Beloved book, still crying
Written even before the National Party made apartheid law in SA, Alan Paton’s ‘Cry, the Beloved Country’ would turn out to be chillingly prophetic. And 70 years since its publication, its message still rings true today
Alan Paton’s Cry, the Beloved Country turns 70 this year, reminding us that the novel’s vision of the inevitable triumph of good over evil has been fulfilled. The National Party, which came to power in the same year the book was published and immediately introduced the racist policy of apartheid, is now dead — but the book is still rocking.
Written in a white-hot rage at frenetic speed, it was a cry of despair, a cautionary tale of how the theft of black people’s land by their white conquerors would not only complicate race relations in SA but might also lead to a bloodbath.
The power of Cry, the Beloved Country is its simplicity. It tells the tale of Reverend Stephen Kumalo, whose family flees, incrementally, to the city after being forcefully removed from their ancestral land and dumped in an area that cannot sustain them.
Kumalo’s younger sister, Gertrude, is married to a man who sets off to the gold mines to earn enough to support his new family. When her husband does not return, Gertrude goes to Johannesburg to look for him. She writes to say she has arrived, but months pass and she does not write again.
A worried Reverend Kumalo sends his son
Absalom to look for Gertrude, but Absalom gets swallowed up by Johannesburg, never writing back to his parents.
The Kumalos receive a letter from a mission house in Johannesburg. They have found Gertrude. She is very sick. Would Reverend Kumalo come to Johannesburg to fetch her?
He jumps on a train. In Joburg, he is reunited with his sister, who was in contact with young Absalom before he went missing. A few days later, Reverend Kumalo learns that his son has been involved in the killing of a white man. The dead man happens to be the son of James Jarvis, who owns a farm adjoining Reverend Kumalo’s mission station in Ixopo, KwaZulu-Natal. Fate works in mysterious ways.
When the book came out in February 1948, published by Scribner’s in the US, it became an instant bestseller for the simple reason that it opened up the horrors of white oppression in South Africa for the whole world to see. More important, it would turn out to be highly prophetic.
Written in 1946, it foretold the story of apartheid as it was officially introduced by the National Party, which came to power in May 1948.
“And some cry for the cutting up of South Africa without delay into separate areas, where white can live without black, and black without white …”
The book has sold millions of copies over the years and has been translated into several languages, including Zulu. It has been adapted for the big screen twice: the first movie came out in 1951, featuring Canada Lee as Reverend Kumalo, Sidney Poitier as his friend Reverend Msimangu, and Charles Carson as Jarvis.
In the second film (1995), James Earl Jones played Kumalo and Richard Harris was Jarvis.
As powerful as ever
A lot has happened in SA in the 70 years since Cry, the Beloved Country was first published, but the book still hasn’t lost its power to hold the imagination.
One might argue that many of the prophecies in the book have been fulfilled; that the perspective of present-day readers is comparable to that of audiences of Greek tragedy, who already know the outcome of the fateful struggle unfolding before them.
Five years after the National Party was kicked out of power and Nelson Mandela’s ANC ascended to the pedestal, the Ixopo area, in which part of the novel unfolds, fell under the spotlight. White-owned farmers were under siege, their cattle killed, their fields burned.
The horrific climax was the murder of a white farmer’s son, a story that would later be captured in investigative journalist Jonny Steinberg’s book Midlands.
When apartheid ended in 1994, 2-million black South African labour tenants were living under the proprietorship of 50,000 or so white farmers.
The advent of democracy emboldened black people, who had suffered silently under the jackboot of white officialdom, to question things without fear. Those whites still stuck in the past were soon to pay the price.
In an essay published in the literary magazine Granta in 2013, Steinberg summarised the fate of the Mitchell family, who lost their son Peter to the violence.
“Peter Mitchell died on a frontier, not so much between black and white, or between the landed and the landless, as between the past and the future.”
Cry, the Beloved Country’s dénouement speaks to this complication of race relations.
Reverend Msimangu, Reverend Kumalo’s friend, says: “I have one great fear in my heart, that one day when they are turned to loving, they will find we are turned to hating.”
The breathless intensity of these words can never be overemphasised. When they were written, in 1946, the black masses were on their knees, begging their white, supposed fellow countrymen to allow them a place in the sun.
Soon, the song would change. The 1950s would see blacks embarking on what came to be called the Defiance Campaign, in which, as it would happen with the civil rights movement in the US, they defied the laws of the land.
They used amenities reserved for whites. They burnt their passbooks, the official documents that authorised black people to be in an urban setting.
One of these acts of defiance took place on March 21 1960, in a small township called Sharpeville, to the south of Johannesburg.
In the subsequent standoff between the marchers and the police, 60 people were killed in cold blood, shot in the back as they were running away from the scene when it became clear the police were intent on unleashing violence.
That same year, the people’s organisations in the form of the ANC and the PAC were banned. Only then did these organisations resort to armed resistance to counter the violence of the apartheid state.
They each launched their armed wings. These in turn mounted attacks on strategic government installations — police stations, power stations, and so forth.
A passage from Paton’s novel raises the spectre of violence: “What if this voice should say words that it speaks already in private, should rise and not fall again, should rise and rise and rise, and the people rise with it, should madden them with thoughts of rebellion and dominion …”.
The voice did indeed rise and rise, opening the stage for the 1976 student uprising in which 500 kids were killed by the police in the first week of protests.
The uprising continued intermittently into the following year, when Steve Biko, the father of Black Consciousness, was killed by the police in his cell in Pretoria on September 12.
South Africa would never be the same again. The apartheid regime collapsed and was replaced by the ANC of Mandela in 1994.
But the new party couldn’t readily reverse the horror of land dispossession without falling foul of the carefully crafted constitution of 1996, the result of the give-and-take negotiated settlement between the old regime and the black liberation movement. The constitution put great emphasis on the protection of (white) private property.
What is called the “land question” in SA has become topical once again, after the government proclaimed its expropriation-without-compensation intentions.
This sent mixed messages. Some white farmers said it was the government’s way of saying black people could just plunder white-owned properties.
But the other side argued that those whites who had “bought” the farms they occupied should go back into history and see that they’d bought stolen property in the first place.
It’s a long and intricate subject that deserves a book of its own.
Days after President Cyril Ramaphosa made the proclamation, US President Donald Trump tweeted: “I have asked Secretary of State @SecPompeo to closely study the South Africa land and farm seizures and expropriations and the large scale killing of farmers. South African Government is now seizing land from white farmers.”
Meanwhile, back in Ixopo, many white farmers have regained their equanimity. The Mitchells and others from the “old era” have left. The Mitchell farm has been taken over by labour tenants, some of whom have lived there for five generations. They live on it but are too poor to farm it.
Neighbouring white farmers who stayed behind have moved quickly to build bridges between white and black, landed and landless. But the fear is far from over.
“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.”
Meanwhile, back in Ixopo, many white farmers have regained their equanimity