natal in eastern South Africa. The village priest, Reverend Stephen Kumalo, is a simple man who cherishes the simplicity of the countryside. However, he found himself in a bind after his son, Absalom has not returned after leaving for Johannesburg, a developing but thriving metropolis. One day, he received a letter from a fellow minister, Msimangu. The letter was urgently requesting for his presence in Johannesburg to tend to his sister, Gertrude, who fell ill. Kumalo has also lost track of his sister after she left for the big city. Sans any recourse and despite the financial burden it placed on him, Kumalo undertook the long and difficult journey to the big city. After aiding his sister, Kumalo was also hoping to spend time searching for his son.

“The great red hills stand desolate, and the earth has torn away like flesh. The lightning flashes over them, the clouds pour down upon them, the dead streams come to life, full of the red blood of the earth. Down in the valleys women scratch the soil that is left, and the maize hardly reaches the height of a man. They are valleys of old men and old women, of mothers and children. The men are away, the young men and the girls are away. The soil cannot keep them any more.”

~ Alan Paton, Cry, the Beloved Country

The brother and sister got reunited but Kumalo was faced with the devastating transformation of his sister. Gertrude has become a prostitute and was earning a living selling liquor. She has also conceived a son while living in the city. After convincing Gertrude to return to Ndotsheni, Kumalo set out to search for his son. With the assistance of Msimangu, he combed every nook and cranny of the city. The starting point of his journey was a visit to his brother, John, a successful businessman and politician. From the information provided by John, he started piecing together his son’s fate. The world stood still Arthur Jarvis’s death made it to the headline of the newspapers. A renowned voice for racial justice, Jarvis was found murdered in his home by a gang of burglars. Stephen’s worst fears were realized when Absalom was named as one of the primary suspects in the brutal murder and was eventually arrested. It was a far cry from the reunion that Stephen has conceived in his mind. How would the family’s story pan out?

The Sins of the Past

In conversations involving South Africa, apartheid is inevitably brought up. Apartheid characterized the second half of 20th century South African history. It was a policy that extended the current racial segregation practices, which were already prevalent even before 1948. The narrow victory of the National Party, with  Daniel F. Malan at the helm, ascended to the country’s highest position. The first step to the implementation of the policy was the formal classification of South African citizens, achieved through the Population Registration Act of 1950. The law divided the citizens into three major categories: Bantu (all Black Africans), Coloured (mixed race), or white. Asians, a fourth category was eventually added. However, it had far greater implications than mere segregation based on race. Sections of urban areas were also designated to specific races but non-whites were barred from operating or owning businesses in cities.

Cry, the Beloved Country was written and published prior to the implementation of the Apartheid. However, it provided a diagnosis of the conditions and the circumstances that would eventually lead to it. There was a reason for the novel’s lukewarm reception in his country. One major concern underscored by the novel was social inequity that further widened the gap between the cities and the countryside. In the countryside, the citizens relied on the produce of the land. Like the Reverend and his wife, they were mostly contented in keeping to their own lot. However, the land was an unreliable source of living; it was often dry. It was also becoming palpable that the village was in decline. The unequal distribution of development stymied the countryside from developing sustainability and stability. In the hopes of finding greener pastures, several villagers started moving to the big cities. The likes of John, Gertrude, and Absalom were seduced by the nascent lights of the metropolis, and by the promises they held.

In the cities like Johannesburg, however, the promise of a better future was not holding up, especially for native Africans. While piecing the clues together in search of his son, Kumalo noticed the inequities, both social and economic, that were gripping his country and its people. It was these that the natives traded for the simple life in the countryside. These inequities were tipping disadvantageously to his fellow native Africans. They had to grapple with discrimination and the growing segregation. Curfews were imposed on them and bus boycotts were also prevalent. Native Africans were also forced to live in cramped spaces, in the slums. The labyrinth of Johannesburg was a microcosm of what was taking place all over the country, in both the major cities and the countryside.

“There is not much talking now. A silence falls upon them all. This is no time to talk of hedges and fields, or the beauties of any country. Sadness and fear and hate, how they well up in the heart and mind, whenever one opens pages of these messengers of doom. Cry for the broken tribe, for the law and the custom that is gone. Aye, and cry aloud for the man who is dead, for the woman and children bereaved. Cry, the beloved country, these things are not yet at an end. The sun pours down on the earth, on the lovely land that man cannot enjoy. He knows only the fear of his heart.”

~ Alan Paton, Cry, the Beloved Country

In the diamond and gold mines, of which South Africa has in abundance, the miners were not faring well either. They were overworked but they were not receiving decent wages commensurate with their labor. The white owners, on the other hand, were reaping the benefits. Over at Ndotsheni, Kumalo’s parish was falling to the seams as the white sponsors don’t deem it necessary to have it be repaired. It was the best they can offer to the native Zulu and Sesuto people. These palpable conditions threaten to divide a young nation, something that Kumalo feared. The conditions were already there and it would be a matter of time before it percolates.

The Promises of the Future

Despite the inequities that permeated every level of society, not all hope was lost. Paton, in the diagnosis of his nation’s current state of affairs, also provided glimmers of hope. The glaring dichotomies that started to exist between the different races did not escape the notice of the younger generation. In the gloom of the events transpiring around them, they were actively seeking reforms in racial relations. Through Absalom and Arthur, the younger held the promise of the future. They fervently dreamt of a nation where men and women, regardless of color and provenance, can work and live in harmony.

While the younger generation was choosing not to be silenced and was working hard towards the realization of their dream, the older generation, portrayed through Kumalo and Jarvis’s father James, remained mostly in the background. They respected the younger generation’s vigor but they were skeptical; they still cannot picture a society where the races can coexist. Fascism was recently upended but the rest of the world, it seems, was not prepared to embrace changes.

Cry, the Beloved Country examined the conditions that eventually led to the Apartheid, years even before it was fully implemented. Years after the Paton would be a seminal voice in the opposition to the Apartheid, even spearheading the Liberal Party. The novel, however, was not political by nature. Paton’s novel was a vessel of hope, the message delivered towards the end of the novel. Despite the commission of a heinous crime and the heartaches it has caused to the characters, the older generation chose not to be shackled by it. Msimangu, Stephen Kumalo, and James Jarvis Kumalo all chose benevolence. In choosing to forgive and to move on from the sins of the past, the older generation has come to embrace the reality that great changes are inevitable, even possible: “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 bondage and the bondage of fear, why, that is a secret.”

“Who indeed knows the secret of the earthly pilgrimage? Who knows for what we live, and struggle and die? Who knows what keeps us living and struggling, while all things break about us? Who knows why the warm flesh of a child is such comfort, when one’s own child is lost and cannot be recovered? Wise men write many books, in words too hard to understand. But this, the purpose of our lives, the end of all our struggle, is beyond all human wisdom.”

~ Alan Paton, Cry, the Beloved Country

The different elements of the novel were carefully woven together by Paton. He vividly portrayed the characters and the complexities of the situations they had to deal with. The lyrical quality of Paton’s prose further complimented this depth. This helped in easing the delivery of the social commentaries, making them seamlessly meld with the story. It was also this lyrical and descriptive prose that made the other elements of the novel stand out. With his breathtaking prose, Paton managed to transport the readers to the African countryside. He captured every contour of the countryside and its denizens. The simplicity and tranquility of the countryside were in stark contrast to the din of Johannesburg, always teeming with activities. All of these images captured the portrait of a state still in transition.

Cry, the Beloved Country is a multilayered novel that expounded on several subjects and themes. Deceptively thin, the novel was packed with heavy punches. The social inequities and the growing chasm between the different members of society, especially between the natives and the colonialists, underscored the seminal conditions and circumstances that would be the precursors to one of the darkest phases of contemporary South African history. Despite the bleakness of the subject it has dealt with, the novel was brimming with hope, hope for a better South Africa, hope for a society where men and women live in harmony. In the early 1990s, the Apartheid was officially abolished but it will forever be engraved in the minds of those who had to experience it. While the novel dealt with a local concern, it resonated on a global scale for race relations remain a sensitive subject in the contemporary. With its power, Cry, the Beloved Country transcends time and will remain relevant.

“Cry, the beloved country, for the unborn child that’s the inheritor of our fear. Let him not love the earth too deeply. Let him not laugh too gladly when the water runs through his fingers, nor stand too silent when the setting sun makes red the veld with fire. Let him not be too moved when the birds of his land are singing. Nor give too much of his heart to a mountain or a valley. For fear will rob him if he gives too much.”

~ Alan Paton, Cry, the Beloved Country


Characters (30%) – 26%
Plot (30%) – 
Writing (25%) – 
Overall Impact (15%) – 

Prior to 2015, I have never heard of Alan Paton or his seminal work, Cry, the Beloved Country. The book was listed in several must-read lists, most prominently in the 1,001 Books You Must Read Before You Die list. It was for this reason that I added the book to my growing reading list and luckily, I came across a copy of the book. I obtained a copy of the book in 2018 but, unfortunately, it was left to gather dust in my bookshelf. It eventually made my 2021 reading journey when I included it in my 2021 Beat the Backlist Challenge. There are so many reasons to appreciate Paton’s first novel. Cry, the Beloved Country was a bleak story but it was, nevertheless, a powerful and insightful one. Paton did a great job of vividly capturing the conditions and the circumstances that eventually led to the infamous policy instituted by the South African government, the Apartheid. Beyond its political and social undertones, Cry, the Beloved Country is a classic that deserves its place among the titans of literature.

Book Specs

Author: Alan Paton
Publisher: Scribner
Publishing Date: 2003
Number of Pages: 312
Genre: Historical Fiction


An immediate worldwide bestseller when it was published in 1948, Alan Paton’s impassioned novel about a black man’s country under white man’s law is a work of searing beauty. Cry, the Beloved Country is the deeply moving story of the Zulu pastor Stephen Kumalo and his son Absalom, set against the background of a land and a people riven by racial injustice. Remarkable for its lyricism, unforgettable for character and incident, Cry, the Beloved Country is a classic work of love and hope, courage and endurance, born of the dignity of man.

About the Author

Alan Stewart Paton was born on January 11, 1903, in Pietermaritzburg, Colony of Natal (in modern KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa). Paton attended Pietermaritzburg College before pursuing a Bachelor of Science degree at the University of Natal (later incorporated into the University of KwaZulu-Natal). He later earned a diploma in education. Following his graduation, Paton worked as a teacher from 1925 to 1935, first at the Ixopo High School, and subsequently at Pietermaritzburg College.

In 1935, Paton served as the principal of Diepkloof Reformatory near Johanessburg. The reform school was for delinquent young urban native Africans. He would stay in Diepkloof until 1949. Paton volunteered for the Second World War but was rejected. Post-war, Paton took a personally funded trip to study prisons and reformatories, traveling to Sweden, England, Canada, and the United States. During his trip to Norway, Paton started working on what would be his most prominent work, Cry, The Beloved Country. He finished it in 1946 in San Francisco, California, and was eventually published in 1948, to critical praise from international literary pundits. After the success of his first novel, Paton resigned from his post at Diepkoof to pursue full-time writing. Paton also wrote the screenplay for the film adaptation of his novel in 1951.

Paton’s other works include Too Late the Phalarope (1953), Ah, But Your Land Is Beautiful (1981), and The Hero of Currie Road (2008), a collection of his short stories. He also published two volumes of his autobiography: Towards the Mountain (1980) and Journey Continued (1988). Paton has also written a notable biography, Hofmeyr (1964), a study of Jan Hofmeyr, a prominent figure in South African politics. In 2006, Paton was posthumously awarded the Order of Ikhamanga in Gold. The Alan Paton Award was organized in 1989 to recognize outstanding works of non-fiction by South African writers.

Beyond writing, Paton was active in politics. In early-1953, he, together with Margaret Ballinger, Edgar Brookes, and Leo Marquard, formed the Liberal Association, which eventually became the Liberal Party of South Africa (LPSA). LPSA served as the non-racial alternative to the Apartheid. Paton served as the president of the LPSA until it was forcefully dissolved by the South African government in 1968. Because of his political activities and opposition to Apartheid, Paton’s passport was confiscated from 1960 to 1970. He was also honored at the Hall of Freedom of the Liberal International organization.

Paton retired to Botha’s Hill, where he resided until his death on April 11, 1988.