In this novel it is very clear from the start that "all roads lead to Johannesburg." Unfortunately, it is not a very easy road to travel and the final destination ends up being a misfortune to nearly every character who travels it. The novel opens with a beautiful and yet bleak description of the countryside far away from the big urban city. It is a countryside that can't support its people, so many had to go to Johannesburg for work and for opportunities. Unfortunately, Johannesburg is lure for sinful and criminal behavior for all of Stephan Kumalo's family. The novel really begins when Kumalo decides to head to Johannesburg to find his son whom he has not heard from in a long time. He also intends to finds his wayward sister who left for the big city when her husband left. Kumalo is overwhelmed by everything in the city. He is robbed almost immediately upon arrival, and he is struck by the poverty and the racial tensions. He is treated with kindness by another priest and a lovely boarding house owner, but the trip is still very difficult.
He first finds that his sister is actually a bootlegger and a prostitute. She is not taking good enough care of her young son. Kumalo arranges to bring her back to the countryside and while at first she agrees to go, she eventually leaves her son with her brother and sneaks away in the night to return to the sinful life she had been leading. The lure of life in Johannesburg is too much for her.
Kumalo is absolutely heart-broken when he finds his son. Absalom left the countryside in the hopes of work in Johannesburg, but he fell in with a cousin and another man who were nothing more than petty thieves. Unfortunately, they robbed a white social activist named Aurthur Jarvis. While the three men only intended to rob the house, they were surprised by his presence and Absalom shot him dead. Absalom is charged with murder, found guilty, and sentenced to death by hanging.
Nothing of any good happens in Johannesburg, at leave for the Kumalo family.