Alan Paton wrote Cry, the Beloved Country during his tenure as the principal at the Diepkloof Reformatory for delinquent African boys. He started writing the novel in Trondheim, Norway in September of 1946 and finished it in San Francisco on Christmas Eve of that same year. Concerning the state of racial affairs in South Africa, the novel tells the story of the Zulu pastor Stephen Kumalo and his search in Johannesburg for his son, who is accused of murdering the white social reformer Arthur Jarvis. Paton gave the novel to Aubrey and Marigold Burns of Fairfax, California, who sent it to several American publishers, including Charles Scribner's Sons, whose editor, Maxwell Perkins, immediately agreed to its publication. According to Paton's note on the 1987 edition of the book, the novel was titled as such during a competition in which Paton, Aubrey and Marigold Burns each decided to write a proposed title and all three chose Cry, the Beloved Country.
Upon the publication of the novel in 1948, Cry, the Beloved Country became an instant phenomenon with near unanimous praise. Soon after its publication the composer Kurt Weill adapted it into a musical, "Lost in the Stars," and Paton himself worked on the screenplay for the 1951 film adaptation of the novel, directed by Zoltan Korda. In 1995, Miramax Films again filmed Cry, the Beloved Country, with James Earl Jones and Richard Harris in the roles of Stephen Kumalo and James Jarvis, respectively.
Undoubtedly much of the power of the novel comes from its depiction of the particular social conditions in its contemporary South Africa. The novel takes place in the time immediately before the institution of apartheid in the nation (the character Msimangu even discusses the possibility of apartheid), which occurred within a year of the novel's 1948 publication. Therefore, although the novel does not discuss the state of South Africa during the apartheid years, Cry, the Beloved Country is often used as a proxy for lessons concerning apartheid-era South Africa.
Even before the apartheid years, as Paton makes clear in his novel, discrimination against blacks in South Africa was significant. Blacks were forbidden from holding political office, had no viable unions, and certain positions were closed to them. The 1913 Native Lands Act prevented blacks outside of the Cape Province from buying land not part of certain reserves. But apartheid was officially institutionalized in 1948 with the election of the National Party and Daniel Malan as Prime Minister. The National Party enshrined apartheid into law with such legislation as the Group Areas Act, which specified that separate areas be reserved for the four main racial groups (whites, blacks, Coloreds, and Asians). The African National Congress, a group of black leaders under the leadership of Albert Luthuli and Nelson Mandela, emerged as the principal opposition to apartheid and the National Party's reforms. The African National Congress became increasingly militant, even using terrorist tactics that led to the government banning the ANC in 1960.
After several decades, the end of apartheid was a slow one that began with the election of F.W. de Klerk as leader of the National Party and President of South Africa. De Klerk began to permit multiracial crowds to protest against apartheid and met with blacks leaders such as Bishop Desmond Tutu. Most importantly, he lifted the ban on the ANC and ordered the release of the imprisoned Nelson Mandela. By 1993, the National Party and the ANC reached an agreement that pledged to institute a democratic South Africa. The ANC won political power in April of 1994 during the first nonracial democratic election, with 63 percent of the vote. Under the ANC, Mandela repealed all apartheid legislation, while the South African parliament approved a new constitution in 1996.