“There is a lovely road that runs from Ixopo into the hills.” So begins Alan Paton’s 1948 classic Cry, the Beloved Country. From its beginnings in these same hills of rural South Africa to the hustle of Johannesburg, “lovely” is the right word to describe Paton’s text. It’s not lovely in its subject matter; the book deals with racism, exploitation of humans, fear, violent crimes, and the transformation of decent people into society’s forgotten. But on every page, Paton’s gentle words drag you through the crimes of humanity with kindness and deference. By providing this peaceful narrative, he prepares you to feel the full pain and weight of a system where the abuse of one man by another is commonplace and legal.
The story follows Stephen Kumalo, a black priest from rural South Africa, as he travels to Johannesburg and back in an attempt to save his family members. A few years earlier, Stephen’s brother-in-law went to work in the mines, but never returned. Stephen’s sister, Gertrude, and his son, Absalom, left for the capital to see if they could determine what happened, but they also never returned. One day, a letter arrives from another priest, calling Stephen to come and rescue his sister.
His sister, found! It sounds like partial good news, but this short-term gain is masked by the depravity and sin that slowly takes his family away. When Absalom is accused of the murder of a white man, Stephen experiences the weight that is simultaneously crushing the entire nation: fear. The blacks fear having everything they have lost when the physical and societal floods wipe out their towns and their souls. The whites fear the loss of their power, and they fear the crime that stems from that same power held over urban and rural blacks.
“Cry, the beloved country, for the unborn child that is 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 of all if he gives too much.” (Chapter 12)
The book does end on a hopeful note. A crime that should have increased the fear brings Stephen and a neighboring white man closer together in purpose. But it would take nearly five decades before that hope narrative from Paton’s pen made its way into South African reality through the end of the Apartheid system. Cry, the Beloved Power is a powerful book, but it was limited in the change it could bring to Africa. In the book, Paton cries for the lack of strong voices against an unjust system. He cries for the government and tribal choices that keep the people and the land broken. And above all, he cries for his beloved country, Africa.
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