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"The Promise" by Damon Galgut (South Africa)

The title of Damon Galgut’s novel The Promise refers to the Afrikaaner matriarch’s dying wish to leave a small plot of land to their long-suffering black housekeeper Salome. The narrative then revolves around the numerous decades that it actually takes for the family to keep that promise.

Of course one isn’t awarded the Booker prize for penning a surface-level story about a white family in South Africa. Rather Galgut has written a soaring multi-decade exposition on the promise of a post-Apartheid South Africa writ large. It’s a story that encompasses South Africa’s promises to its black and coloured people (click here for further background on the use of the word "coloured" in South Africa), the ANC’s promises to its constituency (one take on those promises here), as well as the psychic overstep of whites deigning to keep promises that never should have been had to be made in the first place. In the latter case, the promise (even when well-intentioned) can become more about the giver than the recipient.

This last idea is less obvious–particularly to a western outsider–but Salome’s son Lukas offers a scathing rebuttal when the Swart family finally makes good on its promise (after three decades):

It is nothing, Lukas says. Smiling again, in that cold, furious way. It’s what you don’t need any more, it’s what you don’t mind throwing away. Your leftovers. That’s what you’re giving my mother, thirty years too late. As good as nothing…It is like that. And still you don’t understand, it’s not yours to give. It already belongs to us. This house, but also the house where you live, and the land it’s standing on. Ours! Not yours to give out as a favour when you’re finished with it. Everything you have, white lady, is already mine. I don’t have to ask.

This is the counterpoint to well-intentioned (sometimes), (mainly white) liberalism, in its classical sense. Lukas has stripped bare the “feel-good” aspects of restorative justice and offered the equivalent of a “thanks for nothing”! His one comment cuts to the heart of why creating a true rainbow nation has proved such a daunting task–with every stripe of the rainbow having differing notions of equality, equity, justice, and staggering levels of economic deprivation–it requires certain stripes to cast aside tightly-held oppressive notions and to embrace the humanity of people they had long ignored. As the late Desmond Tutu once said: “If you want peace, you don't talk to your friends. You talk to your enemies.”  Of course, closing that psychic space is easier said than done.  America has had (and continues to have) its own struggles with "they" groups--you can read about America's "buffer solution" in my review of Homeland Elegies here.

This is of my Reading Around the Continent books--the full list is here.

Looking for book ideas? Check out our 20222021202020192018201720162015 and 2014 reading lists!

Related Reads:

The Sound and the Fury by William Faulkner. An American story of a messed up family.

Born a Crime by Trevor Noah.  My short review is here.

Long Walk to Freedom by Nelson Mandela.  My kindle highlights from it are here.

I Want You to Know” by Jack Kruse.  A poem I wrote about Nelson Mandela for my daughters.



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