Book One—Chapter Summaries
Poor though he is, Stephen buys some new clothes for Gertrude and her son, who seem happy. Msimangu takes Stephen to visit John. Stephen chides his brother for having left his first wife and the church, but John, a passionate politician with a bull-like voice, tells Stephen that the old order is changing, and the center of this change is Johannesburg, which is a place of opportunity, since Africans are beginning to realize themselves, but a place of strife too, because blacks are unjustly treated by whites. Stephen then asks about Absalom; John can tell them a little, for his own son has left home. Msimangu and Stephen discuss what John has said. Msimangu agrees with much of it, but fears that a politician like John could easily become corrupt. He feels that the only hope for the country is if whites and blacks can learn to work together for the common good. Love is needed; but he 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." They then begin the search for Absalom, following leads, going from place to place.
Stephen and Msimangu, now firm friends, in their search for Absalom set off for Alexandra, eleven miles from the centre of Johannesburg. They encounter a bus boycott, mounted to object to a fare increase, and are persuaded to walk the distance; but after a while they are given a lift by a sympathetic white man. Msimangu speaks of the problems caused by crime, and of the varying white reactions to the issue. They then visit Mrs. Mkize, with whom Absalom and his cousin stayed a year or so ago. She is afraid, partly because she thinks they may come from the police. She does not know where the young men have gone, but in response to the pleas of Msimangu finally tells him that the two had obviously been engaging in theft. She puts Msimangu and Stephen on to a taxi-driver who had been friendly with Absalom and his cousin. He is afraid too, but suggests that they go to Shanty Town, the squatter settlement. They return by taxi to Johannesburg, passing the thousands of walking bus boycotters, and the sprinkling of white drivers irritating the police by offering their assistance to some of the walkers.
The novelist constantly offers, in dramatized form, salient relevant South African socio-political realities, with all their injustices and imbalances. Thus he gives his central story a representative edge, indeed makes it symbolic of the country's tragic and dangerous tensions. In this chapter, a series of vignettes highlight some of the social problems of African people in Johannesburg, into which more and more people are moving: poverty, overcrowding, a drastic shortage of housing and accommodation, bribery, a lack of privacy, the constant fear of sexual misdemeanors, theft, and other forms of crime. In a further series of vignettes—fictionalized, but close to the historical reality—we see homeless people getting together, forming a committee (headed by Dubula, who was also involved in the bus boycott), and building Shanty Town overnight, and, while all this happens, the grief of a mother as her young child sickens and dies. We see Shanty Town growing, and the white authorities attempting to deal with it as a new problem. The squatter settlement becomes famous overnight. But how will those living in shacks made of wooden poles, iron and sacking cope in the rain and in the winter?