Ode to a literary giant who gave us ‘Cry the, Beloved Country’

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Gracious Madondo

“How does a conqueror undo his conquest? It is very easy to conquer; all you need is a gun. It is very hard to undo conquest... and made immeasurably more difficult when the conqueror is afraid.”   

The above is a famous quote from Alan Paton that humble white man who decided to commit class suicide and gave the world a book whose sales at one stage could only be surpassed by the Bible.

The book crafted by Paton, as he traversed correctional services in the aftermaths of Europe’s Second World War, is “Cry, the Beloved Country”, a social realist text that dissected and laid bare the dark side of apartheid to ordinary South Africans.

True to the enduring impact of “Cry, the Beloved Country”, 70 years after its publication, it remains a text for study at many universities in Africa and beyond.

And South Africa has further immortalised the literary giant through an award named in his honour, the Alan Paton Award, given to outstanding works of non-fiction.

Not to be outdone, one of the most popular search engines, Google, dedicated Thursday, January 11, 2018, to Alan Paton, celebrating his 115th birthday through a doodle. Paton died on April 12, 1988, before seeing his dream of a multiracial South Africa.

Reacting to Google’s decision to dedicate Thursday, January 11, the day Paton was born, to celebrate his 115th birthday, his granddaughter Carol Paton, a financial journalist, is quoted by The Citizen newspaper of South Africa saying the family was extremely honoured by the gesture.

Carol Paton told The Citizen that “the family is deeply appreciative of the gesture and very proud that Alan Paton’s contribution to literature and to South Africa has been recognised in this way”.

Carol said it was gratifying that Google users were reminded of the values and ideals that Alan Paton held and championed.  

Besides writing, there is one aspect that Carol mentioned that was the ultimate act of humanity rarely talked about.

“But apart from literature, among Alan’s most notable achievements was the evidence in mitigation that he gave at the treason trial of Nelson Mandela, which George Bizos says he believed, which resulted in Mandela being spared the death sentence,” Carol explained.

So as the world ruminates on the death of struggle icon, Winnie Madikizela Mandela, I think it is critical that we re-look at one of the texts that defined South Africa’s struggle against apartheid.

“Cry, the Beloved Country” is one such text that became a rallying call for South Africans and exposed to the world the negative impact of apartheid on interpersonal relations within families and communities.

I guess, like all powerful literature texts, “Cry, the Beloved Country” inhabits one’s mind long after finishing reading it. It becomes a recurring dream that keeps creeping from corners and comes to us when we least expect it. There is just no means to chase away what a great work of literature places on our minds. Certainly, good books speak to our inner depths, provoking us out of our complacency and in turn helping us to learn new things about life and humanity.

So, what is it that is so special about “Cry, the Beloved Country”? It is special because, before its arrival, no other book by a white South African had captured the cruelty and injustices of the white minority apartheid rule.

“Cry, the Beloved Country” is a touching and heart-breaking book, which traces the quest for justice by a couple of brave black South Africans in a society filled with crime, racism and injustice.  

Published in 1948, the book reflects a society being torn apart by racism and injustice through various characters who struggle to find footing in the society due to the racial segregation system.

Exactly four months after the publication of “Cry, the Beloved the Country” Paton, Margret Ballinger, Edgar Brookes and Leo Marquard formed the Liberal Association in early 1953.

Paton served as the co-president of the movement until it was forcefully dissolved by the apartheid regime in the late 1960s because its membership was of blacks and whites.

Coming from a background that protested against apartheid, Paton’s writing is greatly influenced by the concern for social justice.

Paton comes from a group of African writers called liberal writers. A group of white writers within Africa advocating for the fair treatment of blacks in white-dominated societies.

But Paton is not a saint, as some are keen to portray him. As a white man, there are some racial stereotypical undertones that are always difficult to shrug off, particularly in the presentation of characters and ideas within his work.

In “Cry, the Beloved Country”, Paton captures Reverend Stephen Kumalo’s son Absalom Kumalo and his quest to find work in Johannesburg but in the process turns him into a criminal who murders a white man named Arthur Jarvis. Paton points Absalom’s criminal behaviour to the invasion of white people in the black society and cultural system.

“The white man has broken the tribe. And it is my belief – and again I ask your pardon – that it cannot be mended again. But the house that is broken, and the man that falls apart when the house is broken, these are the things. That is why children break the law, and old white people are robbed and beaten”.

In tracing what caused the black South African society to fall into chaos, Paton believes that the tribal roots have been broken as a result of many young people leaving the rural areas for Johannesburg.

“This is not the time to talk to hedges and fields or the beauties of the country… cry the broken tribe, for the law and the custom that is gone. Aye, 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”.

This also unbundles the title of the book, revealing how gravely the South African issues cultural system and spirit of Ubuntu has been corroded by Western influences. This also reflects the need to quickly return to living in harmony as per traditional values.  

Why South African youths flock to the Johannesburg from Ndotsheni is an issue briefly explored without making a lasting effect.  Ndotsheni youths flock to Johannesburg in search of jobs because the land in their rural home area has been exhausted by overploughing and overgrazing, hence the need for migration.

Like most of the black youth in the story, Gertrude and Absalom have been lured into the city in search of jobs and later turn to crime, breaking into white people’s homes because economic requirements in the city do not accommodate blacks.

Blacks find themselves in even deeper injustices, as the white communities become more fearful of their behaviour and implement unjust measures of the law and find reasons to lock away the black youth even without proper trial just to keep them off the streets.

In “Cry, the Beloved Country”, criminals are black and the victims of their crimes are white. The crimes of black people are magnified and made the centre of the story. This is also the case with Zimbabwean “liberal” writer Doris Lessing’s “The Grass Is Singing” (1950), where Moses, a black farm labourer, kills a white woman and the real reason for killing her is wiped away by the motive that he was looking for valuables.  

The corruption of black politicians is grossly alluded to and the white race is portrayed to be perfect and blameless, innocent and merely victims of the violence perpetrated by the black people.

Paton, however, has hope for a free South Africa. He envisions a society free of racial segregation and injustice but fails to take the black African out of racially motivated stereotypes.

Through the character of Reverend Stephen Kumalo, religion is explored as both a tool of liberation and of oppression. Kumalo completes renovating the church and Jarvis offers to assist in the renovations, representing and symbolising the relationship between the two races.

The relationship is portrayed to have come about through the unifying power of religion and the power of forgiveness all cultivated by Christianity.  

Set in the 1940s apartheid South Africa, “Cry, the Beloved Country” explores the racial tensions and the search for family, belonging and justice. 

 

- Gracious Madondo is a literature fanatic who can be reached on madondogracious@gmail.com

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