Despair and Hope in Alan Paton: Cry, the Beloved Country

Far from "the lovely road that runs from Ixopo into the hills" (33), in Alan Paton's Cry, The Beloved Country, lies Johannesburg -- a place where all roads lead, but where men "are lost, and no one hears of them at all." (39) A well-balanced theme of despair and hope are rife throughout the novel and grants the reader a realistic view of the world in which the characters exist. The proper balance of both despair and hope is paramount for the reader.

For example, at times it seemingly offers too much despair, even utter despair, but then follows with a glimmer of hope to which one can cling, thus relieving her of desperation and utter hopelessness. If the reader is granted too much optimism (hope), however, then she will fail to grasp the serious nature of the circumstances in which the characters exist. Without despair and hope, the novel is robbed of any semblance of reality and emotion -- crucial elements of the problem of pain which touches all people.

One of the main characters, Stephen Kumalo, an Anglican priest of Ixopo, is a pious and just man whose theological worldview is centered in God. If anyone can be hopeful in the face of despair, so one might confess, it would be a man of the cloth. Certainly, in Kumalo one can find a man who will shun despair and offer the brightest hope for a lost and desperate soul. Such is not always the case, however. In Kumalo, the reader finds not necessarily a fearless giant of the faith who never stumbles over the reality and implications of the problem of evil, but a sincere man who, in spite of his fears and the bleak circumstances of a broken world in which he is immersed, struggles to find hope in the God to whom he prays and trusts. For Kumalo, God is South Africa's only hope.

There is a dichotomy and tension between the despair and hope which Kumalo experiences. When he sets out for Johannesburg in search of his son, fear grips him: "Deep down the fear for his son. Deep down the fear of a man who lives in a world not made for him, whose own world is slipping away, dying, being destroyed, beyond any recall." (44) But typical for Kumalo, he reaches for his Bible, his "sacred book, and began to read. It was this world alone that was certain." (44) The only "certain" world in Kumalo's hermeneutic is what is referred to by the author of Hebrews as "a better country, that is, a heavenly one." (Heb. 11:16) The uncertain and unstable world system which he knows lay just beyond the beautiful hills of Ixopo is a tension of despair and hope within itself, for, as noted in chapter one, the "grass-covered and rolling" hills of Ixopo are "holy" and hopeful (33), while elsewhere, and especially in Johannesburg, the despairing hills "stand desolate." (34)

Indeed, Johannesburg appears to be the epitome of despair. Susan VanZanten Gallagher writes of one woman who in 1996 lived in the valley between Pietermaritzburg and Ixopo: "I wanted to kill all my children and myself ... Sometimes, I still do." ("Cry with a Beloved Country," 23) Wracked by civil unrest, insurrections and apartheid -- a "rationally ordered and managed system designed to deform the hardiest of moral spirits" (Derek Cohen, "Apartheid at the Edges," 15) -- Johannesburg is the city of "the broken tribe and the broken house, of young men and young girls that went away and forgot their customs, and lived loose and idle lives." (52) This center of despair where, as one citizen remarks, the "peace of God escapes us" (54), is "a bitter journey" (55) that Kumalo is determined to take, hopeful that he can rescue his son from certain peril. But he recognizes that his only hope is in God, as he requests prayer for himself (55).

Kumalo's companion, Msimangu, sought a solution to the problem of despair in South Africa. He notes that man's seeking for power, money and position has the tendency to corrupt one's soul. This is said of all men, whether white or black; it makes no difference. Since white men have power, the black men of South Africa also want power. Msimangu responds, "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." (71)

The reader needs hope at this point in the novel because even the Church's voice is having no influence of effecting change in society. Though the Church speaks out against injustice, and has been doing so for fifty years, "things get worse, not better." (67) Kumalo's own brother, John, "has no use for the Church any more." (55) From John's worldview, "what God has not done for South Africa, man must do." (55) But if South Africa's only hope is in man, corrupted by money and power, then there is no hope. Either hope is found in God and what He can accomplish in, through and among us, or hope cannot be found. This is still true for South Africa today. Again, Gallagher writes:
With one exception, every victim I heard testify during two days in Pietermaritzburg understood his or her life as part of the Christian story and described suffering and endurance with Christian rhetoric. Biblical citations, references to impassioned prayer, narrow escapes attributed to God's miraculous intervention were commonly heard. "When I think of the things that have happened," one matronly woman said with great dignity, "I just open the Bible and pray Psalm 71." (23)
People need hope in the midst of such despair in order to carry on. Without hope -- in Kumalo's case, hope that he will find his son, and hope that South Africa has a future -- despair will consume and control everyone. Kumalo, due to his reliance upon God's guiding hand, admits to his friend that, though "things are not happy that brought me to Johannesburg ... I have found much pleasure in your company." (72) Though his present circumstance appears bleak, Kumalo finds some comfort in his companion, afforded to him by God.

Shanty Town grew up overnight (88). Towns such as these exist on the outskirts of cities, whether legally or illegally. The dwellings consist of whatever makes for covering: scraps of metal, wood or plastic. People who live in such conditions do so without proper sanitation, so illness comes frequently, especially to little children. While frantically waiting for a doctor to come to the aid of a child with a severe fever, and praying to God for mercy (89), people are singing: "God save Africa. God save this piece of Africa that is my own, delivered in travail from my body, fed from my breast, loved by my heart, because that is the nature of women." (90) The child dies shortly thereafter.

Where was God? Had He forsaken Africa? Kumalo understands that God is not aloof from our suffering. He says, "Who indeed knows the secret of the earthly pilgrimage? Who indeed knows why there can be comfort in a world of desolation? Now God be thanked that there is a beloved one who can lift up the heart in suffering, that one can play with a child in the face of such misery." (94) God has not promised to keep humanity from suffering (John 16:33), but in his suffering and despair, He remains the God of all comfort (2 Cor. 1:3). This biblical worldview allows Kumalo to endure one sad affair after another in Shanty Town. He does not pretend that suffering and evil men do not exist. He cannot, for he witnesses such at every turn.

But though he cannot know "for what we live, and struggle, and die" (94), he finds consolation and hope that God is present in the suffering, as he prays: "Oh God, my God, do not Thou forsake me. Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I shall fear no evil, if Thou art with me." (94) Greg Harris, no stranger to suffering, comments: "You will find ... suffering changes the scope of your prayer life. It causes you to reexamine the content of what you ask, especially when contrasted with the pleasant junctures of your Christian walk." (The Cup and the Glory, 19) In Shanty Town, Kumalo notices children laughing in spite of the "tragic habitations." (94) He hopes that some good may come of this. (95) His hope is fixed in the immutable God -- the Creator and sustainer of all things, even Shanty Town.

Kumalo does not always retain such a vibrant hope, however. When Arthur Jarvis is fatally wounded by Kumalo's son and two friends, a sense of utter despair engulfs him, as well as all who reads or hears news of this tragedy. The speaker of the novel laments, "Cry for the broken tribe, for the law and the custom that is gone. Aye, and cry aloud for the man who is dead, for the woman and children bereaved. Cry, the beloved country, these things are not yet at an end. The sun pours down on the earth, on the lovely land that man cannot enjoy. He knows only the fear of his heart." (104-05) Kumalo himself admits, "Here in my heart there is nothing but fear. Fear, fear, fear." (105) His companion, Msimangu, tries to give him some hope that perhaps the next day he will find something (the one thing he really wants to find: his son), but Kumalo answers, "No doubt, no doubt. Anything but what I most desire." (105)

At this low point, Kumalo feels forsaken of God. There is no prayer, not a word left in him to utter to the God of hope (cf. Rom. 15:13). The speaker comments, "There are times, no doubt, when God seems no more to be about the world." (105) Even God's only Son experienced an apparent silence from God when He struggled through the worse night of His life (cf. Matt. 26:36-44). Kumalo, with eyes now fixed on the present circumstance instead of the immutable God, admits that all he finds is "more fear and more pain. There is nothing in the world but fear and pain." (121) But, though God may not speak, He is present. Though a man may not hear God, He is at work in all things. For instance, when Kumalo’s companion, Msimangu, preaches to the blind believers in Ezenzeleni, Kumalo is reminded that God has not forsaken him (122-23). This is demonstrated beautifully on the next day when Kumalo finds his son.

The circumstance in which he finds his son, however, is serious. His son is arrested for the murder of Arthur Jarvis, though the boy admits that he shot him out of fear rather than malice. Father Vincent, a great help and spiritual mentor to Kumalo in his distress, believes that the boy can be reformed: "And while there is life, there is hope for amendment of life." (138) Kumalo, overwhelmed by the circumstance, feels again abandoned by God. Therefore, Father Vincent comforts Kumalo by saying, "That may seem to happen ... But it does not happen, never, never, does it happen." (139) Nevertheless, Kumalo admits, "but I have no hope any more." (141) Kumalo's optimism and hope in God are greatly diminished by the difficult circumstances he is forced to confront. His companion Msimangu asks him to leave things in his hands because Kumalo is "too distraught to see God’s will." (142) Again, Harris comments:
When difficulty progresses to suffering and suffering to sorrow, we question why God would lead us away from the light and into darkness. Then when the darkness increases, as conditions worsen and drag on, we have many questions we would like God to answer. However, it is during these deepest valleys that God so often appears to be the farthest removed from us. (37) 
Kumalo's faith appears vibrant and resilient when affairs are in his favor, or at least when circumstances are not too grievous. But when all hope seems lost, Kumalo assumes that all hope is indeed lost.

Hope is not predicated upon favorable incidents, however. Given Kumalo's biblical worldview, this he should know at all times in all places. In Hebrews 11, for example, the covenant people of God are commended "for their faith, [but] did not receive what was promised, since God had provided something better so that they would not, apart from us, be made perfect." (Heb. 11:39-40) In spite of harsh persecution and suffering (Heb. 11:36-37), they persevered in faith and hope in God. Yet they did not, in this life, receive what they were promised because the promise was reserved for them in heaven.

Back in his hometown, Ndotsheni, he prays regularly again for his church, for crops and for Africa. (257, 259, 263) But, like many of God's people in times past, Kumalo does not receive that for which he is hoping. Kumalo prays to God that mercy will prevail for his son, and that He will send rain to Ndotsheni to water their crops. God answers both prayers, but not as Kumalo wished. His son receives justice instead of mercy (273-74), and rain rushes across the fields (278). The loss of his son, however, does not cause him to despair. His faith remains in the will of God, to whom he prays and trusts. (297)

The twin themes of despair and hope offer the reader a realistic glimpse into a world that is at odds not only with itself but with its Creator. But creation, including the world system, is subordinate to the sovereign will of God. From Kumalo's biblical worldview, there is a coming world system -- a coming kingdom -- in which nothing "accursed will be found there anymore" (Rev. 22:3): "Death will be no more; mourning and crying and pain will be no more, for the first things have passed away." (Rev. 21:4) This truth is imaged in the last paragraph of the novel. In short, the speaker declares: "The great valley of the Umzimkulu is still in darkness, but the light will come there. Ndotsheni is still in darkness, but the light will come there also." (312) Indeed, the Light will come to every place: "And there will be no more night; they need no light of lamp or sun, for the Lord God will be their light, and they will reign forever and ever." (Rev. 22:5)



Cohen, Derek. "APARTHEID AT THE EDGES." 542-560. University of the South, 2010. Academic Search Premier. EBSCO. Web. 11 Nov. 2010.

Gallagher, Susan VanZanten. "Cry with a beloved country." Christianity Today 42.2 (1998): 23. Academic Search Premier. EBSCO. Web. 12 Nov. 2010.

Harris, Greg. The Cup and the Glory: Lessons on Suffering and the Glory of God. The Woodlands: Kress Christian Publications, 2006.


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My name is William Birch and I grew up in the Southern Baptist tradition but converted, if you will, to Anglicanism in 2012. I am gay, affirming, and take very seriously matters of social justice, religion and politics in the church and the state.