Cry, The Beloved Country was written by Alan Paton in the late 1940s. Paton, the descendent of English settlers, was white. I hate that I have to point that out, but Cry, The Beloved Country is about South Africa. It’s very difficult to have a conversation about South Africa without discussing race. Sadly. And I’ll keep the summary to a minimum simply because the book is incredible, emotional and intense. I don’t want to ruin it for anyone. But let’s just say it’s profoundly tragic, in a devastatingly round-a-bout way. It’s the story of an old preacher-man, travelling from the countryside to Johannesburg for the first time. He’s looking for his brother, his sister and his son. He hasn’t heard from them in years. Running concurrently is the story of South Africa. The story of the people, and their suffering. And it’s written so beautifully. Alan Paton loves South Africa, and rightly so. It’s a stunning country. One of the things I heard often whilst in Cape Town was that there’s a reason the English, the Dutch and the African’s have been fighting over this land for generations. And trust me, there is.
For me though, more than anything Cry, The Beloved Country is a story of progress. From his descriptions of industrialising Johannesburg, to the squalor of the townships, to the value of a black life, the parallels were stark. And then there’s the hammer that drops. The book was written and was set before the official beginning of Apartheid. It’s the elephant in the room, looming over your shoulder. Tapping you from time to time, but sometimes just hitting you over the head. Remember, you think it’s bad? Apartheid hasn’t even really started yet. It’s only going to get a lot worse. That might be the most tragic thing about the book. It details the struggle and the injustice, but before the struggle and injustice became even more pronounced.
And then there’s this: the South Africa Paton describes is the same South Africa I visited in 2010. Right down to the convoys of people walking along the highway to get home. Because either transit was too expensive or because it was too ineffective. I remember it like yesterday. Hundreds of thousands of people, all non-white, walking home to the townships from the City.
Walking for hours, back to their corrugated-tin shack. Walking for hours from their low-paying job. Yet, that was the same South Africa for Paton in the 1940s. Progress?
Johannesburg is a mining town. From the moment they struck gold in the late 19th century, Johannesburg was a boomtown. Just think of our North American gold rush in the late 19th century. Same scramble, same madness, same greed, same desolation. Difference was, the Afrikaners and English controlled the mines, and used labour from the neighbouring townships. African labour. That was paid a pittance.
And here’s the thing. European incursion into the rest of the world during the colonial era inexorably changed the social and economic dynamics of the societies in place. The introduction of a market economy, one that required capital to pay for goods and services. So it’s not like the Africans had much of a choice. They could have theoretically stayed in the country, tried to work the land. But really, that wasn’t an option. Just as in Europe during the industrial revolution, the same processes were at work. Thousands of young men leaving the country side for the city to work. Because there’s no work anywhere else, and mechanisation decimated the agricultural labour force.
And you can’t eat without money. You can’t buy clothes without money. Nor can you afford school, or drinking water. Or in many cases, cigarettes and alcohol. The few pleasures left to the disaffected.
And just as in Europe, the cities became home to millions. But the cities didn’t have the requisite infrastructure. In Europe, it took generations to get up to speed. State-funded education, state-funded sanitation, state-funded security, state-funded housing. But this is South Africa, or, to quote Leo in Blood Diamond: thees ees Afreeka. TIA indeed. One of the central moral dilemmas in Cry was whether or not the White South Africans should be paying to educate and police the Blacks. Pre-apartheid. Again, pre-apartheid.
Here’s a nice little passage from Cry, about the gold rush, and the people affected by it:
“We live in the compounds, we must leave our wives and families behind. And when the new gold is found, it is not we who will get more for our labour. It is the white man’s shares that will rise, you will read it in all the papers. They go mad when new gold is found. They bring more of us to live in the compounds, to dig under the ground for three shillings a day. They do not think, here is a chance to pay more for our labour. They think only, here is a chance to build a bigger house and buy a bigger car. It is important to find gold, they say, for all of South Africa is built on the mines” (Paton 68)
There are some pretty clear parallels with today, if I say so myself. In our current economic situation, the lords of business keep rewarding themselves. Keep buying themselves bigger houses, bigger cars, fuck, bigger fucking islands. While millions, nay, billions around the world toil. From micro to macro, the trappings of wealth and greed remain unabated. Plus ca change…
Back to progress though. Cry, The Beloved Country describes a South Africa eerily similar to the one I visited. So, what’s the verdict? The general consensus around the world is that since 1994 it’s been better. Mandela, they proclaim. And Mandela is a hero. Honourable and just. But here’s the thing, and it’s taken right out of Paton’s sermon:
“Because the white man has power, we too want power, he said. But when a black man gets power, when he gets money, he is a great man if he is not corrupted. I have seen it often. He seeks power and money to put right what is wrong, and when he gets them, why, he enjoys the power and the money. Now he can gratify his lusts, now he can arrange ways to get white man’s liquor, he can speak to thousands and hear them clap their hands. Some of us think when we have power, we shall revenge ourselves on the white man who has had power, and because our desire is corrupt, we are corrupted, and the power has no heart in it. But most white men do not know this truth about power, and they are afraid lest we get it.” (Paton 70)
And that’s the sad truth. The disenfranchised spent generations in squalor, yearning for a bit of power, a bit of freedom, and the moment they grasped it, they refused to let go. This isn’t just a South African phenomenon either, look across the continent of Africa.
Look at all the despots and dictators still ruling their roost, ten, twenty, fuck, forty years later. Museveni… Mugabe…
The thing is this goes back to ethnicity and identity. South Africa has been highly racialized for generations. Today, there’s still a degree of antipathy towards whites from the black intelligentsia, but much more of the ire is directed at Namibians, Zimbabweans and Swazi’s. You know, because South Africa is wealthier, and still has mines, and a lot of the unskilled, low-pay labour now comes from neighbouring countries. In the 1940s the exploited labour force came from the country side, but now, it’s coming from afar. And native South Africans will trot out the usual lines about immigrants taking jobs. Immigrants taking jobs nobody else wants. Immigrants taking jobs where they are actively exploited, generally working for less than a dollar a day. And if we think we’re immune to this, we’re wrong. Seasonal labourers from the Caribbean dot Canadian farms every summer. Mexican labourers in America…
At the end of the day, our system seems to require low-skill, low-pay labour. How else will the lords of business make their outlandish profits? And please, don’t mistake this for something overly Marxian. There are millions of people around the world getting paid less than a dollar a day, while there are thousands of people who make more than a million a day. The only difference today is the displacement. Globalization has given us the opportunity to outsource the undesirable. NIMBY, they say. And fair, as long as we don’t see it, it’s not really a problem. Sure, we see images on TV of squalor and suffering in Asia or Africa, but it’s on TV.
We have movies that also show squalor and suffering, so at least to an extent we’ve been desensitized. Unfortunately.
What was the point of all this? I don’t even know. Maybe just to bring it all full circle again. Plus ca change, plus c’est la meme chose. Those with power over others will always have a choice to make. Always. I’m going to finish with one final passage from Cry.
“Yes, that is right about power, he said. But there is only one thing that has power completely, and that is love. Because when a man loves, he seeks no power, and therefore he has power. I see only one hope for our country, and that is when white men and black men, desiring neither power nor money, but desiring only the good of their country, come together to work for it.” (Paton 71)
Yes, yes, it was written in the 1940s, so replace man and men with people, and you get the message. Once we work together for the good of humanity and whilst desiring neither money nor power, then there’s hope. Black, white, brown, turquoise, mauve, and orange, colour be damned. We don’t need more money. We don’t need more power. It’s the want that corrupts. The want that can blind us. It comes down to something simple. Reconciling wants and needs. In my view, needs are linked to survival and “relative enjoyment”. Wants are bonuses. But it’s a conversation we’ve all had at some point, and will keep having with ourselves. Do I want or do I need?
Wikipedia, as always
Alan Paton, “Cry, The Beloved Country” New York: Scribner’s Sons, 1948.
My brain, as always