While land reform remains at the top of the political agenda in South Africa, the Booker Prize winner Damon Galgut says he wasn’t thinking about it “in the sense of a cause” whilst writing The Promise.
Speaking to Food For Mzansi’s Nondumiso Mncube, Galgut says, “Of course, the question of land is central to South Africa right now, and probably always has been since the first days of white settlement.”
Recently Galgut won the £50 000 writing prize for his novel of a white South African family’s reckoning with a racist past. The Swarts family, who are Voortrekker descendants, live on a Pretoria farm, clinging to their farm amid great social and political change. In his book, Galgut describes them as “just an ordinary bunch of white South Africans, holding on, holding out”.
“I don’t like ‘political writing’ in the usual sense the phrase implies, but I was aware of what I was tapping into with the story of a promise about a piece of land and a broken-down house and an unfulfilled promise behind it,” Galgut tells Food For Mzansi.
Is restitution really possible?
The Cape Town-based writer does not come from a family of farmers. “… though my grandfather on my mother’s side owned a piece of land in Muldersdrift (in Gauteng) and called it a farm, as the Swarts do in the novel. It wasn’t a real farm – just a few fields and a handful of animals. My grandfather worked in an office job in Krugersdorp, but those elements were helpful in writing the book.”
Galgut adds that the book’s title refers to a promise made to a black woman by a white South African family. A promise “that she would be given her own piece of land – with a basic house on it – and the way that promise takes several decades to be fulfilled and even then inadequately”.
“It also, by implication, refers to the sense of promise many of us felt in South Africa around the time of our democratic transition in the nineties, and the similar lack of fulfilment that followed.”
Meanwhile, Sosfia Kostelac, a Wits university lecturer, tells The Conversation that The Promise is a book of great importance.
“At the heart of the novel – and the unfulfilled promise to Salome – lies the question of what sort of restitution is possible in the context of South Africa’s brutally iniquitous history?
“What would it take, the novel implicitly asks, for a family like the Swarts to give up a modicum of their privilege to nudge us towards a more equitable society? The Promise attends, with meticulous detail and insight, to the pathologies of racism, pride and fear that make such acts unlikely.”