There are all kinds of moments of insight, large and small, in the first book of this novel. As Stephen travels around Johannesburg and meets new people, he is constantly struck by new thoughts of people and what they think and believe. One of the most important ideas of this novel is the state of white and black relations in South Africa in the mid-20th century. The white population of South Africa is approximately 20% of the people, while the black native people make up the other 80%, but the white people have most, if not all, of the political and economic control of the country, and the growing discontent of the native people is a growing concern.
Stephen is not a radical thinker or a trying to rouse the black population to action like his brother is, but he is not immune to the situation. He makes a great statement in Chapter 5 that serves as a great epiphany for the entire novel thematically. He says to his friend, Msimangu, that "it is not in my heart to hate a white man. It was the white man who brought my father out of darkness." But in the process, the white man broke the tribe. "The tragedy is not that things are broken. The tragedy is that they are not mended again." He criticizes both the people who break things and the people who sit by seeing the fact of things being broken.
He would clearly like to see a change where the society can be mended, but his epiphany is that "They [the white society] are afraid . . . it is fear that rules this land." Like any situation that would require the status quo to change, fear is present. No one likes change--especially people who have the most to lose in the change. The white people of South Africa had much to lose if they allow blacks to have more say in the way things are in this country, and so they do everything they can to control the black population. Interestingly, Paton wrote and published this novel shortly before apartheid became the law of the land, and the white population was able to maintain an iron-fisted control for another 50 years before things changed.