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. . . .

See Important Quotations Explained

Summary: Chapter 7

Kumalo sits in his lodgings, writing a letter to his wife and listening to Gertrude sing as she helps Mrs. Lithebe around the house while her son plays in the garden. Msimangu arrives and brings Kumalo to the shop of his brother, John. Although John does not recognize Kumalo at first, he seems pleasantly surprised to see him. Kumalo learns that John’s wife, Esther, has left him, and that John has since acquired a mistress.

John tries to explain why he stopped writing home and then asks Kumalo if he may speak in English. In a strange voice, he relates that he has been seized by “an experience” in Johannesburg that has made him see things differently. In the village, John says, he was a nobody and had to obey the chief, whom he calls ignorant and a tool of the white man. In Johannesburg, he says, he is free from the chief, although he adds that the church serves a similar function in keeping black South Africans down. Things are changing in Johannesburg, John proclaims, and his voice deepens with emotion as he decries the wealth and power of the mine’s owners and the poverty of the miners. Although the bishop condemns this economic discrepancy, he lives in a fancy house, which embitters John toward the church.

Msimangu questions John’s fidelity to his former wife. Before John can respond, Kumalo intervenes and John’s mistress silently serves tea. Kumalo confesses that listening to John is painful for him, both because of John’s manner of speaking and because much of what he says is true. He tells John he has found Gertrude and asks about Absalom. John says he does not know where either Absalom or his own son are, then remembers that they were working in a textile factory in Alexandra. Msimangu and Kumalo take their leave.

As they head to the textile factory, Msimangu explains to Kumalo that much of what John said is true, and that John is one of the three most important black men in Johannesburg. Msimangu also suggests, however, that if John were as courageous as he maintains, he would be in prison, and Msimangu observes that power can corrupt even the most dedicated politician.

At the textile factory, the white men who manage the plant are helpful, stating that Absalom has not worked there for twelve months. Kumalo and Msimangu meet a friend of Absalom’s who says that Absalom used to live with a Mrs. Ndlela in Sophiatown. The two priests find Mrs. Ndlela, who tells them that Absalom has moved to Alexandra. After Kumalo steps outside, Msimangu asks Mrs. Ndlela why she seems so sorry for Kumalo, and she reveals that both she and her husband felt that Absalom kept bad company.

Summary: Chapter 8

Msimangu and Kumalo catch a bus to Alexandra from Johannesburg. As they board the bus, however, they are stopped by Dubula, another of the three most important black leaders in Johannesburg. Dubula tells them that blacks are boycotting the buses because the fares have been raised and persuades them to walk the eleven miles to Alexandra. As they walk, they accept a ride from a white driver, who goes miles out of his way to help them.

Kumalo and Msimangu walk the remaining distance as Msimangu explains that in Alexandra, blacks are allowed to own property, but that the town is so crime-ridden that its white neighbors have petitioned to have it destroyed. He tells Kumalo stories of whites being attacked and killed, and ends with the moving story of a black couple’s rescue of a white woman who had been raped and abandoned by a white man. He also says, however, that Alexandra is more good than bad.

Kumalo and Msimangu reach Absalom’s new house, but its owner, Mrs. Mkize, is visibly afraid and will tell them only that Absalom moved a year ago. Kumalo knows that something is wrong, and Msimangu tells him to go on ahead and seek refreshment, then returns to question the woman again. She is too scared to say what she knows, but when Msimangu swears on a Bible to keep her secret safe, she reveals that Absalom and John’s son often came home very late at night with all kinds of money, food, watches, and clothes.

Mrs. Mkize tells him that both boys were friends with a local taxi driver named Hlabeni. Msimangu hires Hlabeni to drive him and Kumalo back to Johannesburg, then asks Hlabeni if he knows Absalom’s whereabouts. Hlabeni, who is scared, admits that the young men now live in a shantytown in the city of Orlando. They drive past crowds of black people resolutely walking instead of taking the bus, while a number of white drivers offer them rides. Msimangu is particularly impressed by the behavior of one white driver who has been pulled over by the police, and he slaps his chest and defiantly echoes the driver’s cry of “take me to court.”

Summary: Chapter 9

A chorus of anonymous voices describes Shanty Town. From all over the land, people pour into the city of Johannesburg. The waiting lists for houses are impossibly long, however, and there is little room in the houses in Alexandra, Sophiatown, and Orlando. Families with homes take in boarders, but the accommodations fill up, often with a dozen people crammed into two rooms. Privacy is scarce, and tempers flare. Some husbands and wives are seduced by their lodgers; others throw tenants out into the street in fits of protective jealousy. A well-placed bribe may secure the right person a home, but there are no guarantees. The money to build housing is tied up because of war in Europe and North Africa.

Dubula’s commands ripple through the masses of the homeless. Building supplies are stolen from the plantations, train stations, and mines. Near Orlando’s railroad tracks, an entire city goes up overnight, made of poles, sacks, and the long grasses of the South African plains. The only cost is a shilling a week to Dubula’s committee. It is crowded and wet in Shanty Town. In the middle of the night, a child burns with fever and dies before a doctor can reach her. Newspapermen come and take pictures, and the state springs into action. New homes are built for the Shanty Town masses, just as Dubula said they would be.

But a new tide of people rushes to set up makeshift homes, and this time the state reacts with anger. The police drive these people back to where they came from. A few remain, watching the new houses that the government is building and waiting for their turn to move in.

Analysis: Book 1: Chapters 7–9

By introducing the figure of John Kumalo, these chapters give us a political context for Stephen Kumalo’s journey. John’s claim that the local village chiefs are pawns of the white man is somewhat accurate—historically, white leaders in South Africa allowed tribal chiefs free rein as long as the chiefs did not interfere with white claims to power. Similarly, John’s claims that the church preaches submission and meekness, that the old village way of life is dying, and that a new way of life is being born in Johannesburg are also true. Msimangu’s earlier comment about his father being carried out of the “darkness” into Christianity reflects that he has submitted himself to a new order. Furthermore, it is clear that Johannesburg, with its prostitution and liquor-selling, represents a corruption of old village values.

Despite his insightful viewpoints, however, John is an unreliable representative of these old village values. He has broken his family ties by parting with his wife, probably due to his infidelity, and by ceasing to correspond with his family. He is more comfortable speaking in English than in his native Zulu, and he addresses his brother as if he were making a speech to an invisible audience. Furthermore, he seems overly impressed, rather than disgusted, by European prosperity. Finally, Msimangu hints that John does not have the courage to match his convictions—John fears taking real risks to improve the lot of black Africans. John speaks out against white oppression, but he does so more from personal egotism than out of genuine concern for his people. Although he is correct in many ways, John possesses many of the flaws of the system he criticizes.

Msimangu, on the other hand, stands for the incorruptible power of love, and these chapters validate his claim that there is “only one hope for our country . . . when white men and black men . . . desiring only the good of their country, come together to work for it.” The story of the black couple who helps a destitute white woman, for example, shows that racial harmony and human decency are possible, even if the government seems unable or unwilling to operate in accordance with these ideals. While John operates from corrupt motivations, his friend and colleague Dubula, who seems to work tirelessly and selflessly for his people, leads the bus boycott to protest economic prejudice against blacks. Solidarity between whites and blacks triumphs over racism as white South Africans risk trouble with the police in order to give rides to the striking blacks, and Msimangu, impressed with this display, takes up and repeats one white man’s defiant challenge to the police, “Take me to court.”

In an overview of black Shanty Town life in Chapter 9, Paton employs an unusual narrative technique of setting aside the novel’s story line and meditates on South Africa’s physical and social landscape. Paton uses this same technique in Chapters 1, 3, and 4 in describing the geography of South Africa. In Chapter 9, however, the description is focused more on the country’s social landscape. Repetitive scraps of dialogue from anonymous speakers are woven together, giving a sense of the general desperation of these settlements. We hear the voices of need as one clambering, undifferentiated mass: the voices of those who need lodging and the voices of those who need money and who are thus forced to rent out precious space. Finally, the action focuses on one woman and her sick daughter, for whom a doctor is found only after it is too late. The destruction of this small family mirrors the greater destruction of African life as a whole.