As all country trains in South Africa are, it was full of black travelers. On this train indeed there were not many others, for the Europeans of this district all have their cars, and hardly travel by train any more.
As Kumalo boards the train to Johannesburg, the narrator notes that there are cars designated for black people and cars designated for “Europeans,” or white people. Even though the train seems mostly full of black people and white people do not need to use the train as much, all the black travelers must crowd into the same few cars. This book was written two years before apartheid was officially instituted, yet inequality based on race was already well established in South Africa.
Kumalo’s face wore the smile, the strange smile not known in other countries, of a black man when he sees one of his people helped in public by a white man, for such a thing is not lightly done.
After bus fares for black people go up, people in Johannesburg begin boycotting the buses. Kumalo sees a white man driving black people, and when a police officer asks if he has a permit to carry them, he answers, “Take me to court.” Here, the narrator reveals that Kumalo feels touched to see a white man helping black people for no benefit of his own and feels that no one in other countries can understand how much this kindness means, as no other country has such enforced inequality.
But I tell you they’re unenforceable. Do you know that we send one hundred thousand natives every year to prison, where they mix with real criminals?
As two white men discuss the pass laws, which allow black people to be in white areas if they have a permit, one of the men argues that even though the laws exist, they are not enforced, and so many innocent black people end up in jail, where they are exposed to actual crime. Readers notes that these two men are white because they refer to themselves as “we” and to black people as “natives.” Although these white people benefit from inequality, they still recognize the unfairness in such inequality, and because of their race, they feel in part responsible for the inequality.
The Judge does not make the Law. It is the People that make the Law. Therefore if a Law is unjust, and if the Judge judges according to the Law, that is justice, even if it is not just.
Before Absalom’s trial, the narrator explains that even though the judges in South Africa operate in a fair and just manner, the laws themselves promote inequality, and so the judges themselves can’t be blamed when innocent black people are punished. Racism has become truly institutionalized at this time in South Africa, making it impossible for black people to have successful lives.