Analysis — Book I: 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.