John Kumalo is leading a protest in Johannesburg. His voice electrifies the crowd, makes the policemen uneasy. The protest is about the recently discovered gold. John tells the crowd that they, black men, are just asking for their share of the gold, to be paid a fair wage for their labor.
John’s political positions are not wrong. And at this moment it can seem unclear in what way he has become “corrupt”, as Stephen and Msimangu describe him.
John asks the crowd why the mining industry should be allowed to survive, when it is only their continued low wages and poverty that permits it to survive? Why so little money for their hard work? He suggests that there is a kind of conspiracy, to keep black men poor and the others – the shareholders – rich. The policemen grumble amongst themselves, suggesting that John is a dangerous man, and that he should be silenced, or killed. John continues to address the crowd, saying that they are only asking for a fair wage, nothing more, because the mining industry would not run without their presence in it. He then suggests a mining strike. The meeting stays orderly, even at this suggestion, because John Kumalo knows he would not benefit from being hauled off to jail, where there is no audience, even if his cause would. He repeats that all men should be able to “sell his labour for what it is worth.” He then suggests that a great change is coming to Africa.
Again, there doesn’t seem to be anything blameworthy in John’s ideas. But the nature of his corruption begins to be clear. John places himself above his ideas. In fact, his ideas seem to exist largely in service to making himself powerful and popular. He’s like a preacher who likes the attention of preaching but doesn’t actually believe in God. He does not truly give himself to the mission he defines in his speech. His goal is to be rich and powerful, not to actually create change in Africa. The status quo, in which things are bad and he gets to be a powerful oppositional figure, suits him just fine.
In the back, Stephen and Msimangu have been listening to John. Stephen is impressed with his brother’s words, telling Msimangu that he had felt swept up with them right alongside the rest of the crowd. They discuss how unfortunate it is that John is corrupt, and seeks out so much power, because with the right intentions, his oration could be a great tool for good. Meanwhile, James Jarvis is also in the crowd with John Harrison, also having just heard the speech. James says that he didn’t like such talk, but when they get in the car, surprises John by admitting that this is the next logical step. Inside, the police officers discuss John’s speech, impressed how he pushes the crowd to the brink of violence and then pulls back. They admire him, but also think that he’s very dangerous, and insist that they have to keep an eye on him.
Stephen understands how his brother has squandered his gift for oration, and James understands that though this talk is unpleasant, it is the next logical step in this cycle of suffering. Meanwhile, that cycle of distrust is on display as the police officers ramp up their surveillance of John.
There is discussion about the strike, what would happen if it actually began, how it could spread from the mines to other places, or the whole black population could simply stop working, which would be disastrous for them but, the white people realize, for themselves as well. They work themselves into a bit of a panic about it, actually, because they realize how dependent they are upon the black population.
The idea of a strike causes a temporary rift in the power structure of whites and blacks— the idea of the impact of the blacks ceasing to work reminds everyone, blacks and whites, how many more blacks than whites there are in South Africa, an empowering idea to blacks and a terrifying one to the whites.
The strike comes and goes, and is confined to the gold mines. Some black men are killed. Church leaders suggest that a union should be organized, to minimize bloodshed. But some say that black miners are too “simple” to be permitted to organize in a meaningful way, that they could be easily mislead as a group, and anyway, the mines would not survive the presence of a union. The question is too complicated, and leads to too many questions, so it’s best to ignore it completely.
The power of the strike is undermined by force, and eventually, condescension and dismissal. The novel suggests that South Africa is unable and unwilling to try to comprehend the complexity of the issue. The implicit point being made is that the South African leadership will therefore look for a simple answer, even if it doesn’t solve the problem, and the simplest answer is total segregation—apartheid.