Literary works have been instrumental the world over in initiating wide ranging changes in human affairs. Alan Paton’s Cry the Beloved Country is one such striking work of fiction that had sought to bring about positive social change in South Africa and has been assiduously studied and debated by scholars and social scientists alike. This book review examines the main points of Paton’s work with a view to examine its wider social effects and ramifications.
Paton’s work of fiction published in 1948 tells a dramatic story of trials, tribulations and redemption of the Black community during the Apartheid regime in South Africa. In 1948, the White Afrikaner National Government introduced apartheid as a government policy in South Africa. The socio-economic condition of the black community was already grim by that time.
Paton’s work warns the reader and through his characters, the dangers that would befell South Africa if the apartheid practices and policies were not changed. His forecast of intractable race relations leading to race riots and then to a possible civil war served to uplift the conscience of the South African leaders both White and Black as also the world community at large. The book written in a simple lyrical style examines various relationships between parents and siblings and grandchildren, between different ideologies; between the Church and the labor movement and the effects on a country in transition caused by large scale migration of poor blacks from the rural areas to the cities. The book narrates the effects of migration leading to exploitation of the workers and the reaction of the black community to the inequities being heaped on them. The only support for the poor is seen to be the Church with its message of peace and love. The more pragmatic Blacks look at the labor movement to deliver them from the clutches of the rich. These themes are deftly woven by Paton to build a dismal picture with an underlying theme of hope and redemption that would be made possible through the power of the Christian Church, Christian conscience and Christian belief in common humanity.
The book provides many comments on the socio-economic conditions of those times in South Africa and also suggestions aimed at stimulating white conscience as also the white government in power. This is evident when Paton writes that “It was permissible to develop our great resources with the aid of what labour we could find. It was permissible to use unskilled men for unskilled work. But it is not permissible to keep men unskilled for the sake of unskilled work” (Paton 126). Paton’s message here is a call to the dominant White community to view the question of economic development through more logical, equitable and humane manner which would help build the nation’s prosperity in a better way. At the same time, Paton does not shy away from proscribing the black community when he states that”our natives today produce criminals and prostitutes and drunkards, not because it is their nature to do so, but because their simple system of order and tradition and convention has been destroyed” (Paton 127). Paton then exhorts the community to set up another system that would then restore the order in the South African society. In doing so, many believe that Paton was just paraphrasing the ‘White Man’s Burden’ concept, which he was not. Paton was genuinely proposing a positive social change to improve the black man’s lot.
The book was prescient in many ways for it predicted a way of life that was to become a reality in South Africa in the coming decades. The hatred that was later to become endemic between the two communities is starkly brought out in the novel by one of its character Msimangu who says that “I have one great fear in my heart, that one day when they turn to loving they will find we have turned to hating” (Paton 301). The novel gives a stark depiction of the protest movement through the voices of characters such as Kumalo, Msimangu, Jarvis, and Dubula who externalize the voices and opinions of the black people during their sojourn through the towns of Sophiatown, Claremont, Alexandra, Orlando to name a few. It predicted large scale exploitation, segregation of the blacks, and heavy handed police action as also black activism by the black leader protagonist of the novel John Kumalo, which was later typified in real life by Nelson Mandela. Paton’s prescribes a resistance movement built on non-violence, of the strength and vitality of the Christian belief that would transform the inequities faced by the black community into a fairer and just world where blacks and whites would live in peace and harmony.
Some readers, especially the socialistically attuned Europeans critiqued Paton for his overt dependence on the ‘White man’s God’ and unapologetic acceptance of the white man’s ‘better sense’ for bringing about positive change in the lives of the black community. Such criticism, in the view of the writer of this review is uncharitable. The condition of black community in 1948, across most of the developed world was indeed miserable. Paton sagaciously chose to cultivate the sympathetic voices in the white community. He appealed to the white conscience through the medium of their religion to bring about positive change in inter-racial relations. Paton’s recommended approach of non-violent means made more sense than violent ‘revolutions’ that would have led to greater shedding of blood and hatred as later events proved. This was also prescient in many ways with the African National Congress under Nelson Mandela having actively putting into place policy changes and social awareness programs to bring about reconciliation of the black, the colored and the white communities on coming to power. Paton’s work can be classified as a work of protest, in a genre similar to Nadine Gordimer, Alex La Guma, Andre Brink, JM Coetzee and Doris Lessing who too explored the dark deeds of the Apartheid regime and the plight of the Black Africans. Each of these writers had their individual styles and prose that served to ignite a social debate across Europe and America. Paton’s work too served the purpose of highlighting the inequities of the times.
In conclusion it can be stated that the fictional setting of Paton’s novel was a reflection of the realities of the Black community’s socio-economic condition in South Africa in the 1940s. Paton’s novel was prescient in its warning of social upheavals that could follow a segregationist government policy. Paton’s prescription of appealing to the Christian faith and Christian conscience while eschewing violent civil action was critiqued by many as servility. Paton’s emphasis on rapprochement of the two communities in the fictional setting based on shared humanity became a reality when Nelson Mandela and his government chose to follow a similar policy to reconcile the Black and White Communities of South Africa. Paton’s work in the final analysis served its purpose in igniting a social debate that led to positive changes later.
Paton, Alan. Cry the Beloved Country. NY: Scribner, 1948.