One of the novel’s two protagonists. Kumalo is an elderly Zulu priest who has spent all of his life in the village of Ndotsheni. He is a quiet, humble, and gentle man with a strong moral sense and an abiding faith in God. He is not perfect, however, and occasionally gives in to the temptation to hurt others with harsh words or lies. The dignity and grace with which he accepts his suffering, however, along with his determination to help his people in spite of his limitations, make him the moral center of the novel.
The novel’s other protagonist, a white landowner whose farm overlooks Ndotsheni. When he first appears in the novel, Jarvis is a relatively conservative farmer and a man of few words. But the tragic news that his only son, Arthur, has been murdered leads him to Johannesburg, where he begins to rethink his opinions and his relationship to the villagers that live below his farm.
Stephen Kumalo’s host and guide in Johannesburg. A tall, young minister at the Mission House in Sophiatown, Msimangu has an acute understanding of the problems that face South Africa. He helps Kumalo understand the people and places that they encounter, and is unfailingly sympathetic to Kumalo, making Kumalo’s quest his top priority. He sometimes speaks unkindly, but he quickly repents. His eventual decision to enter a monastery is a final testament to the depth of his faith and generosity.
Stephen Kumalo’s son. After fleeing home for Johannesburg, Absalom quickly goes astray, but even after he commits murder, he is able to reclaim his fundamental decency. His decision to move to Johannesburg is part of a larger trend of young black people fleeing their villages for the cities. Absalom’s story is a cautionary tale of the dangers of this movement. Seeming to lack a reliable moral compass, he is influenced by bad companions and begins a criminal career.
Stephen Kumalo’s brother. Formerly a humble carpenter and a practicing Christian, John Kumalo becomes a successful businessman and one of the three most powerful black politicians in Johannesburg. He has a beautiful and powerful voice, which he uses to speak out for the rights of black South Africans, but his fear of punishment prevents him from pushing for actual radical change, and he is considered by many to be without courage.
Arthur Jarvis’s name first appears in the novel after he has been murdered, but he is a powerful presence whose legacy hovers over the whole novel. An engineer and fierce advocate for justice for black South Africans, he is shot dead in his home by Absalom Kumalo.
Stephen Kumalo’s strong-minded, supportive, and loving wife. Mrs. Kumalo and her husband make household decisions as equals, and she bears hardship gracefully. When Kumalo is inclined to brood, she rouses him to action, and it is she who supplies the courage needed to read the bad news that the mail brings from Johannesburg.
Stephen Kumalo’s sister and the original reason for his trip to Johannesburg. Gertrude, twenty-five years younger than Kumalo and living in Johannesburg, is easily influenced. When Kumalo reminds her of her Christian duties and obligations, she attempts to return to them, but she lacks real determination.
Kumalo’s nephew. He brings comfort to Kumalo during his troubles. He returns with Kumalo to Ndotsheni, where Absalom’s wife raises him.
The woman with whom Kumalo stays in Johannesburg. Mrs. Lithebe is an Msutu woman who lives in Sophiatown and takes in boarders, especially priests. She is a good and generous Christian who believes that helping others is simply her duty.
A young white man who works at the reformatory and attempts to reform Absalom. Although he does, on one occasion, chastise Kumalo, he does so because he cares much for his pupils, and the thought of Absalom’s predicament pains him.
An Anglican priest from England who stays at the Sophiatown Mission and offers to help Kumalo with his troubles. Father Vincent counsels Kumalo when he is brokenhearted over his son and presides over the wedding between Absalom and Absalom’s girlfriend. He is warm and understanding, and he possesses deep faith.
The kindhearted and quiet sixteen-year-old girl whom Absalom has impregnated. She has run away from her dysfunctional family but still seeks a family structure and bonds. She is sexually experienced but essentially innocent, obedient, and grateful for adult protection.
James Jarvis’s wife. Margaret takes the death of her son very hard. She is a physically fragile and loving woman who commiserates with and supports her husband through their grief. She also shares in his plans to help Ndotsheni.
The brother of Mary Jarvis, Arthur Jarvis’s wife. John is young and quick-witted, and shares Arthur’s opinions about the rights of the black population in South Africa. He provides companionship to James Jarvis in Johannesburg.
Mary Jarvis’s father. Mr. Harrison has conservative political views and blames black South Africans for the country’s problems. Though he disagrees with Arthur, he admires Arthur’s courage.
Although only a child, Arthur’s son is very much like his father. He is curious, intelligent, and generous. He treats black people with unusual courtesy and pleases Kumalo by visiting him and practicing Zulu.
The agricultural expert hired by James Jarvis to teach better farming techniques to the people of Ndotsheni. A well-educated middle-class black man, Letsitsi earns a good salary and is eager to help build his country. Although grateful for the help of good white men, he nonetheless looks forward to an Africa in which black people will not rely on whites for their basic needs.
John Kumalo’s son. We learn little about Matthew, but he is important to the plot of the novel, as he is a good friend and eventual accomplice of Absalom’s. Eventually, however, Matthew denies having been present at the robbery, turning his back on his cousin and friend.
The third young man present at the attempted robbery of Arthur Jarvis’s house. According to Absalom’s testimony, Pafuri is the ringleader of the group, deciding the time of the robbery and having his weapon “blessed” to give them good luck.
An acquaintance of Father Vincent’s who becomes Absalom’s lawyer. Mr. Carmichael is a tall and serious man who carries himself with an almost royal bearing. He takes Absalom’s case pro deo (“for God”).
The judge who presides over Absalom’s case seems to be a fair-minded man, but he is constrained by unjust laws and applies them strictly.
The second in a trio of powerful black politicians in Johannesburg. Dubula provides the heart to complement John Kumalo’s voice. The bus boycott and the construction of Shanty Town are his handiwork.
The third colleague of Dubula and John Kumalo. While not a great orator, Tomlinson is considered the smartest of the three.
Arthur Jarvis’s wife. Mary takes her husband’s murder hard, but she remains strong for her children. She shares her husband’s commitment to justice.