How do the Kumalo family members symbolize the growing tension in South Africa?

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davmor1973 eNotes educator| Certified Educator

The Kumalo family, like South Africa on the eve of apartheid, is deeply fractured. Much of the story revolves around Stephen Kumalo's repeated attempts to keep his family together at a time of great upheaval. The tensions within the family mirror those taking place in society as a whole.

Stephen represents a simpler time, a period of greater stability and certainty. His Zulu tribal heritage provides a network of care and mutual support. Sadly, that heritage is under threat of extinction. More and more young people from the village want to leave and seek new opportunities in Johannesburg. In breaking free from their ancestral homelands, they become atomized and rootless as they attempt to make new lives for themselves in the big city.

Stephen's son Absalom is one of them. His fate symbolizes the damage that city life poses to the traditional Zulu culture. Absalom falls in with the wrong crowd and participates in a botched robbery which ends in death. It does not just result in the death of Arthur Jarvis, it also results in his own death by execution. Every such death is a tragedy. This is the case not just for the individuals concerned, but also for the land that dies a little more each time a member of the tribe leaves it untended and open to exploitation.

The rampant corruption of the big city is also embodied in the figure of John, Stephen's brother. One does not just risk political corruption, one also risks the corruption of the soul, of one's very identity. John has become a politician, a powerful spokesman for the rights of oppressed black South Africans. Yet, in the process of developing a racial consciousness, John has lost sense of his tribal roots and the values they represent. His concern for justice is largely abstract; he has no sense of personal responsibility. He has left his wife to live with another woman, and he is prepared to pull strings to absolve his son Matthew from involvement in Absalom's botched robbery, even if it makes things worse for his nephew.

What is especially tragic here is that there is no obvious solution to the growing tensions within both the Kumalo family and in South Africa as a whole. It is not a simple matter of giving up city life and returning to the land. Gertrude Kumalo, Stephen's younger sister, for example, cannot do so. She is presented as a woman not just corrupted by the city, but also as morally eviscerated. By living such a dissolute lifestyle, she has broken the ancient moral code of the village. Zulu society is traditional, and women are expected to perform the roles of homemaker, mother, and wife. Having tasted the forbidden fruit of Johannesburg, it is impossible for Gertrude to return home, even if she was be accepted by the tribe.

There is undoubtedly a religious element to all this. Perhaps there is no earthly salvation for any of the Kumalo family or the rapidly changing South Africa they inhabit. In their own individual ways, John, Absalom, and Gertrude have tried to achieve salvation of sorts. However, all that their efforts have shown is the futility of doing so and the dangers of idolatry, particularly in relation to wealth, power, and status.

It is the meek, simple faith of Stephen Kumalo that tentatively suggests some resolution. This faith is one of quiet strength in the face of suffering and adversity. Stephen's prayer on the mountainside as his son is executed is also a prayer for South Africa. The country is on the verge of massive change that will intensify the already high levels of injustice, bloodshed, and racial intolerance. Stephen's prayer, however naive or forlorn it may be, allows us a brief glimpse of a still point in a rapidly turning world.

Read the study guide:
Cry, the Beloved Country

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