Pre-Apartheid Segregation through Cry, The Beloved Country

Throughout Cry, The Beloved Country by Alan Paton, a piece of historical fiction set in pre-Apartheid South Africa, segregation holds a pervasive presence.

The protagonist Stephen Kumalo first encounters segregation on his sojourn to Johannesburg, noting that the train he is riding into the Transvaal on has been divided between white and black passengers, that the “Europeans of [that] district all have their own cars” (44). Herein we observe that the flow of people has been segregated and that two races are removed from one another out of fear of mutual molestation, the latter of which seems to have served as the impetus for separation, a notion which is alluded to subtly in the opening chapters and becomes clearly apparent as the characters encounter more overt injustice as the story progresses.

Later on the naive protagonist, having finally arrived at the city, and who had spent most of his life amongst the native Africans under a chieftain, ignorant to the modern industrial world, is told of White disintegration of the tribal unit and how the people left in the wake of conquest and enslavement were left destitute. The author argues, “that is why the children break the law, and the old white people are robbed and beaten.” (56)

Paton soon explains the disposition of Johannesburg – which has been systematically divided into White and African districts, with gangs of “hooligans” (58) enforcing the status quo by assaulting those who wander into places not belonging to their race. 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.

When Kumalo seeks to leave Johannesburg to continue the search for his loved ones, namely his son, who is rumored to have taken residence in a African slum in the outskirts of the city, he is instructed not to ride the buses by an activist (73-74). The man explains that in an effort to keep the blacks off the buses, the company has raised the price from six to eight shillings, a prohibitive expense for much of the impoverished Africans. This is a classical segregation tactic – denying movement to the disenfranchised, so as to deny their economic and social freedom, echoing the poll taxes and work permit legislation of Jim Crowe and the Black Codes. All of these instances of segregation are rationalized by Kumalo’s Virgil-esque companion Father Msimangu as reactions to the fear of violent crime; segregation seems to be the only way to stop whites and blacks from killing each other, and the whites, who own the bulk of industries and control the real estate in the great city, move to protect their own kind.

Alexandra, the outskirt to which the priests had sought passage to, we learn, is one of the few places that blacks can own land (75), the most desirable places restricted to white-only ownership. This physical segregation of the South African people echoes the racist sentiments of the Afrikaner culture, who interpreted the blacks to be morally inferior to the whites, a judgment justified by a sophistical manipulation of Christian scripture, and so in the centuries prior to the novel’s setting sought to enslave and carrel them as animals, determined to not mix the races. While 1940s Johannesburg no longer has slavery, the sentiment is a grim remnant; the blacks, while no longer enslaved, are left a wealth of slavery in abolition’s wake – a wealth of destitute nothingness.

On the way back from Alexandra to Johannesburg the priests observe a police man threatening to imprison a white driver for transporting blacks, insisting that he produce a permit. When the samaritan, who stopped to transport the blacks freely who were making the long eleven mile walk from the outskirts to the inner city, responded that he was not a taxi but rather was doing it ‘for the good’ – the officer insisted that a permit be produced (81); in this pre-Apartheid society, in which segregation is not yet formalized, a white citizen requires a permit to befriend a black citizen.

Segregation is not yet complete in the novel’s setting because the whites heavily rely on the blacks for labor – the gold trade especially is still a thriving industry and the impoverished Africans swing the pick axes after white foremen clear tunnels with dynamite (46). In this fashion the whites cannot exterminate or make the natives social equals, lest they surrender their affluence, lacking the population and inclination to power the industries themselves, a bloodmoney product of the labors of exploited peoples with few options. While the whites require the post-slaves to afford them their leisure, as kraal servants maintained the Afrikaners in centuries past, the modern liberal world compels them to pretensions of tolerance and compassion, a thinly veiled racism and contempt still lingering behind the eyes, an obedient status quo upheld by segregation legislation rather than a Company Governor’s force of decree.


Cry, The Beloved Country by Alan Paton. Scribner trade paperback edition 2003.

2 replies on “Pre-Apartheid Segregation through Cry, The Beloved Country”

I was trying to get some ideas for topics on an essay I have to write on Cry, the Beloved Country and this was extremely helpful!!! Thanks(:

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