Stephen Kumalo, the pastor at the village of Ndotsheni in the Ixopo region of South Africa, receives a letter from the Reverend Theophilus Msimangu that requests that he go to Johannesburg to rescue his sister, Gertrude, who is very ill. In order to undertake the journey, Kumalo must use the money intended to be used to send his son, Absalom, to St. Chad's for his education. Absalom had gone to Johannesburg himself, and has not been heard from since. When a friend of Stephen Kumalo takes him to the train station to Johannesburg, he requests that Kumalo give a letter to the daughter of Sibeko, who now works for the Smith family in Johannesburg.
When Kumalo reaches Johannesburg, he waits in line for a bus and is tricked by a young man whom Kumalo gives money to buy a ticket for him. Kumalo finally arrives at the Mission House, where Msimangu arranges for him to stay in the house of Mrs. Lithebe. Msimangu tells Kumalo that Gertrude's husband has not returned from the mines where he was recruited to work, and now Gertrude has "many husbands" and was sent to jail for making bootlegged liquor and working as a prostitute. Msimangu also tells Kumalo that Kumalo's brother John is no longer a carpenter, and now works as a politician. The two men visit Gertrude in the Claremont district of Johannesburg. Kumalo chastises Gertrude for her behavior and for not considering her young son, and tells her brother that John Kumalo will know where his son, Absalom, lives in Johannesburg. Kumalo takes Gertrude and the young child back to the house of Mrs. Lithebe.
Stephen Kumalo goes to visit his brother John, who tells him that his wife has left him and that he is now living with another woman. John claims that he is more free in Johannesburg, for he is no longer subject to the chief and he has his own business. John tells his brother that his son and Absalom had a room together in Alexandra and they were working at the Doornfontein Textiles Company. At Doornfontein, Kumalo learns that Absalom was staying with a Mrs. Ndlela in Sophiatown. Mrs. Ndlela gives him a forwarding address, care of Mrs. Mkize in Alexandra. She also tells Kumalo that she did not like Absalom's friends.
Because of a bus boycott in Alexandra, Msimangu and Kumalo must walk to Alexandra. They reach the house of Mrs. Mkize, who seems obviously afraid and claim that Absalom has been away from the house for nearly a year. Msimangu tells Kumalo to take a walk to get a drink, and while he is gone interrogates Mrs. Mkize. He tells her that no harm will come to her from whatever he tells her, so she admits that they should talk to the taxi driver Hlabeni. From this taxi driver, they learn that Absalom went to Orlando to live amongst the squatters in Shanty Town. On the way back to the Mission House, Msimangu and Kumalo see a white man driving black passengers, and Kumalo smiles at the white man's sense of social justice, while Msimangu claims that the kindness beats him.
Kumalo goes to Shanty Town with Msimangu, where they meet Mrs. Hlatshwayos, who tells them that Absalom stayed with her until the magistrate sent him to the reformatory. At the reformatory, a white man who works there informs them that Absalom left the reformatory early because of good behavior and that he is now in Pimville, ready to marry a girl whom he got pregnant. At Pimville, they meet the girl, who admits that Absalom went to Springs on Saturday and has not yet returned. Msimangu warns him that he can do nothing about the girl, but Kumalo says that the girl's child will be his grandchild and that he is obligated. Kumalo learns from the white man at the reformatory that Absalom has not been at work this week.
While the white man at the reformatory undertakes a search for Absalom, Kumalo accompanies Msimangu to Ezenzeleni, the place of the blind, where he will hold a service. At dinner, they learn of the murder of Arthur Jarvis, a renowned city engineer who was the President of the African Boys' Club and the son of James Jarvis of Carisbrooke. Arthur Jarvis was renowned for his interest in social problems and for his efforts for the welfare of the non-European sections of the community. It is eventually acknowledged that Absalom Kumalo is suspected of the murder of Arthur Jarvis, and Kumalo wonders how he failed with his son.
Stephen Kumalo tells John about his son's involvement in the murder of Arthur Jarvis, and the two visit the prison together, since John knows that his son was friends with Absalom and thus a possible accomplice. At the prisoner, Kumalo finds his son, and interrogates him about the various facts of the case. Absalom claims that he shot Arthur Jarvis merely because he was frightened, but did not intend to kill him. John Kumalo claims that there is no proof that his son, who was involved in the robbery with Absalom and another friend, Johannes Pafuri, was involved.
The young white man from the reformatory visits Mrs. Lithebe's house in order to talk to Kumalo about a lawyer, because he does not trust John and thinks that he will attempt to place all of the blame on Absalom. He warns Kumalo that no matter what happens his son will be severely punished. The next day, Kumalo visits the pregnant girl in Pimville and tells her what happened to Absalom. He interrogates her, asking whether she really wants to become part of their family and whether she wants another husband. Kumalo eventually becomes convinced that the girl will come with him and live a quiet life in rural Ixopo.
The girl returns with them to the house of Mrs. Lithebe. Unlike Gertrude, the girl enjoys being there, while Gertrude behaves carelessly and dislikes living there. Kumalo visits Absalom in prison again and attempts to arrange a marriage between his son and the girl. He learns that John Kumalo's son (also named John) and the other suspect, Johannes Pafuri, have placed the blame entirely on Absalom. Father Vincent, a white pastor, introduces Kumalo to the lawyer Mr. Carmichael, who will take the case pro deo.
The second section of the novel takes the perspective of James Jarvis, the father of the murdered Arthur Jarvis. James Jarvis learns from the police captain van Jaarsveld that his son has been murdered and that there is a plane waiting at Pietermaritzburg that can take him to Johannesburg. Jarvis tells his wife Margaret as he arranges to make the journey to Johannesburg. When they arrive, Jarvis meets John Harrison, the brother of Mary, the wife of the late Arthur Jarvis. He tells them that Mary and her children have taken the news poorly, and that the police have been combing the plantations on Parkwold Ridge. Jarvis also learns that his son had been writing a paper on "The Truth About Native Crime" and admits to John that he and his son did not agree on the question of native crime. Arthur Jarvis had been learning Afrikaans and considered learning Sesuto, perhaps to help him stand as a Member of Parliament in the next election. Jarvis wonders why this crime happened to his son, of all people, and laments that he never learned more about his son.
During the funeral service at Parkwold Church for Arthur Jarvis, James Jarvis experiences several firsts. The service is the first time that Jarvis attends church with black people, and it is also the first time that he shakes hands with one. Jarvis, wishing to learn more about his son, asks John Harrison to take him to the Boys' Club in Claremont where his son did a great deal of community service work. Jarvis soon learns that Richard Mpiring, the servant at Arthur's house, was able to identify one of the culprits as a former servant. Jarvis reads through his son's manuscript, and is touched by his son's criticisms of South Africa as a nation that claims to be Christian yet practices few of the Christian ideals.
During the trial, the defendants (Absalom Kumalo, John Kumalo and Johannes Pafuri) are each asked their plea. They each plead not guilty, but Absalom does so only because he cannot plead guilty to culpable homicide. Absalom testifies that Johannes hit Mpiring in the back with an iron bar, and that he shot Arthur Jarvis simply because of fear. The prosecutor asks Absalom why he carried a loaded gun when he did not actually intend to use it, but Absalom cannot give a satisfactory answer. After court is adjourned for the day, Stephen Kumalo exits the courtroom with Msimangu, Gertrude and Mrs. Lithebe. He trembles when he sees James Jarvis, wondering how he can look at the man whose son Absalom murdered.
Upon returning to his son's home, Jarvis finds another work, "Private Essays on the Evolution of a South African," in which Arthur wrote that it is difficult to be a South African and that, although his parents gave him a great deal, they sheltered him from the actual South Africa. In this paper, Arthur Jarvis wrote that he dedicates himself to South Africa because he cannot deny the part of himself that is a South African.
James and Margaret Jarvis visit the home of Barbara Smith, one of Margaret's nieces. While they are visiting there, Stephen Kumalo visits with the letter from Sibeko. When Jarvis sees him, Stephen Kumalo trembles and nearly falls ill. Jarvis comforts him, and asks what is wrong. Kumalo admits that there is a heavy thing between then, and finally tells him that it was his son who murdered Arthur Jarvis. Jarvis tells Kumalo that there is no anger in him. Kumalo and Jarvis learn from the Smith daughter that Sibeko's daughter was fired because she started to brew liquor in her room, and that she does not know nor care where the girl is now. When translating Smith's words into Zulu, Jarvis leaves out the part that she does not care where the girl is. When Kumalo leaves respectfully, Jarvis admits to his wife that he is disturbed because of something that came out of the past.
During a meeting in the public square, John Kumalo gives a speech demanding greater reparations for blacks in South Africa, but despite the possibility that he may cause unrest and even riots, John Kumalo restrains himself, for he does not want to be arrested, simply out of the discomfort that it may cause. Jarvis is also at the rally, and listens as John Kumalo speaks.
Mrs. Lithebe and Gertrude argue over Gertrude's behavior, for Mrs. Lithebe believes that Gertrude associates with the wrong type of people and warns her not to hurt her brother any further. Gertrude finally suggests that she wants to become a nun, and although Mrs. Lithebe is happy at the change in Gertrude, she asks her to think of the small boy. Gertrude finally asks the pregnant girl if she would take care of her son if she were to become a nun, and the girl eagerly agrees.
The judge issues a guilty verdict int eh case for Absalom Kumalo, but finds no legitimate evidence that John Kumalo and Johannes Pafuri were present and thus finds them not guilty. The judge finds no mitigating circumstances, and sentences Absalom to death by hanging. When the court is dismissed, the young white man from the reformatory leaves court with Kumalo, thus breaking tradition and exiting along with the black men, an action that is not taken lightly.
Father Vincent performs a wedding ceremony at the prison, marrying Absalom and the pregnant girl. After returning from prison, Kumalo visits his brother's shop and they argue when Stephen suggests that he may have some reason to be bitter toward his brother. Wishing to harm his brother, Stephen suggests that there may be someone in his household who wants to betray him. When John laments having such a friend, Stephen says that Absalom had friends who betrayed him. John throws Stephen out of his shop and shouts at him in the street. Stephen feels ashamed for provoking his brother, for he only wished to tell his brother how power corrupts and that a man who fights for justice must be pure.
Before Jarvis leaves, he gives John Harrison a letter requesting that John continue Arthur's work, and includes a check for ten thousand dollars asking him to start the Arthur Jarvis club. Before Kumalo leaves, Msimangu hosts a party at Mrs. Lithebe's home in which he praises her for her kindness. Before they leave, Msimangu tells Kumalo that he is giving up all his worldly possessions and gives Kumalo money for all of the new duties he has taken up. Before departing for home, Kumalo finds that Gertrude has left, presumably to become a nun.
Stephen Kumalo returns home and tells his wife the verdict and the sentence. He learns that the area where they live has suffered from a drought for a month. Kumalo gives his first sermon since his return, in which beseeches God to give them ran and prays for Africa. Kumalo wonders whether he can remain as pastor considering his family. Kumalo decides that he must speak to the chief and the headmaster of the school about the state of Ndotsheni. When Kumalo speaks to the chief, the chief offers little help. Kumalo suggests that they should try to keep as many people as possible in Ndotsheni. When he returns home, a small white boy visits Kumalo and wishes to learn some words in Zulu. The boy asks for milk, which prompts Kumalo to tell him about the drought and about how small children are dying from it. The boy vows to visit Kumalo again. After dinner, Kumalo's friend asks if a small white boy visited him today, and tells him that he has milk to distribute to the small children. The milk is presumably a gift from the Jarvis estate.
Kumalo receives letters from Johannesburg, including one from Absalom to his wife and parents, one from Msimangu, and one from Mr. Carmichael. Carmichael writes that there will be no mercy for Absalom, and that he will be hanged on the fifteenth of the month. Kumalo's wife suggests that Kumalo distribute milk to the children in order to distract him from the pain. Kumalo sees Jarvis, who meets with the magistrate and the chief. Although Kumalo cannot hear their discussion, they appear to be discussing an important matter and use sticks to discuss their plans. Jarvis remains after the others leave. As a storm approaches, Jarvis and Kumalo remain in the church together. Jarvis learns that there will be no mercy for Absalom.
The small white boy returns to the house to learn Zulu, and meets Gertrude's child and Kumalo's wife. When he leaves, Kumalo goes to the church and meets Napoleon Letsitsi, the new agricultural demonstrator. He says that Jarvis has sent him to teach farming in Ndotsheni, and tells Kumalo that there will be a dam so that the cattle always have water to drink and thus produce milk.
Kumalo's friend tells Kumalo that Mrs. Jarvis is dead, and Kumalo writes a letter of condolence to James Jarvis, despite the worry that she might have died of grief and that a letter might be inappropriate. When the Bishop visits Kumalo, he suggests that Kumalo retire as pastor, but Kumalo says that if he were to retire his post and leave Ndotsheni, he would die. The Bishop says that he must leave because Jarvis lives nearby, but when the Bishop learns that Jarvis is sending milk for the children, he agrees that Kumalo can remain as pastor.
A new sense of excitement overcomes the valley concerning the new developments. On the day that Absalom is to be executed, Kumalo decides to go up on the mountain, as he had done in various other times of crisis in his life. On his journey to the mountain, Kumalo sees Jarvis, who tells him that he is moving to Johannesburg to live with his daughter-in-law and her children. While on the mountain, Kumalo thinks of various reasons to give thanks, such as Msimangu, the young man from the reformatory, Mrs. Lithebe, Father Vincent, his wife and friend. He wonders why Jarvis has been so kind despite their history, but he also thinks of those who are suffeirng and wonders when South Africa will become emancipated from fear and bondage.