Your Guide to Cry, the Beloved Country
It's the book Nelson Mandela calls "a monument to the future." Learn about Cry, the Beloved Country and take a closer look at South Africa—past and present.
A Freedom Fighter
Author Alan Paton was a white man in a country of oppressed blacks who fought for their freedom and believed in their worth. Meet the man who brought the world face-to-face and heart-to-heart with the problem of race relations in South Africa.
Written in three parts, Cry, the Beloved Country is a visionary story of hope and compassion. Explore this selection—chapter by chapter, book by book.
Book 1 | Book 2 | Book 3
Looking for insight into this "searingly beautiful," deep and powerful work? We'll help you warm up your discussions with these discussion questions.
Book 1 | Book 2 | Book 3
Meet the Characters
Stephen Kumalo and James Jarvis' families make up the backbone of this simple story about the pain of loss, the strength of forgiveness and the importance of having a good moral compass. Explore their families trees and learn more about each character.
The Kumalo Family | The Jarvis Family
Explore the Glossary
Have you come across a word you don't recognize while reading this novel? Consult our glossary of special terms.
Alan Paton's Literary Legacy
Learn more about what books and authors influenced Alan Paton, and how his writings live on in the work of others.
The Trip of a Lifetime
After flying almost 17 hours, crossing the equator, and traveling more than 8,700 miles, three lucky viewers landed in South Africa to explore more of Cry, the Beloved Country. Discover the magic and beauty of South Africa through their eyes.
Meet Tiffany | Meet Marina | Meet Carri
The book is Alan Paton's ode to his complex homeland—a land that Westerners have come to understand, in part, because of the eloquence of his passionate work. Inspired in many ways by John Steinbeck's The Grapes of Wrath, Paton's Cry, the Beloved Country brings heart and humanity to the struggles of black South Africans. First published in America, it brought a new international focus to a South African conflict that had previously been shrouded in secrecy and shadow. From the time of its initial publication, to its immediate worldwide success and recognition, to this very day, Paton's novel has been an anthem to racial tolerance and understanding.
The novel explores several powerful themes, among them compassion, forgiveness, humility and racial injustice and prejudice. While the main storyline tells the tale of two families struggling to overcome hardship, South Africa herself is also a main character. According to the author, the title came from three or four passages that make mention of his beloved country, including: "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...for fear will rob him of all if he gives too much." This is a novel that will make you fall in love with South Africa—with her rich land, her struggles, her beauty, her passion and her people.
For thousands of years, black tribes in South Africa farmed the land and lived peacefully—they did not war with each other and had little conflict with other nations. For centuries, the region of South Africa was a wholly black region. Throughout the region, black South African tribes coexisted, living simple, peaceful, rural lives. No whites settled in the country until the 1600s, long after white cultures had "conquered" other African nations. The land was wild, beautiful and untouched—both the English and Dutch wanted to control it. So began three centuries of conflict that culminated in Apartheid in the mid-1940s. As the Europeans fought each other on South African soil, black South Africans were slowly marginalized, their tribal culture disbanded, their freedoms diminished.
South Africa in 1948
The year Cry, the Beloved Country was published, South Africa's population was eleven million. Of those, two and a half million were white Afrikaans (Dutch descent), and three-quarters of a million were white English-speaking. The rest, except for one million blacks of mixed descent, were the black people of the African tribes. Well over half the population consisted of tribal people and "colored" South Africans of mixed descent. Blacks far outnumbered whites, yet whites controlled the country's wealth, resources and politics.
Apartheid was a program designed by the government to maintain white power. Developed by the Afrikaner National Party (made up of descendants of the white Dutch settlers), Apartheid laws drastically changed the way of life for black South Africans. Basic freedoms were lost. Black South Africans did not have the right to vote, they had no representation in government, they were banned from the freedom of choice in marriage (interracial marriage was outlawed) and certain lucrative and important jobs became "white-only." All races were segregated and thousands and thousands of blacks were relocated to crowded communities without any government support. Tribal families lost land and were driven from homes that had belonged to them for generations. Tribal customs were thwarted, identities and ties were lost—centuries of native tradition and spirit were sacrificed.
Under the new laws, protest was prohibited and the penalties, even for nonviolent action, were extremely severe. Many leaders who spoke out against Apartheid, like the future president of South Africa, Nelson Mandela, were punished with life imprisonment or death. The struggle for freedom in South Africa was like the struggle in many countries. The same struggles go on around the world even today.
Alan Paton was a white South African who grew to see the danger of oppressing blacks. He realized that in the process of racial segregation in South Africa, everyone lost the home they loved. For instance, a family made up of a black woman, a white man and mixed-race children were forced to live apart from one another to achieve racial purity. Even whites lost the freedom to choose their homeland. Cry, the Beloved Country helped white South Africans see their country and all the people of South Africa in a new way. It showed them—clearly and honestly—the potential dangers of this enforced "separateness" for all races. It also turned the world's eye to a nation at conflict with itself and gave the world a context for South Africa's troubles. In 1960, Paton was awarded the prestigious Freedom Award for his anti-Apartheid work and appeared in court in 1964 on behalf of Nelson Mandela. Paton was courageous in speaking out against what he felt was wrong. He did not turn away. He lived a passionate life and believed in the decency of the common man. One of Paton's favorite quotes, and the way he gave a context to his own contribution, was he felt he "did the best of things in the worst of times." For Paton, this meant strength—to rise to the occasion. That is something Alan Paton certainly did during his lifetime and left as his legacy.
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.
Regardless of liberal sentiment across the country Apartheid still took hold. In May 1948 the very right wing, primarily Afrikaner Nationalist Party came to power in the whites-only parliament, and it proceeded to translate the "custom", and more besides, into legislation.
Before long, strict Apartheid laws and regulations dictated where black South Africans could live, what schools they could go to, what jobs they were allowed to have, what areas of cities and public places they were allowed into, what kinds of persons they could have sexual relations with, and where they could be buried. As the years went by, in a (totally fruitless) attempt to counter world hostility, the government set up some powerless African "homelands" where people of various ethnic affiliations within the African group were allowed to exercise patently spurious political "rights."
Of course the structure could not last. Black opposition, led by the African National Congress (ANC) (which was banned in 1960), grew slowly in strength as the movement began to operate in exile. Economic growth and the increasing skills of black workers made the system vulnerable to strikes. The creation of blacks-only universities encouraged a black consciousness movement, which provided an important psychological boost to the oppressed. From mid-1976, when there was an uprising led by school students in Soweto, the government back-pedaled. Half-hearted attempts at liberalization often went hand-in-hand with fierce repression. Crisis followed crisis throughout the 1980s. Finally it was the "ungovernability" of many African townships, combined with the imposition of financial sanctions by the U.S. and other nations, which persuaded the government to unban the ANC and other liberation movements, to release Nelson Mandela from jail (where he had been for 26 years) and to allow democratic processes to unfold.
Birth of the New South Africa
As democracy took hold, an elaborate series of negotiations ensued. In Cry, the Beloved Country, Msimangu says: "I see only one hope for our country, and that is when white men and black men, desiring neither power nor money, but desiring only the good of their country, come together to work for it." That is, broadly speaking, what happened—except that women were involved in the process too. In 1994 the first democratic election was held. In 1996 the new Constitution, considered one of the most enlightened in the world, was ratified.
South Africa is now a fully democratic country. It is almost ten years since that first election. Great progress has been made in many areas, but undoing a lop-sided system, which had been in place for a very long time, has not been easy. For all the political and social changes, the shape of the economy—with whites still holding most of the major positions—has not been modified as quickly as many people had hoped. Unemployment, crime and some degree of corruption are problems. Still, the country is stable politically and is a respected member of the international community. One of the most triumphant things of all is that in every area of national life there are strong signs of energy...and hope.