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The Dark Side of South African Culture

By akslayers May 07, 2013 1192 Words
The Dark Side of South African Culture
South Africa is a very racially diverse country and as a result, went through a long period of racial struggle. Cry, the Beloved Country, by Alan Paton is a novel taking place in the 1940’s in South Africa that shows the struggles of a black priest named Stephen Kumalo. He travels from a region called Natal to the metropolis of Johannesburg in search of his sister and son, Absalom. Kumalo finds out that Absalom murdered the son of a white man named James Jarvis who also lives in Natal. His worst fears come true when Absalom is hanged later in the story; however Jarvis ends up helping Kumalo to rebuild his village, Ndotsheni. Throughout the novel, Alan Paton touched on the racial injustice of South Africa during this time period. However, his novel makes it seem like South Africa was not nearly as difficult of a place for black people to live as it was. He failed to show the full impact it had on South Africa’s culture.

In the 1940’s black people relied heavily on the public bus fare for transportation, making it an important part of South African culture. The white government forced black people to pay more money for bus rides and other necessities. The Public Utilitity Transport Cooperation (PUTCO) increased the weekly bus price by two pennies in the city Johannesburg. Eighty percent of Johannesburg Africans were living below the poverty line (South). Black people were already very poor at this time so a raise of cost was unfair and difficult to deal with for black people. In result to the high cost, black people successfully boycotted the buses (South). This must have been extremely hard for seniors and cripples. In the novel it says, ‘After a long time a car stopped and a white man spoke to them. ‘Where are you two going?’ ‘To Alexandra, sir’, said Msimangu, taking off his hat. ‘I thought you might be. Climb in…It is a long journey. And I know that you have no buses (Paton 75). Although they could not ride the bus due to the boycott, Kumalo and Msimangu were lucky enough for a white man to give them a ride in his car. By including this, Alan Paton made the price raise and boycott seem less of an issue. In result the novel is inaccurate because not all the black people could receive free rides from whites in their cars. Many people would have to suffer long walks in order to protest injustice. To be more accurate Alan Paton should have made Kumalo and Msimangu walk the whole distance to portray the struggle that blacks went through during this time period and how it affected their culture by the means of traveling.

The white South African government dramatically altered the social aspect of its culture when it made Apartheid laws that segregated white and black people. Alan Paton did not mention them at all. In 1949 the Prohibition of Mixed Marriages was made (Prohibition). The Apartheid laws were so extreme in South Africa that the white government would not allow whites and blacks to be married. With this law white and black cultures in South Africa were not allowed to mix, preventing cultural diffusion. Most people think the U.S. was a terribly racist place in the early 1900’s but there was never a law like this. Although Cry, the Beloved Country took place three years before this law was made, there must have been a lot of tension regarding mixed marriage at the time of the novel for a law to be passed against it so soon. Alan Paton did not even brush on the topic in his novel. To show how corrupt and racially insensitive the government was he should have included discussion of mixed marriage. The judge that convicted Absalom Kumalo says before the conviction, “It is true that the victim was a white man, and there is a school of thought which would regard such an offence as less serious when the victim is black. But no Court of Justice could countenance such a view” (Paton 235). The white judge declares that although one might think of a black murder less of a crime than a white murder, he will do his job and judge fairly without prejudice. This quote makes the reader feel like South African government and court of law were justified. That does not make sense considering that laws were being passed that segregated blacks from whites. Alan Paton should not have included this speech because it misleads the reader into thinking that being black in South Africa was not very hard. To show the injustice that took place, Absalom should have been an innocent man falsely accused due to a racist white Court of Law rather than correctly accused by a fair white judge. That would have shown how racist the government was, thus giving the reader insight to its effect on South African culture.

The Culture of South Africa was greatly impacted by the Dutch who colonized the region and took over the government. Through the government they forced the Native black people into poverty. Alan Paton does not make it clear how impoverished black people were and how their culture was affected by it. Eighty percent of Johannesburg Africans lived under the poverty line (South). Due to the government, the culture of South Africa was such that white people had privileges such as education that black people could not have. This led to the poverty many black people experienced (Cape). The reality was that white people were richer than black people, therefore forcing black people to live in bad conditions because of it. In the novel Kumalo asks about his brother.

‘I have a brother also, here in Johannesburg…John Kumalo, a carpenter.’ Msimangu smiled. ‘I know him, he said. He is too busy to write. He is one of our great politicians.’ ‘A politician? My brother?’ ‘Yes, he is a great man in politics (Paton 55). Kumalo is told by Msimangu that his brother John is a successful politician in Johannesburg. Since John is black this makes it seem as if becoming successful and possibly wealthy as a black man is not out of the ordinary. However, more black people were impoverished than not. Alan Paton makes poverty seem less common by making Kumalo’s brother wealthy. If John were to lose his wealth by going to Johannesburg due to racially unjust laws, that would have been more accurate in depicting black struggle in South Africa.

In conclusion, Cry, the Beloved Country was not successful in depicting the racial injustice in South African culture around the 1940’s. Stephen Kumalo’s hardships throughout the book were deep and meaningful, but Alan Paton did not give the reader a clear understanding of what it was like to live in South Africa as a black during this time period. He mislead the audience into thinking the government was mostly fair to white and black people by not tapping into racial injustice enough and failed to show how it negatively impacted South African culture.

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