‘Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been’, South Africa?

“All roads lead to Johannesburg” explains Alan Paton in the opening lines of the ninth chapter of his opus Cry, The Beloved Country. By the mid 1940s much of the physical segregation of Apartheid had already been instituted by precursor laws,[1] dividing the country into a regulated and government monitored system of impoverished African reservations (later to be known as ‘Bantustans’) and wealthy white urban centers. The ancestral Khoikhoi pastures, long seized by Afrikaner trekboers and converted to sprawling ranches (kraals), were by this time officially designated white-only areas, and as with all other racially exclusive regions, blacks were required to produce passes and work permits upon passing through them or face imprisonment.[2] The reservations, absent of the affluent Transvaal precious gold/diamond industries and the coastal commerce of the Cape area, bereft of regional goods to exploit, the means to refine what little they could claim, and officially isolated from the greater white South Africa, were plunged into a cycle of inescapable poverty and reactionary violence.[3]

For the desperate African then, Johannesburg offered a reprieve from the isolation of the reservation and a solution to economic woes. Johannesburg, suggests Paton, is the ultimate contingency against misfortune, as it offers gross employment opportunities; if a crop fails on the reservation, the farmer and his family face starvation and deprivation[4], but the great city reliably offers another way out: swinging the pick axe in the gold mines.[5] Yet life in Johannesburg is not clearly the wiser choice for migrant workers, as can be observed in the cases of John, Gertrude and Absalom Kumalo, the protagonist Stephen’s family members, who for one reason or another, find themselves lost in the city and out of contact with the latter, who still resides as a reverend in the family’s tribal home of Ixopo.

Gertrude, in the protagonist’s quest for reuniting his divided family, is the first to be located. Stephen’s sister is found to be in the slum of Sophiatown, working in filthy, dangerous conditions as a prostitute and ‘liquor seller,’ neglectful of her son, who runs through the streets unaccounted for, and who has become a hollow shell of a human being, negligent not only of her duties as a parent but in many ways of caring for her own wellbeing, adopting a fatalistic and apathetic worldview. [6] While Gertrude had originally ventured to the city to locate her husband, who had previously went to work in the mines during hard times, she failed in finding him, and so took to the bottle, adopting a spirit of abandon. Like the other missing members of Stephen’s family, Gertrude did not attempt to contact Ixopo, shameful of her immoral lifestyle.[7]

Stephen’s brother John would fare much differently than his sister, achieving success and stability by the standards of the west, becoming a well-to-do business owner and political organizer. John as depicted by Paton as being an eager proponent of the new western culture, deriding the tribal society as not only terminal, but by its own virtue vested in failure, awarding to ignorant men the power to govern through fear rather than through ability[8]. The tribal chief, contests John, is unable to understand the materialistic world to which he now profits from; it is a way of life fundamentally at odds with tribal notions of kinship, blood and tradition. It is for this reason that Stephen’s brother does not write, for those he writes to cannot understand his situation. John benefits from the white man’s system by working within the limitations imposed upon him[9], flourishing economically by discarding his tribal past and its complicated system of kinship loyalties and taboos, riding the coattails of the powerful and rich. The author does not fully explore the ramifications of John’s decisions on his own wellbeing, but John’s jovial disposition at least superficially hints toward him being content.

Stephen’s son Absalom originally left Ixopo to find his aunt Gertrude in Johannesburg, which has been systematically divided into White and African districts, with gangs of “hooligans” enforcing the status quo by assaulting those who wander into places not belonging to their race[10]. We are told that while these attacks are technically illegal, the police have opted to ignore the plight of the victimized, and so enabled a cycle of violence. Absalom has become wrapped up in this life of crime, responsible for the shooting of Arthur Jarvis, a racial justice activist. Absalom becomes a casualty of the racial strife, eventually executed for his crime, like many of his tribal brethren who wandered from their villages to find new opportunities in the city, and became involved in a desperate world of few opportunities and so resorted to violence.

Yet we cannot come to the conclusion that life on the tribal reservation is a form of haven, insulated from the ills of the material white world, the destructive machine of inner city life. From the very outset of the novel, decay and lingering dysfunction within tribal life is eluded to, starting with the description of the young girl who delivers the correspondence initiating the quest. Barefoot and emaciated, the little girl eagerly accepts a meal when offered,[11] apparently subject to deprivation. The Africans of Natal, never properly transitioning to a farming culture, have exhausted the land through mismanagement, creating a devastating drought, while the educated and young have left for the cities to search for better prospects[12], leaving only the elderly, infirm and very young behind.[13] These two factors are contingent, as the land cannot be improved without the aid of the educated and the educated leave because the land is in a seemingly hopeless state.  Because the reservations lack a core of educated civic planners, and goods to trade with adjacent territories, they are deprived of modern irrigation, plumbing systems and other advances because of the endemic poverty, when the river runs dry, forced to march miles to collect water[14]. A person staying behind in such a region would also find feeble political representation, as the chiefs, once mighty kings, had through the centuries first been reduced to groveling clients[15], and by the 1940s been reduced even further to token figureheads wielding little nominal local or provincial autonomy, now reliant on the capricious whims of government magistrates who could veto even the most humble requests without explanation[16].  While in the past the fates of the Africans had been at least partially the responsibility of Africans themselves, by the dawn of the 20th century greater powers had now come to pass, the once ostracized Afrikaner class with its radically racist sentiments gaining significant political influence, systematically marginalized and disenfranchised the majority population, “for there in Johannesburg things were happening that had nothing to do with any chief.[17]” As the chiefs have little political power, and can make no effective executive decisions concerning the greater area, the tribal community’s starving children, many of whom are dying off due to a lack of milk, are forced to rely on the unreliable generosity of outside whites to survive[18].

In the wake of this destruction Christianity has replaced what once was a traditional indigenous culture, the mythologies of old seemingly no longer applicable to the modern capitalistic world, so much so that the protagonist boldly proclaims in the opening pages of the novel that a Christian education offers “that knowledge without which no black man can live.[19]” Indeed, it appears that in the climate of the time, one of the better fates for the African natives would be a life in service to the church, which through white funding has afforded to the black priests a humble but reliable stipend, while the other Africans have no such promise of financial stability, no such “safety net.” While the church does offer this opportunity to those able to afford the price of religious schooling,[20] and regardless of Stephen’s endorsement of its value as the foundation of the moral life of the black man, it also has supplanted the traditional tribal mythology, religion and social conventions, creating a bastard European culture to replace the ancestral lifestyle. For sure, the Natal natives of the 1940s would appear to be as different as the whites to the Natal natives of the seventeenth or even eighteenth century, with their proclamations to a singular god, deeply ingrained notions of cosmic sin and goodness, and the importance of suffering and sacrifice, in stark contrast to the ancestor worshipping warrior cult of the pre-twentieth century Zulu. Systematic proselytism contributed in the previous century to the neutering of the warrior lifestyle and the focused indoctrination of the people into the delusional belief in a savior god; rather than through their own labors war through the hardships and misfortunes imposed upon them by the conqueror, the Zulu essentially surrendered, bowing to the subjugation of the paternalistic church[21], focusing on how to atone for their wickedness and suffering rather than seek to end it.

The Christian supplanting of the traditional conceptions of duty and self-identity, combined with the government’s segregation legislation contributed significantly to the disappearance of the greater tribal system. The people, once subjects of thriving kingdoms, were through the centuries physically separated, marginalized and regulated by Europe’s incursions[22], pocketed, and reduced to isolates of their original glory.


[1] General Pass Regulations Bill of 1905, Asiatic Registration Act of 1906, South Africa Act of 1910, Native Land Act of 1913, Natives in Urban Areas Bill of 1918, Urban Areas Act of 1923, Colour Bar Act of 1926 etc

[2] General Pass Regulations Bill of 1905.

[3] Paton 56.

[4] Paton 83.

[5] Paton 46.

[6] Paton 60-63.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Paton 66-67

[9] Paton 70.

[10] Paton 58.

[11] Paton 35-36.

[12] Paton 161-163.

[13] Paton 255.

[14] Paton 256.

[15] Thompson 35-37.

[16] Paton 264-266.

[17] Ibid.

[18] Paton 271-272.

[19] Paton 39.

[20] Paton 38.

[21] Paton 68-69.

[22] Chris Krause. Pre-Apartheid Segregation through Cry, The Beloved Country. 2009.; Chris Krause.

Khoikhoi and Xhosa Under the Shadow of Europe. 2009;  Chris Krause. Ideological Foundations of Apartheid. 2009.