Social Breakdown and Racial Injustice
The society depicted in Cry, the Beloved Country, is an unjust one, divided on racial lines. The white people, made up of Afrikaner and English-speakers, have taken the most profitable farmland from the blacks. Blacks are therefore forced to leave their tribal villages, where there is no work, and go to the city. In cities like Johannesburg, white businesses depend heavily on black labor, for which they pay little. Social breakdown follows, because the blacks have been taken away from the traditional social structures that lent stability to their lives. This would include such things as observation of laws and customs, and respect for elders. Left rudderless, working for subsistence wages, and enduring poor living conditions, it is not surprising that crime rates among blacks are on the rise.
Msimangu explains this situation to Kumalo. He says that the white man has "broken the tribe." He believes this is why the young people break the law, and he adds, of the white man, "But it has not suited him to build something in the place of what is broken" (chapter 5).
Arthur Jarvis reaches exactly the same conclusion. He wrote in one of his manuscripts, "The old tribal system was . . . a moral system. Our natives today produce criminals and prostitutes and drunkards not because it is their nature to do so, but because their simple system of order and tradition and convention has been destroyed. It was destroyed by the impact of our own civilisation. Our civilisation has therefore an inescapable duty to set up another system of order and tradition and convention" (Chapter 20).
This is the tragedy that has afflicted the country: the exploitation of blacks by whites and the consequent loss of an entire way of life.
This social breakdown is illustrated in the fates of Gertrude Kumalo and Absalom Kumalo. Gertrude went to Johannesburg to look for her husband, who had been recruited to work in the mines, but had never come back even after his time there was over. This is a frequent experience of the relatives of those who go to Johannesburg. Their family members go to the big city but they never return, and they do not write. It is as if whole families have been lost, sucked into the anonymous life of the city.
"It is fear that rules this land," say Msimangu (chapter 5), and fear is a recurring theme in the novel. It afflicts Kumalo, for example, as soon as he goes to Johannesburg and starts searching for his son. He fears what he may discover about the way his son has been living. "Here in my heart there is nothing but fear. Fear, fear, fear," he says when he hears that a white man has been killed (chapter 11). He fears that Absalom may be the culprit.
But the fear in South Africa affects more than certain individuals. It is everywhere. It seems to pervade the entire atmosphere. The white community lives in fear because of rising black crime, which the whites do not understand and do not know how to stop. The whites are also afraid to look honestly at the injustice that turns black people to crime, since this would involve them in a re-examination of their most basic beliefs about race and society, and this they will not do. So the fear goes on. The whites fear a black miners' strike because the entire economy of the country depends on the mines. Knowing they are in a minority, outnumbered many times by the blacks, the whites are terrified that a miners' strike may spread to include all industries, and they conjure up a nightmarish picture of what might happen if that should occur.
The final lines of the novel once more emphasize fear, as the narrator looks forward to a time in the future when South Africa will be emancipated "from the fear of bondage and the bondage of fear."
Reconciliation and Hope
Although Cry, the Beloved Country is a novel that records extreme social injustice and often reveals a sense of hopelessness about the depth of the problem, it also envisages the possibility of reconciliation between the races and the rebuilding of black communities.
Even within the darker sections of the novel, there are usually some bright spots in which people exhibit human kindness to one another, regardless of race. An example is the white man who goes out of his way to give rides to the black people who are walking because of the bus boycott. Another example is the whites who work at Ezenzeleni, helping blind black people. A third example is the young white man who works at the reformatory to which Absalom is sent. He tries everything he knows to set Absalom on a more productive path in life.
The major example is of course James Jarvis. The fact that Jarvis, who had never shown any interest in helping Ndotsheni, even though his farm overlooks the impoverished valley, can undergo a change of heart is a sign that such things are possible. The hope for the future lies in the fact that the races are capable of cooperation, if individuals decide to overcome the false barriers that have been set up between them. The novel suggests that societal change will only come when there is a change within mens' hearts, but it holds out the hope that such change can and will happen.