As the twentieth century wore on, intellectual and social attitudes evolved, and the balance of power within nations and between nations changed. In the 1920s and 1930s, and more particularly after World War II, which had been waged largely against systems of fanatical racism, more democratic and egalitarian attitudes began to become common.
Raising the "Color Bar"
But things in South Africa were different. The "color bar", as it was often called, remained in full force, and some aspects of it (for example, sexual relations between people of different races) were reinforced by legislation. Why was this so? Mainly because white South Africans, who were a politically and technologically powerful minority, were afraid that they and the civilization which they claimed as their own would be "swamped" if people of color were allowed equal rights. Also, the gold mining industry in and around Johannesburg, which started in the 1880s and transformed the economy of the country, depended upon a guaranteed supply of cheap labor. The "custom" worked strongly to ensure that dark-skinned people, but especially Africans, were not allowed to vote and were also forbidden to live in certain areas, prevented from engaging in many forms of employment, paid low wages, and offered distinctly inferior social services.
The South Africa of Paton's Novel
This is the South Africa that Paton makes vivid for us in Cry, the Beloved Country. The realities of segregation, discrimination, economic exploitation and other aspects of the "custom" are clearly portrayed. At the same time, movements of resistance are present: we see people like Dubula organizing the bus boycott and the move to Shanty Town, and we see and hear the strong political rhetoric of John Kumalo, and the prophetic, partially tragic words of Msimangu. We also encounter the beginnings of liberal opposition to dominant policies in various actions and statements, particularly those made by the murdered Arthur Jarvis. Paton was himself, of course, a liberal.
The Novel's Impact
When the novel was published in 1948 it became a bestseller and was translated into many languages. But it made a particularly strong impact in the U.S., which was then beginning to grapple with many of the issues Paton so clearly puts before us in his novel. Cry, the Beloved Country strongly influenced the fairly small group of white liberals in South Africa. Five years after its publication, the non-racial Liberal Party of South Africa was formed, with Paton as one of its leaders.