By Viv Smith
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Cry, The Beloved Country

This article is over 12 years, 7 months old
Director: Zoltan Korda, Release date: 18 January
Issue 343

Cry, The Beloved Country was first released in 1952. It is based on the novel by Alan Paton, released in 1948, just four months before the racist National Party, which introduced the legal system of apartheid, took power in South Africa.

Paton won numerous awards for his novel, and it was an important work in its time – it raised the plight of black people in South Africa to an international audience.

Unfortunately, rewatching it today, I found it sadly lacking. It fails to give any sense of the horrors unfolding in South Africa at the time, the deep tensions that existed or their causes.

Instead, it descends into a liberal, moral maze. The key characters are priests who are more concerned with the moral degeneration of black youth in the sprawling urban centre of Johannesburg than with inequality and systematic oppression. There is a nostalgic undertone throughout the film for a return to decent rural living.

It shows young black people leaving for the cities in droves, but with no explanation. In reality, the land policy at the time placed land into the hands of white farmers. A land tax was introduced to force young black men into the cities to find work for slave wages in the mines, tearing black families apart.

The film fails to explain why young black men would turn to violent crime and women to prostitution. Crime is seen as a consequence of city life rather than of poverty, desperation and anger.

Paton argued against apartheid and went on to become a liberal politician. But the politics of liberalism have proved woefully inadequate in providing a vision of how equality could be achieved.

Liberalism in South Africa has always concerned itself with the notion of compromise rather than recognising that the struggle against apartheid, like the struggle for Palestinian rights, was always unequal and would always involve conflict.

The very idea that the system of apartheid, backed by the full force of the capitalist ruling class, could be reasonably reformed without any fundamental changes to the way in which society is organised is irresponsible fantasy.

The film therefore serves as an indictment of liberalism. All the protagonist achieves is to bring his son’s pregnant wife and his sister, a prostitute, back into the rural home while his son is left to hang.

In contrast, a whole spate of films about apartheid and post-apartheid South Africa have been released in the last few decades which, alongside classics like Cry Freedom and Mapantsula, give a much more accurate and vivid picture of life and struggle in South Africa.

We have recently had Catch a Fire, Bopha, Country of My Skull, Goodbye Bafana and Forgiveness, to name a few. The forthcoming film The Bang Bang Club shows the harsh reality of township life in South Africa before the first democratic election in 1994. These films may have weaknesses, but they show the nature of apartheid more clearly. Tens of thousands of people lost their lives and suffered brutality in the process of bringing down apartheid, and the struggle continues today against economic inequality. Cry, The Beloved Country does not even begin to convey their story.

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