Literature | South Africa

“Books are very expensive in South Africa”

The long shadows of apartheid: Damon Galgut, Booker Prize winner for “The Promise”, on the psychological effects of apartheid and South Africa’s enduring inequality
A middle-aged man looks into the camera from below in this portrait. He has a receding forehead and is wearing a jacket over a blue shirt. His facial expression is friendly

South-African author and Booker Prize winner Damon Galgut

Interview by Jess Smee

African literature seems to be gaining visibility, with your 2021 Booker Award and the Tanzanian-British author Abdulrazak Gurnah winning the Nobel prize for literature in the same year. Is new African writing also gaining popularity at home?

Many publishers have made it a priority to look for and publish new black African writing in South Africa: lots of younger writers of colour in South Africa are now telling their stories. That said, the book market in South Africa is really small, publishers struggle and books are prohibitively expensive.

When I spoke about African literature on the Booker Award night, I was speaking not just to Western readers and publishers when I urged more openness to African writing. It was intended as a call to African governments – but it was in vain.

“Many African countries have no publishing industry to speak of”

There was no response from the South African government. I wish they cared about books, by subsidising publishing, or investing more in libraries. Right now, the South African government is just paying lip service to improving literacy.

And is it a similar story in other African countries?

Many African countries have no publishing industry to speak of. South Africa, Nigeria and Kenya are the publishing powerhouses on the continent – but even in these countries, the industry is puny compared to Europe. In a lot of African countries it is more typical to see somebody sitting on a street corner selling a random heap of books.

Amid the growing diversity of voices, are we seeing new South African narratives on the apartheid era?

Around the year 2010, roughly 15 years after the end of apartheid, there was a great flowering of memoirs and autobiographies telling stories that had not been heard. Today younger South African authors generally focus on the struggle to survive rather than apartheid. Their stories are often of battling in the ghetto and hustling and get by. They are compelling, but also sad and desperate.

“The fact is we still live with stark economic apartheid”

White writing in general tends to be more abstract, perhaps from guilt or trying to deflect the gaze from current conditions. I think we’d all like to leave the subject of apartheid behind because it’s supposed to be over. The fact is, though, we still live with stark economic apartheid.

Your book, “The Promise”, depicts a white family during and after apartheid. Did you feel a weight of responsibility to kind of get that particular slice of history right?

The changes described through the book happened during my adult life – an era when I was very aware of politics and personal relationships. I didn’t need to research it and I knew it so I didn’t feel a big responsibility. If I remove my moral outrage from the picture, it’s kind of a gift as it’s rich material. The themes that South Africa offers a writer are profound and powerful.


Why did you decide not to include the perspective of a key protagonist, Salome, the black servant who was promised a house at the start of the novel?

My decision to leave out the inner lives of the black characters was taken because those inner lives are not really part of the white South African awareness. And that’s a fact that fuelled apartheid. I wanted that absence to speak.

The silence of Salome and the other characters is eloquent, but in a very problematic way. People have taken issue with this approach but interestingly only non South Africans.

I have also heard many people, particularly in Pretoria, tell me how accurate the portrayal is. For me that is gratifying because for a lot of people who didn’t grow up there or then, it feels perhaps exaggerated or grotesque for comic effect.

In fact, these were really the sorts of people that populated that world. It made life very hard for anyone who was remotely sensitive.

The title, “The Promise”, also relates to current politics. A big promise is broken in your book and promises continue to be broken to the country as a whole. How do you feel about the outlook for South Africa?

Things are pretty dire. The promise, in a general sense, of the new South Africa has simply not materialized. I don’t think anybody is keeping that secret. Specifically, land reform in South Africa has been one of the slowest processes and is politically highly charged.

South Africa’s economy makes me most depressed: we really could have been in a different place if the vast sums of money that have been plundered had been spent on education or housing.

The government of the ruling ANC party seems to be locked in factional battles to such an extent that governing the country is really a secondary consideration. Here it’s all about who has their snout in the trough.

And “The Promise” also addresses contemporary issues like corruption - are these important topics widely written about in general?

Yes and there’s a great hunger for that kind of information about corruption. That is reflected by high sales of nonfiction books published dealing with the Zuma administration, the ANC’s corruption - and with corruption generally.

People want the information which wasn’t readily available under apartheid. Back then, books were banned, books were controlled. That’s no longer the case. Certainly in the new South Africa, you can say what you think. But corruption is showing no sign of easing.

Even under Covid, funds that government set aside to help disappeared. I know because I was co-owner of a small Indian restaurant in Cape Town. We were entitled to government relief to help our staff - but we never got it. Huge amounts were stolen from that fund, which might account for why our business didn’t get bailed out.

And maybe that topic will provide fertile ground for another book?

I hope so, because the restaurant has served no other purpose in my life other than to clean me out at a time when I didn’t have money! Now this book is out in the world at least my personal fortunes have changed, that’s a small bright note to end on.

“The Promise” was originally published by Penguin Random House South Africa, it is available in Europe from Penguin Random House UK