Alan Paton’s Cry, The Beloved Country, a powerful book about race relations in South Africa in the 1950s, has had a huge impact on the country. GRAHAM SIMMONS tells you how you can get up close to the place that inspired the seminal work.

This is amazing,” says Jonathan Paton. “It’s the first time I’ve set foot in this house for over 50 years, and yet everything is familiar. Here’s the bedroom of Alan and Dorrie, my father and mother. And over there is the yard where my brother and I used to play.”

I’m privileged to be visiting the staff homestead at the former Diepkloof Reformatory, just out of Johannesburg, where the famous South African author Alan Paton spent 13 years as principal. Paton later described this experience as being pivotal in shaping his liberal views on race relations in his homeland, and being the catalyst for the maverick novel Cry, The Beloved Country, which he wrote while at Diepkloof. This work, which was made into a movie in the early ’50s and again in 1995, became one of the major instruments in eventually bringing about the downfall of the discredited apartheid regime.

Five years ago, Alan Paton’s son Jonathan and grandson Antony launched their Beloved Country tours, taking visitors to some of the key places that shaped the author’s thinking. Sadly, Jonathan’s declining health has meant that the tours are now run by another company; but the mystique of the Paton legacy is still there, with visitors being able to take a one-day Alan Paton Tour around Carisbrooke, where the author grew up. The newly restored steam train the Paton Express also offers rail trips every Sunday through Beloved Country territory, the Ixopo Hills of KwaZulu-Natal.

Johannesburg, where some of the leading characters of Cry, The Beloved Country came to grief, is today a city transformed. Already in the 1940s and ’50s, the crowded squatter camps of Alexandra, Sophiatown and Orlando had grown up on the fringes of the city, later to be supplemented by the huge, sprawling but now proud city of Soweto. Conditions in these camps were first brought to the world’s attention by the graphic descriptions in Cry, The Beloved Country.
Today, despite demographic shifts in the city and suburbs and ongoing problems of crime, the mood among most Johannesburghers is upbeat. The new East Rand Shopping Mall caters to a new multicultural society; and to see Afrikaner shop attendants waiting upon black customers, without any rancour or ill-feeling, speaks volumes about the radical attitude shifts that have occurred.

Alan Paton grew up in Pietermaritzburg and Ixopo, in what is today the province of KwaZulu-Natal. The wild country around these parts became a playground for the young author-to-be, who developed a deep love for the landscape and also an understanding of the mutually hostile attitudes of both Afrikaners and Zulus, groups that nevertheless share a similar love of country.

The Rev Stephen Kumalo, in Cry, The Beloved Country, speaks of the hills of Ixopo. He told them all about these places, about the great hills and valleys of that far country … He told them too of the sickness of the land, and how the grass had disappeared … how the tribe was broken, and the house broken, and the man broken; how when they went away, many never came back”.

When Cry, The Beloved Country was first published in 1948, Paton scarcely foresaw how much worse things would become with the election in the same year of the hardline Nationalist government, a group dedicated to breaking not just a tribe but a whole nation. Today, most South Africans still regard it as something of a miracle that a wholesale holocaust was averted at the very last moment, due to the efforts of the two visionaries De Klerk and Mandela. Were he alive in the year 2006, Paton would surely regard his homeland as even more beloved than before.

The hills around Ixopo are one of the key places visited by the newly restored steam railway (which will be particularly in the spotlight during May’s Steam Festival). Before the restoration of the rail line, a narrow-gauge trolley carried visitors down the hillsides where the young Paton and his fiancée once travelled by rail from Carisbrooke, on a train so slow that the young ladies would alight to pick flowers alongside the track. Now, the train is back again – and not quite so slow.

At Carisbrooke Farm, a rough signboard etched in gold lettering commemorates the shooting of Zoltan Korda’s classic 1950 movie of Cry, The Beloved Country, starring Sidney Poitier and Canada Lee. The two actors, denied admission to the local hotel by the then-new apartheid laws, had to shelter in a nearby farmhouse. When the movie was remade in 1995, conditions for blacks had improved a little, but somehow the authentic flavour of the original movie was irretrievably lost.
It is also well worth visiting the Paton hometown, Pietermaritzburg (now known by its Zulu name Msunduzi). The city’s University now houses the Alan Paton Centre, with copies of Cry, The Beloved Country in over 20 languages, as well as photographic and other displays. There is also an extraordinary video of Jonathan Paton interviewing his father, in which, despite close familial ties, the son exhibits the exemplary detachment of a skilled interviewer.

Meeting Jonathan Paton comes as a revelation. Here is a character who fits into the new South Africa like a hand placed in a velvet glove. In pride of place in the Paton home is a photograph of Jonathan Paton and his wife Margaret with Nelson Mandela, taken in 2004.

Despite media reports of an increase in violent crime in the major cities, these are exciting times to be in South Africa, as it makes the transition to an enlightened and trailblazing society. To follow the Alan Paton trail and experience the Beloved Country first-hand is to begin to see how it all fits together.

THE PATON EXPRESS runs every Sunday morning from Ixopo to Carisbrooke, and on to Ncalu. The Steam Festival, from May 6-7, 2006, will include trips on the Ixopo-Umzimkulu line.

ALAN PATON TOUR: A steam train trip passes Ixopo High School, where Alan Paton taught. At Carisbrooke Siding, visitors join a bus to Carisbrooke School, site of the original filming of Cry, The Beloved Country.

• For information and bookings on both the Paton Express and Alan Paton Tour, call Glynnis on +27 83 273 8037, email or see

• The great novel Cry, The Beloved Country is set both in the rolling hills of KwaZulu-Natal and the seething metropolis of Johannesburg, with a major theme being how city life corrupts. The main protagonists, a liberal white farmer James Jarvis and the devout Zulu preacher Stephen Kumalo, are brought together when Jarvis’ son is killed by Kumalo’s son, in a tragic shooting in Johannesburg. All the themes of race relations, tragedy, sorrow and forgiveness are eloquently addressed in the novel.

Upon the publication of Cry, The Beloved Country in 1948, it became an instant success. Soon after its publication, the composer Kurt Weill adapted the novel into a musical Lost In The Stars, and Paton himself helped to script the screenplay for the 1951 film adaptation of the novel, directed by Zoltan Korda. In 1995, Miramax Films again made Cry, The Beloved Country. The strength of the book comes from its vivid portrayal of social conditions in South Africa at the time. Within a year of the novel’s publication, the apartheid system had been introduced. This marked the start of a dark era from which South Africa would not emerge for another 45 years, with the election of Nelson Mandela in 1994.”