Thursday, October 14, 2010

Cry the Beloved Country

Cry the Beloved Country by Alan Paton

Book review by Teresa Friedlander, copyright 2010, all rights reserved

If the 2010 World Cup Soccer Tournament was South Africa’s “coming out” party, then the nation did herself proud; hosting 32 teams and as many as three million spectators in 10 venues. From June 11 through July 11, 2010, the world watched as elimination matches whittled the field down to Spain and the Netherlands, ultimately giving Spain its first World Cup title. Throughout it all, we heard the buzzing of vuvuzelas, the plastic horns blown by South African spectators in a new “fanfare for the common man”. How far South Africa has come since the days of Apartheid – constitutional racial segregation – and, before that, the so called “Pass Laws” which required Blacks to carry documents at all times. To see the smiling faces and to hear the joyful noises of the Black South African fans one could never guess that as recently as 1990, these good people were denied the rights and benefits of full citizenship.

The story of South Africa has many parallels to that of the United States of America: European nations colonized parts of it, marginalized the native population, and exploited the abundant natural resources. Civil unrest between various factions led to a unified government and the ruin of the native people, who lost their cultural and tribal identities. Where the stories diverge is in terms of civil rights. The southern United States’ economies were built on slave labor and after that was abolished in 1865, these states enacted so called “Jim Crow” laws to legalize segregation of the races. At no time in our history, however, has slavery or segregation been the law of the land. Indeed, the questions of slavery and whether Africans might be entitled to full citizenship vexed the attendees of the first Constitutional Convention of the United States of America. It took another century after slavery was abolished to invalidate state laws favoring segregation, and the better part of fifty years hence to make racial discrimination completely unacceptable.

South Africa’s story is also different from ours in terms of the dominant culture. The Netherlands was the first European nation to colonize southern Africa in the 1600s and descendents of these settlers , or the Boers, make up a significant part of the current population. Great Britain also established colonies in southern Africa by the beginning of the 1800s. The discovery of diamonds and gold fueled competition for dominance of southern Africa and a series of civil wars ensued. Great Britain won the second Boer War in 1902, after losing the first Boer War in 1881, and thus gained control. In 1909, the British Parliament created the Union of South Africa, giving it the same status as Australia and Canada, a dominion under the monarchy. The new government passed the South Africa Act which created a strong central government and facilitated laws severely limiting the civil rights of Black South Africans. The ruling majority was mostly English-speaking, but Afrikaans was widely spoken by both Black and white South Africans. Therefore, in addition to racial segregation, South Africa was divided by language.

Cry the Beloved Country by Alan Paton, tells the story of Black South Africans during this sorry chapter in that nation’s history. It is a tragic and beautiful novel about a Black minister who has watched the social fabric of his tribe disintegrate while the young adults migrated to shanty towns on the outskirts of the big cities to look for work. The Pass Laws Act of 1952 required that all Blacks over the age of 16 carry a pass book at all times, to prove their identity, residency, employment status, and permission to travel. Failure to produce the pass book on demand was grounds for immediate imprisonment. Alan Paton, a white South African, worked in the prison system and became intimately familiar with the degrading impact of the pass laws. He learned of the lost generation of Blacks who abandoned their tribes and families in search of employment in Johannesburg, Pietermaritzburg, Bloemfontein, and other large cities. He understood the devastating effect of these migrations on the women, children and old people who were left behind. As the main character, the Reverend Stephen Kumalo, laments “when people go to Johannesburg, they never come back. They do not even write anymore.”

In the story, the Reverend’s sister and son had both disappeared into Johannesburg and would have remained missing had he not received a letter from a fellow priest informing him of his sister’s ill health. This news caused the Reverend and his wife to acknowledge that their son, Absalom, would never need the money they had saved for his education in the tribal school, and so they decided to use that money to send the Reverend to Johannesburg to give aid and comfort to his sister. At the train station, a neighbor asked the Reverend Kumalo to ask after his daughter – another missing person – who was in the employ of the daughter-in-law of the local white landowner. In the end, the Reverend, the white landowner, the Reverend’s son, the missing girl, the white landowner’s daughter-in-law and grandson discover their lives are intertwined by a tragedy resulting from the tribal breakdown that sent Absalom and his peers to Johannesburg. Out of this tragedy, a beautiful friendship grows which promises to heal the land laid waste by overgrazing cattle and inappropriate land cultivation.

Cry the Beloved Country reads like an epic poem, with almost musical phrasing. The opening line of the book, “There is a lovely road that runs from Ixopo into the hills. These hills are grass-covered and rolling, and they are lovely beyond any singing of it.” is repeated several times like the refrain of a sad song. Mr. Paton understood the profoundly degrading effect that segregation had on both the people and the land as well as the deep sense of longing for things to be different on the part of so many. Those lush green hills of the opening line were off limits to the Black South Africans’ starving cattle, the traditional measure of a man’s wealth.

Mr. Paton’s dialog captures the essence of the Zulu language and its almost exclusive use of the present tense. This has the effect of bringing out the forgiving and compassionate nature of the Reverend Kumalo and the gentleness of the rural Zulu people. Once corrupted by the big city, however, the Blacks quickly become bitter and angry and lose all sense of morals. Life in the shanty towns is brutally ugly and crime is rampant, and the language reflects this.

In the decades since Cry the Beloved Country was published, South Africa has changed profoundly: the Pass Laws were replaced by Apartheid, officially consolidating political power and wealth in the ruling white minority population; Apartheid fell to global pressure; Nelson Mandela – a Black South African who had spent years in prison – was elected president; and the Fédération Internationale de Football Association, FIFA, voted to hold the 2010 World Cup in the Republic of South Africa. Life is still far from perfect in this nation of 50 million people, 80 per cent of whom are Black, but things are getting better. The 2010 World Cup was a celebration of progress, if not perfection.