The book was a bestseller, with some 15 million copies in print. Paton had been working as principal of a reform school for African boys when he was writing the novel. The book's success gave him the financial freedom to leave his job and devote full time to writing.
Cry, The Beloved Country was adapted for film twice, first in 1951 (starring Canada Lee) and then in 1995 (starring James Earl Jones). Composer Kurt Weill and playwright Maxwell Anderson collaborated on the Broadway production Lost in the Stars, based on Paton's book.
Paton became an anti-apartheid activist and helped found the Liberal Party of South Africa to try to stop apartheid. He served as the party's president until 1968, when the organization was dissolved by law. In 1960, Paton traveled to New York to receive the Freedom Award. When he returned, authorities confiscated his passport and didn't return it for 10 years.
Paton also wrote Too Late the Phalarope (1953), a novel about an Afrikaner policeman' crisis of conscience; Hofmeyr (1964), a profile of a prominent South African statesman; Towards the Mountain (1980), the first volume of his autobiography; Ah, But Your Land is Beautiful (1981), a fictional story based on his political activist years; and Journey Continued (1988), the second volume of his autobiography, which was published after his death.