Examining the Theme of Fear in "Cry the Beloved Country"

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Discussion of Fear in Cry, the Beloved Country

Cry the Beloved Country is a moving and profound work that deals with the social ills of South African society that led up to the institution of apartheid - the national policy of segregation and discrimination on the basis of race. While there are numerous themes that run throughout the work, the theme of fear is probably one of the most compelling. The fear that plagues South African society transcends race; it is felt by both the black and white populations alike. In Cry, the Beloved Country, Paton movingly and intelligently analyzes the black and white fears and the roots of those fears which are destroying the very soul of South Africa during this pre-apartheid era.

Patan introduces the general theme of fear indirectly yet very effectively at the beginning of the book. Chapter I opens with two very beautifully written paragraphs describing of the natural beauty of the African landscape surrounding Kumalo's village of Ndotsheni.

The reader can almost feel the peace, beauty and fullness of the land. However in the third paragraph, Paton unexpectedly contrasts the picture of the rich and beautiful hills to the barren, wasted and dying valley, "But the rich green hills break down. They fall to the valley below….they grow red and bare…the streams are dry…", and, "The great red hills stand desolate and the earth has torn away like flesh" (34). This abrupt and sharp contrast of the landscape and its being 'torn away like flesh', symbolizes the violence and devastation caused by segregation. It also gives the reader a sense of foreboding that there is much to fear for the land and people of South Africa at this dark point in its history.

Throughout the novel, Paton uses the protagonist, Stephen Kumalo, to voice the fears felt by the native black South Africans. There are a number that reoccur in the novel. First is the fear for the survival of the land itself. Next is the fear for survival of the native people who live in a world that is no longer made for them. Lastly is the fear of the white laws which give blacks no justice at all. Fear for the survival South Africa's landscape weighs heavily on Kumalo's mind. The once rich and fertile South African landscape is being physically destroyed by an economic system instituted by the whites for their own gain. Just as Johannesburg grew to support the gold mines and industries, other cities like Odendaalsrust will also rise up in areas where gold is being discovered, eventually devastating the natural beauty of the land, "There was nothing there but the flat rolling veld…nothing but sheep and cattle and native herd boys…a field of maize. There was nothing there that looked like a mine except the drilling machines and patient engineers probing the mysteries of the earth…" The landscape suffers when the mining begins.

Along with the devastation of the African landscape is the destruction of the society of an entire race of people who have been pushed off of their land by white laws and industrialization. The tribal natives who represent the majority of the South African population must exist on small parcels of the very poorest land, "there was too little land…the natives could not support themselves on it, even with the most progressive methods of agriculture" (163). Unable to support their families by farming small pieces of dying land, young people leave their tribal villages and way of life to earn low wages working in the gold mines or working for whites in Johannesburg. The mine operators depend on cheap black labor to increase their profits, yet refuse to provide any housing, education or medical care for their laborers' families. Native women, children and old people are left alone in the barren villages to fend for themselves. Others who move near their husbands and fathers must rent scarce expensive rooms or live as squatters in the shanty towns that spring up near the mines, "And this is shanty town…these tragic habitations…a sheet of iron, a few planks, hessian and grass, an old door from some forgotten house…but what will they do when it rains…when it is winter?" (94). Paton points out that it is an injustice that the gold industry provides whites with power and financial security while it impoverishes and oppresses the native population. In Arthur Jarvis' own words, "It is not permissible to add to one's possessions if these things can only be done at the cost of other men." (178). In summary, Kumalo deeply fears for the land and the future of the native people who live in a world that is no longer made for them. The black tribal system has been destroyed by white greed and fear, and there is no social institution to take its place.

In addition, the judge's sentencing of Absalom in Chapter 28 demonstrates the blacks' fear of the white laws which give them no justice. This fear is well founded by the fact that apartheid was legalized in 1948. Although the judge acknowledges and admits that social conditions in South Africa are responsible for Absalom's actions, "He has dealt profoundly with the disaster that has overwhelmed our native tribal society…has argued cogently of our own complicity in this disaster. But even if it is true…out of fear and selfishness and thoughtlessness, wrought a destruction that we have done little to repair, even if it is true that we should be ashamed and do something more courageous….", he still finds Absalom guilty of murder because the judge must obey the law that the "defective society" has made. (233). In other words, the judge realizes that the inequities caused by segregation contribute to the violence and crime that exist in society, however, in this fearful environment, reason and conscience cannot win over prejudice and the whites' desire to keep their wealth and privilege at the expense of social inequality.

White Africans, Afrikaners and English also live in fear, "Have no doubt, it is fear in the land. For what can men do when so many have grown lawless?" (106). White people fear the natives' violence and lawlessness caused by the injustices and inequities brought about by the segregation they instituted. They fear the native population that greatly outnumbers theirs, and that is capable of worse violence if the situation does not improve. It is fear that motivates the whites to keep the blacks oppressed; fear of the economic, social, and political changes that black equality would bring. Whites fear losing the cheap black labor which contributes to their wealth. Regarding the issue of paying blacks fairly and providing them with education and housing, one white person comments, "…better paid labour will not only buy more, but read more, ask more and will not be content to be forever voiceless and inferior" (110). The whites' desire to keep the blacks "voiceless and inferior" for their personal gain is the cause of the fear they live with.

Lastly, it is interesting to note that by allowing the reader to 'hear' the voices of white people discussing the native problem in Chapter XII, Paton demonstrates that they are all very fearful and also very divided on the issues and solutions relating to the native blacks. It seems that few whites, with the exception of people like Arthur Jarvis, truly understand the black experience in South Africa. Most probably don't even want to try to understand, as it is too complicated, and easier to leave things as they are.

To summarize, fear is felt by all, black and white, in pre-apartheid South Africa. The beautiful passage on page 111, "Cry, the beloved country, for the unborn child that is the inheritor of our fear…Let him not love the earth too deeply…for fear will rob him of all if he gives too much…" applies equally to the black and white populations. Paton's message in the novel seems to be that unless segregation is stopped and dignity and fairness is given to all men, the fear that is breaking the country apart will continue and worsen until all hope for both black and white South Africans is lost.


Paton, Alan. Cry, The Beloved Coutry. New York: Scribner, 2003.