The legacy of apartheid in Damon Galgut’s The Promise
Updated: Dec 6, 2022
Damon Galgut’s Booker Prize-Winning novel The Promise (2021) charts and critiques South Africa’s transition out of apartheid through the allegorical lens of a white family’s undoing. Galgut thus invites an international audience to gain a deeper understanding of South Africa’s recent sociopolitical history, and reveals to them the devastating impacts of institutional racism.
The novel focuses on the white Afrikaans Swart family and begins on their farm outside of Pretoria in 1986, during the height of the apartheid regime. The opening chapter, entitled “Ma”, begins in the immediate aftermath of Rachel Swart’s death from cancer. She leaves behind her a husband named Manie, and three children: Anton, Astrid, and Amor. Amidst the grief, confusion, and resentment that colours this first chapter, it is Amor’s fixation on a remembered conversation that stands out. She cannot forget her father Manie’s promise to do good on Rachel’s dying wish that he give Salome, the family’s black maid, ownership of the “crooked little house”1 on the Swart farm where she has lived for decades. After failing to understand her father’s denial and outrage when she repeats what she heard, Amor eventually learns from her brother that “even if Pa wanted [her] to”, “Salome can’t own the house” because “it’s against the law”.2 It is through this family conflict that Galgut first explicitly introduces his reader to South Africa’s complex racial history, depicting the white patriarch’s dismissal of his black maid and stating the fact of apartheid-era property law before detailing the brutality, unrest, and mass censorship that characterised 1980s South Africa in its State of Emergency.
Further situating the reader in this unique geographical and temporal setting is Galgut’s experimental use of language and form. The novel is peppered with regional terminology and slang from its outset, throwing the reader into a world where a hill is a “koppie”3 and a barbeque is really a “braai”.4 With this Galgut risks alienating international readers, yet the occasional ambiguity created is ultimately subordinate to the rich and unique cultural atmosphere such language creates.
Another successful risk Galgut takes is his deployment of modernist techniques: he utilises a free-floating narrator who darts between characters, inhabiting each perspective for just a few lines before moving on to the next person. Galgut’s narrator thus maintains an ironic distance from his characters which allows him to create a comprehensive depiction of the South African consciousness and consequently affords the reader insights into each character’s prejudices which the narrator is free to mock and admonish.
Galgut also utilises this technique to mirror the racial inequality he depicts in his plot. Indeed, the narrator notably never invades the thoughts of Salome, and thus as she is “apparently invisible” to the novel’s white society, “whatever Salome feels is invisible”5 to the readers too. The narrator claims that the readers have not heard from Salome because we never cared to ask, thus holding us responsible for her lack of character development and aligning us with apartheid-era society. This encourages the reader to step back from the novel’s events and characters, digesting the ensuing plot in a critical and thoughtful way.
Spanning thirty-two years, the remainder of the novel is driven by Amor’s commitment to see her father’s promise fulfilled. The following three chapters sit at roughly ten year intervals from each other, detailing the dwindling of the Swart family and the continued denial or deferral of Salome’s inheritance. With what is potentially too-crude a symbol of white sin in a fallen Eden, a decade after his wife’s death Manie Swart is fatally bitten by a snake in a comical attempt to set the record for time spent in a cage with a cobra, leaving his farm to the next generation of Swarts. Ten years later, Astrid, once a beautiful young woman who has now climbed her way into the New South African Elite, is killed in a violent carjacking. Anton is the next family member to meet an untimely end: the great expectations and novelistic aspirations that marked his young manhood materialise thirty years later as the fragmented beginnings of an unexceptional book and suicide by rifle. This leaves Amor as the last remaining Swart, and with the moral weight of the novel behind her, she is seemingly primed for a happy ending. Yet Galgut refuses to fulfil this expectation, stressing the totality of the Swarts’ downfall with a clear depiction of Amor’s isolation. Thus, by the time we are done with the Swarts, it would seem that the promise – the potential – of the next generation of South Africans is ultimately fruitless.
In the background of the Swart family’s decline Galgut glosses South Africa’s dark recent history. A New South Africa emerges behind the Swart family burials, and the reader is taken from the State of Emergency to the fall of apartheid and accession of Nelson Mandela, to the inauguration of Thabo Mbeki and ultimately to the 2018 resignation of Jacob Zuma. Along the way the intricacies of this process is explored, as issues such as conscription, the AIDs crisis, South Africa’s return to international sports, and nation-wide rolling power cuts are drawn into view. By placing the Swarts’ family saga against this backdrop, Galgut is able to familiarise the reader with a complex and turbulent racialised history, and ultimately likens the unfulfilled promise of the young Swarts with that of the New South Africa.
This implied link of a promise unfulfilled and the state of the country is reiterated at the novel’s close. As the inheritor of the farm, Amor decides to finally fulfil her mother’s dying wish and hand Salome the deeds to the house. This ending, however, is far from happy. As elderly Salome’s son Lukas articulates, this comes “thirty years too late”6 and is as “good as nothing”7 given the new judicial system’s decree that there is a historical claim to the land that could see it taken from Salome. As the Swart family lawyer states, in this novel and the country in which it is set, “promises don’t mean a thing”.8
After leaving Salome for the final time, Amor climbs atop the roof of the Swart house to scatter her brother’s ashes, hoping for them to be “washed away by the next rain”,9 before looking down and contemplating the blank earth below her. Galgut closes his novel with this image, and with it suggests that the Swarts and the South Africa they represent need to die and be washed away, leaving room for new “stories to write themselves over”10 what has come before. The Promise thus ends wistfully, with Galgut welcoming the death of the old South Africa, and looking hopefully towards what can grow out of its ashes.
This novel is an essential read for understanding South Africa’s history of institutional racism and its destructive and barren aftermath. Through the allegorical Swart family, readers can discover the shortcomings of promises in order to drive real change in the fight for human rights and social justice. A darkly funny, creative, precise, and beautiful book, it is highly deserving of its accolades for both its exceptional literary qualities and its thorough and unique depiction of the infamous human rights violations committed in a troubled country.
1 Galgut 2021, 21
2 Galgut 2021, 82
3 Galgut 2021, 22
4 Galgut 2021, 27
5 Galgut 2021, 19
6 Galgut 2021, 286
7 Galgut 2021, 286
8 Galgut 2021, 282
9 Galgut 2021, 292
10 Galgut 2021, 293