I vividly remember one of my first bad hangovers. Being a late bloomer when it comes to alcohol, it was the day after my twentieth birthday. I’d been spending it dancing frantically through the night in a shebeen in some God forsaken shanty town outside of Cape Town, South Africa. Now I was on a beautiful beach surrounded by friends. They’d baked me a cake, which due to my condition I couldn’t quite appreciate.
That cake, and that hangover, seems like the perfect allegory for the broken South African dream. The end of apartheid promised a formidable party celebrating the true birth of a nation, but in reality few people got to enjoy the fruits of freedom.
I turned twenty in 1994, the same year that South Africa held its first universal elections. Nelson Mandela, fresh out of prison, was hailed as a hero. After the long winter of Apartheid everyone could finally breath again, things were looking up.
And yet there were signs that in spite of all the optimism, things hadn’t really changed beneath the surface. I had a whiff of that as I paid a visit to the site of a factory owned by a Swedish industrial giant, which had just entered the South African market.
After a tour of the floor, where all races mixed, it was only as we entered the managerial canteen, peopled exclusively by whites, that I realised how segregated the place really was.
Shocked, I asked how it could be that blacks and whites still had their lunch in separate rooms.
The answer of course, was that even though the overtly racist political system had fallen, its function had been replaced by a covertly racist economic structure, which proved to be every bit as effective at perpetuating the injustices.
Factory workers had their boxed lunches in a crowded dirty old room not because they happened to be black, but because for some unspeakable reason it was impossible for them to raise through the ranks and reach a managerial position.
It is the anger and frustration over this fact that fuels Damon Galgut’s Booker Prize winning novel The Promise, from 2021.
That story starts with the macabre death of an old man who’s locked himself into a glass box together with a black mamba. (The idea being that he’d help the local church collect funds by setting a new world record.)
The funeral causes his children – Anton, Amor and Astrid – to revisit the past. Their mother Rachel had made a last dying wish; that the family’s poor servant Salome would be given the decaying little house she’d always lived in, situated far out in a desolate corner of the vast family properties.
Amor had heard her father promise Rachel to make her wish come true, but he never did. Now that both parents are dead she tries to persuade her siblings to make good on their father’s broken promise. They seem to be for it in theory, but keep finding reasons why it’s not practical.
While these events unfold, the story also plays out on a deeper plane. We get to understand how Anton, who was once so talented, is forever corrupted after having shot a black protester while in the military. He tries to drown out the guilt in a sea of liquor, but never manage to rid himself.
Astrid, equally dysfunctional, can’t stop herself from having affairs. She runs through a bulimic routine to ease her consciousness and is also absolved from guilt by confessing, again and again, to her catholic minister, but she always fail to change her behaviour.
Out of the three, Amor is the only one to seriously try putting up a resistance to the system she’s born into. To keep from going insane she eventually decides to renounce everything that has been handed to her just for being white. At the end, she’s given it all away and symbolically stands naked in front of the bathroom mirror. Perhaps she’s free to leave this damned country now, but it will never leave her.
I loved this novel for its style, but also for the signal it sends. In a time when fascism and white supremacy is on the rise, it’s good to be reminded of how deeply corrupting it is, was and always will be, to live life among the privileged in a racist system.