Alan Paton was born in the South African city of Pietermaritzburg on January 11, 1903, to a Scottish father and a South African mother of English heritage. An active and intelligent child, Paton went on to attend Natal University, where, among other activities, he wrote poetry and served as student body president. At the age of twenty-two, he became a teacher at two of South Africa’s elite, all-white schools, first in the village of Ixopo, then in Pietermaritzburg. Ten years later, he left teaching to pursue a career as a reformatory worker. He was appointed principal of the Diepkloof Reformatory, a prison school for black youths. While at the reformatory, Paton attempted to loosen the restrictions placed on the youths and emphasized preparation for life outside the reformatory walls. He also traveled extensively to study reformatory schools worldwide. It was on one such trip, shortly after World War II, that he wrote Cry, the Beloved Country, the novel that earned him his fame as an author.
Cry, the Beloved Country was published in 1948 to overwhelming international acclaim—at the time of the author’s death, in 1988, more than fifteen million copies of the novel had been sold, and it had been published in twenty different languages. In Paton’s native South Africa, however, praise for Cry, the Beloved Country remained muted, and the novel’s objective take on the problems of racial inequality in South Africa created much controversy. Nonetheless, Paton’s reputation as one of South Africa’s greatest writers remained secure, though his subsequent novels, Too Late the Phalarope (1953) and Ah, But Your Land Is Beautiful (1981), were praised by critics but failed to generate the same excitement as Cry, the Beloved Country.
Although apartheid, South Africa’s infamous system of enforced racial segregation, was not instituted until after the novel’s publication, the South Africa of Cry, the Beloved Country was nevertheless suffering from the effects of racial segregation, enforced inequality, and prejudice. The crime rate was high, and attacks on whites by black agitators caused panic among the country’s white citizens. Black South Africans found themselves adrift as the traditional tribal cultures gave way to the lure of the cities, and many South Africans were left without any moral or social organization to turn to. Whites held a monopoly on political power, and they did nothing to alleviate the extreme poverty among black South Africans, which in turn led many young black men to crime. The gold mines, which were so vital to South Africa’s economy, depended on cheap black labor to remain profitable, and as a result, the workers were paid barely enough to survive. But those in power inevitably broke up attempts to strike or seek a better wage.
Cry, the Beloved Country is set in this tense and fragile society, where the breathtaking beauty of the nation’s natural landscape is tainted by the fears of its people. And yet, the message of the novel is one of hope. Characters such as Stephen Kumalo, James Jarvis, and Theophilus Msimangu reveal a potential for goodness in humankind, and are able to defuse hatred, overcome fear, and take the first steps necessary for mending a broken nation.
Cry, the Beloved Country is set in South Africa in the 1940s. Its story unfolds against a backdrop of economic and political tensions that have a lengthy, complicated history. Thousands of years before the first Europeans arrived, southern Africa was populated by various African tribal groups, including the San, the Khoikhoi, and, later on, Bantu-speaking peoples who were ancestors of the modern Zulus. The first European settlers in South Africa, the Dutch, arrived in the mid-1600s. The Dutch wanted only to set up bases for trade, not to colonize the country, and they met with little resistance. But by the mid-1700s, the Dutch, who had come to be known as the Boers and who had developed their own language, Afrikaans, had begun to settle deeper and deeper into the country. In a process similar to the displacement and destruction of Native American life in the United States, African tribes were forced off their traditional lands, decimated by disease, and defeated in battles against the well-armed Boers.
English settlers first arrived in 1795. Unlike the Dutch, by the early 1800s the English decided to make South Africa a full-fledged colony. Concentrated in coastal cities, the English soon found themselves in conflict with Boer farmers, who called themselves “the white tribe of Africa.” The Boers moved north, away from the coast, while the Zulus, led by the famous warrior-leader Shaka, pressed south on a military campaign. Inevitably, the two groups clashed, fighting a number of bloody battles before the Zulus were defeated. The Boers created several independent republics, but when diamonds and gold were discovered in the Boer territories, the British moved to annex them, leading to the first Anglo-Boer war in 1881. The Boers regained the independence of their territories, but when gold was discovered near what is now Johannesburg in 1886, the British invaded the area again. The second Anglo-Boer war lasted from 1899 to 1902. The victorious British were able to establish rule, and they officially established the Union of South Africa in 1910.
Cry, the Beloved Country takes place after these upheavals and immediately before the implementation, in 1948, of apartheid, which codified the systematic inequalities depicted in the novel. During the time in which the novel is set, black workers were permitted to hold only unskilled jobs and were subject to “pass laws” that restricted their freedom of movement. In 1913, the Natives Land Act radically limited the amount of land that black South Africans were permitted to own. As the character Arthur Jarvis states in the novel, just one-tenth of the land was set aside for four-fifths of the country’s people. The resultant overcrowding led many black South Africans to migrate to Johannesburg to work in the mines. Those in power welcomed the influx of cheap labor but failed to provide adequate housing or services to address the mass migration. These are the circumstances under which the character Stephen Kumalo leaves his impoverished rural village to search for his son in Johannesburg.
Though Paton’s novel helped raise the social consciousness of white South Africa, things got much worse before they got better. In 1948, the National Party (representing Afrikaner and conservative interests) gained power and introduced apartheid. Under apartheid, every South African was classified according to race, and the Group Areas Act enforced the physical separation of blacks from whites. Every aspect of South African life was racially segregated. Under the leadership of Nelson Mandela, the African National Congress (ANC), which had been founded in 1912 as the South African Native National Congress and renamed in 1923, began protests against the new laws in the form of strikes and marches. After decades of struggle and bloodshed, the ANC prevailed, and South Africa held its first free election in 1994. Mandela was elected president, apartheid was dismantled, and the country ratified one of the most liberal constitutions in the world.