Ranging from the AIDS epidemic to the conflict in Darfur to a lack of clean water, there are many problems in Africa. Many books and articles have been written speaking out and rallying help for these
causes. Alan Paton’s Cry, the Beloved Country is one of these pieces. Appearing at a time when the South African political system was being increasingly questioned, Cry, the Beloved Country is one of the most influential works of South African literature. After Paton wrote this book, he and hundreds of other South Africans who opposed the policies of the government and who tried to change those policies by legal, democratic means were charged with treason and often jailed. The novel drew worldwide attention to the horrors of apartheid, a political institution promoting segregation and discrimination.
South Africa was colonized by the English and Dutch in the seventeenth century. The discovery of diamonds in these lands around 1900 resulted in an English invasion which sparked the Boer War. Subsequent to independence from England, an uncomfortable balance of power between the two groups held control until the 1940’s, when the Afrikaner National Party was able to gain a strong majority. Strategists in the National Party were able to invent apartheid as a way to reinforce their power over the people. Originally, aim of the apartheid was to maintain white domination while extending racial separation. Beginning in the 1960’s, this plan was executed, stressing territorial separation and police repression.
Race laws shaped every facet of social life. This included a ban on interracial marriage between non-whites and whites, and the endorsement of “white-only” jobs. It kept the European minority as the leaders who controlled and manipulated the black majority. Under this system all South Africans were racially cataloged into one of three categories: white, black or colored. The colored grouping included major subgroups of Indians and Asians. Classification into these categories was based on appearance, social acceptance, and genealogy. A black person would be of or accepted as a member of an African tribe or race, and a colored person is one that is not black or white.
This practice of segregation is described in Cry, the Beloved Country, “They come out of the court, the white on one side, the black on the other, according to the custom. But the young white man breaks the custom… It is not often that such a custom is broken… It is only when there has been a deep experience that such a custom is broken… such a thing is not lightly done.” (Paton 203) This illustrates just how deep rooted this system was, controlling all aspects of life. It also tells you just how serious these laws were taken.
The Department of Home Affairs was responsible for the classification of the public. Non-cooperation with the race laws was dealt with harshly. All blacks were required to carry “pass books” containing fingerprints, photo and information on access to non-black areas (Computers). This essentially limited where they could go, what jobs they could do, where they could live, and who they could marry. All things were limited and had to be approved by the white leaders. Into the 1940s, under all the colonial powers, forced labor of one kind or another remained. Sound familiar? Well it should. This type of supremacy is just like the antique institution of slavery.
In the slavery system people were treated the very same way. They were limited as to who they could marry, meaning blacks could not marry whites, or anyone at all if their master did not approve. Blacks were also limited to the type of work they could get since all of their labor was forced and limited to whatever their owner desired them to do. Slaves were not allowed to travel without permission and limited as to where they could live since they had to go where ever they were commanded to go.
In Cry, the Beloved Country one character says, “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. . . . I have one great fear in my heart, that one day when they are turned to loving; they will find we are turned to hating.” (Paton 39) This is Alan Paton using his literature to speak out against the apartheid. He is saying that the two groups could work together, but he fears that by the time the whites want to the blacks will have already turned to violence. The motivation to be reconciled exists among both blacks and whites; it is suggested, but never at the same time. Paton hints at the sad irony of a nation in which justice and racial equality are hindered by poor timing rather than bad intentions.
The apartheid system that was imposed in South Africa was just like slavery. It controlled people and forced them to live a certain way just as slavery did years before it. Alan Paton used his work to oppose this practice. Cry, the Beloved Country attracted international consideration to the disgust of apartheid, an institution which endorsed segregation and discrimination. Paton opposed this system just as the abolitionists of old.
Computers and the Apartheid Regime in South Africa. Spring 1995. Stanford University
Computer Sciences Department. 22 March 2007
Paton, Alan. Cry, the Beloved Country. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1948.