Sunday Times

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

- By FRED KHU­MALO ✼ Fred Khu­malo is the author of Danc­ing the Death Drill South Africa News · Racism · Politics · Discrimination · Human Rights · Society · National Party (South Africa) · Iceland · Austria · Belarus · Johannesburg · Belgium · KwaZulu-Natal · United States of America · South Africa · Africa · Theresa May · Canada · Jimmy Carter · Nelson Mandela · African National Congress · Pretoria · Cyril Ramaphosa · Donald Trump · Sidney Poitier · Earl Jones · Jonny Steinberg · Steve Biko · Charles Carson

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.

Vi­o­lence un­leashed

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

 ?? Pic­ture: Ter­ence Spencer/ The LIFE col­lec­tion of im­ages/ Getty Im­ages ?? LOVELY LAND Alan Pa­ton sur­veys the hills and val­leys around Ix­opo in KwaZulu-Na­tal.
Pic­ture: Ter­ence Spencer/ The LIFE col­lec­tion of im­ages/ Getty Im­ages LOVELY LAND Alan Pa­ton sur­veys the hills and val­leys around Ix­opo in KwaZulu-Na­tal.
 ??  ?? Richard Har­ris and James Earl Jones in a pub­lic­ity shot for the 1995 film ver­sion of ‘Cry, the Beloved Coun­try‘. It was first filmed in 1951.
Richard Har­ris and James Earl Jones in a pub­lic­ity shot for the 1995 film ver­sion of ‘Cry, the Beloved Coun­try‘. It was first filmed in 1951.

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