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5 November 2021

Booker Prize-winner Damon Galgut: “South Africa is not a country that speaks with one voice”

The author on racism in the US, the long legacy of apartheid, and why his writing is not influenced by “the threat of identity politics”.

By Ellen Peirson-Hagger

The first time Damon Galgut realised that he had not always been told the truth about South Africa was over a “heated dinner-table argument” with his grandfather. Galgut, who was this week named the 2021 Booker Prize winner for The Promise, studied drama at the University of Cape Town in the 1980s. Having moved there from his hometown of Pretoria, he began taking part in student activism against apartheid. In 1985, during the government’s state of emergency, he witnessed fellow students being “dragged off to jail” and detained without charge.

“You get born into a racist system that is presented to you as normal,” he said yesterday (4 November) at the Groucho Club in Soho, London. His white family were “ordinary”, he said, “which is to say not especially rabidly racist, but casually racist”. One evening “my grandfather told me that the things I’d personally witnessed at student protests – the way the police put the protests down, I got quirted [struck with a whip] – he told me neither of those things were true. I began to realise that other things we were being told were untrue probably were true.

“These are small things,” he clarified, “given what black kids or black families were going through in South Africa. These are little shifts in consciousness, and certainly don’t amount to any kind of admirable understanding on my part.” But they were crucial in forming Galgut’s political and moral beliefs.

They also inform the family dynamic of The Promise, Galgut’s ninth novel, which follows a white family living on a farm outside Pretoria as they navigate the end of apartheid, from 1986 almost up to the present day. The promise of the title is one that has not been kept: that the family would give Salome, their black maid, the deeds to her tiny home that lies on their land. 

Galgut, who is 57, spoke modestly about his win, which follows two previous shortlistings, in 2003 for The Good Doctor and in 2010 for In a Strange Room. He certainly was not the last person to leave the previous evening’s celebratory party at the Union Club in London, he said. Perched on a sofa for our interview, he wore a green shirt, light grey jeans and trainers, and said he would keep his coat on, though he couldn’t work out whether he was feeling hot or cold.

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The narrative voice of The Promise is not omniscient but moves between multiple characters and perspectives, so it is often at odds with itself within the same paragraph. It was the only way Galgut felt he could reflect reality. “South Africa is not a country that speaks, or ever will speak, with one voice. It allowed me to create a discordant, contradictory chorus: that’s what we are.”

Crucially, we are not given access to Salome’s perspective. Though she is the character who sits at the heart of the novel’s plot, she is not part of the chorus. “For a real-life person like Salome – an uneducated rural black woman – there is no voice, and in many ways that’s at the heart of South Africa’s crisis.” There was a “political risk” involved in not including her voice, Galgut said, but his decision was not motivated by “the threat of identity politics”. “I very, very much believe that it’s the premise of all fiction that you imagine how it feels to be somebody else, and that right is supreme.”

Galgut’s Booker Prize win is the fourth for a South African author, following Nadine Gordimer in 1974 and JM Coetzee in both 1983 and 1999. All three authors are white – notable in a country where the vast majority is black. Galgut is “very struck” by how few black students sign up to the creative writing course he teaches at the University of Cape Town, “but there’s an economic reason for it: they know, very rightly, that there’s no money in writing books, so they would prefer to study medicine or engineering”. Furthermore, the South African “government pays lip service to the arts but does not give a damn about the arts”. The lack of value placed on books “goes back to apartheid”, he said. “To write a good book, you have to have read a great many books, and if you’re a black person from a poor family and you don’t have access to a library, you don’t have that privilege. These things take a very long time to turn around, and they never will turn around without the will from government, and I’m not seeing a lot of that.”

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If South Africa’s “racial crisis has been on the boil” for a long time, Galgut believes that many US citizens fail to recognise the extent to which “race is absolutely fundamental to America”. “Slavery is the original sin in the founding of America,” he said. “But what’s struck me is how very reluctant America has been even to admit the possibility that that’s true. It feels to me that we’re way ahead of them in that discussion. If America was a patient, it would be diagnosed as in some kind of psychotic state of denial.”

When coronavirus hit South Africa in early 2020, “the wind went out of the country”, Galgut said. As he wrote for the New Statesman in August, government officials plundered emergency Covid funds, wrecking the economy. Since then he has witnessed a “flatness of spirit”, and knows of many people who are emigrating. “My sense is that we have no money left, and you need money to run a country. But worse than that, there’s no vision left. It’s the same old stuff, which has given us nothing but theft and a new self-interested political class that isn’t much concerned with the needs of the poor and the dispossessed. We officially have the world’s largest wealth income gap, which is very, very depressing.”

South Africans have come to expect corruption from government, he said, “but the scale of it is jaw-dropping”. Even worse is the “utter lack of accountability”: no single high-level government official has yet been imprisoned (other than former president Jacob Zuma, who served less than two months of a 15-month sentence). “There’s a sense of corruption and of impunity, which is a lethal combination.”

When Zuma was imprisoned in July 2021, his supporters rioted, leading to the country’s most severe violence since the end of the apartheid regime in the early 1990s. “That comes out of a sense of despair,” Galgut said. “Of people having lost their job, lost their income, and having nothing left to lose. I would probably be doing it if I were one of those people.” 

But Zuma is yet to face his most serious trial, over charges of corruption that date back to the 1990s. “If convicted, he will probably go to jail for the rest of his life,” Galgut said. “If people were prepared to run riot over a relatively short jail sentence, how are they going to respond when that happens? How is anyone ever going to be held accountable for any crime if the country will be torn apart as a result?”

This article appears in the 10 Nov 2021 issue of the New Statesman, Behind the Masks