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 tragic things. That is why children break the law, and old white people are robbed and beaten.
Msimangu makes this statement in Chapter 5 after he welcomes Kumalo to Johannesburg, while discussing the troubles of Gertrude and Absalom. Msimangu explains to Kumalo what he believes has gone wrong with their country: the tribal bonds have been broken, giving young men and women no reason to stay in their villages. These youths then go to Johannesburg, where they inevitably lose their way and become morally corrupt. Msimangu is very explicit about the cause-and-effect relationship that he perceives between the deterioration of black culture and crime against whites. As such, he expresses the novel’s central preoccupation with the matter of tribal structure and its important role in holding the country’s black population together.
I see only one hope for our country, and that is when white men and black men . . . desiring only the good of their country, come together to work for it. . . . 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.
Msimangu speaks these words in Chapter 7 immediately after he and Kumalo meet with John. Msimangu doubts John’s convictions, and instead of calling him a champion of justice, Msimangu calls John an example of power’s corrupting influence. Msimangu warns that power can corrupt black people as much as it corrupts white people. It is exactly this corruption that keeps South Africa in its predicament, and in this passage Msimangu unveils his dream of a selfless Christian faith that will bind all people—black and white—together.
Msimangu’s fear that by the time “they”—the whites—turn to loving, “we”—the blacks—will have turned to hating calls attention to Kumalo’s sense of the shift in black attitudes toward whites. Although Kumalo and Msimangu, members of an older generation, do not wish to cause strife, younger men such as Napoleon Letsitsi are less willing to tolerate white oppression. The willingness to be reconciled exists among both blacks and whites, Msimangu suggests, but never at the same time. Through Msimangu, Paton hints at the sad irony of a nation in which justice and racial equality are stymied by poor timing rather than bad intentions.
This is no time to talk of hedges and fields, or the beauties of any country. . . . Cry for the broken tribe, for the law and the custom that is gone. Aye, and 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 quotation, from Chapter 11, stands in contrast to the novel’s early tendency to dwell on the lush South African landscape and urges sorrow instead. By breaking out of this pattern and addressing us with such urgency, the narrator reflects how grave and ingrained South Africa’s problems are. The quotation’s ominous last line is a note of prophetic foreshadowing of Absalom’s death, and though it certainly reflects the pessimism Kumalo and his brethren may feel, it also informs us that this episode is one of many blows that South Africa has yet to endure.
The truth is that our civilization is not Christian; it is a tragic compound of great ideal and fearful practice, of high assurance and desperate anxiety, of loving charity and fearful clutching of possessions. Allow me a minute. . . .
These words are written by Arthur Jarvis and read by his father in Chapter 21. Arthur contrasts a Christianity that supports the notion of black people as inferior with a true Christianity that rejects white superiority. Some Christians, Arthur says, argue that it is God’s will that black South Africans remain unskilled workers. Trying to educate them would be an un-Christian action, and therefore wrong. Arthur argues, however, that every human being has the right to develop his or her God-given gifts. Because South Africa ignores this principle, Arthur argues, it is not a truly Christian state.
The cut-off sentence that closes Arthur’s statement is especially poignant for his father, as these are the last words that Arthur writes before going downstairs to his death. Ironically, Arthur Jarvis is on the verge of envisioning a new South Africa when the problems of the old one cut him down. This tragic turn of events indicates the dire need for change.
And now for all the people of Africa, the beloved country. Nkosi Sikelel’ iAfrika, God save Africa. But he would not see that salvation. It lay afar off, because men were afraid of it. Because, to tell the truth, they were afraid of him, and his wife, and Msimangu, and the young demonstrator. And what was there evil in their desires, in their hunger? That man should walk upright in the land where they were born, and be free to use the fruits of the earth, what was there evil in it? . . . They were afraid because they were so few. And such fear could not be cast out, but by love.
These thoughts are part of the novel’s conclusion, as Kumalo keeps his vigil on the mountain while Absalom hangs. Kumalo prays for Africa, even though he knows it will be a long time before his prayers are answered. He understands that fear is the root of injustice: white men fear black men because there are so few whites and so many blacks. They worry that if the basic needs of the black population are met, then there will be little left for them. Kumalo observes, however, that there is nothing evil in him or his desires, or in his people’s desire for a better life. They want simply their due as humans (to “walk upright” and “use the fruits of the earth”). They are not motivated by hatred and revenge, but by a simple desire for dignity. Kumalo’s rumination ends with a somewhat troubling paradox: for whites to stop being afraid, they must begin to understand and then love; in order to understand and then love, however, they must stop being afraid. It thus seems impossible for whites and blacks to exist as equals.