by Piet Coetzer

Promises and great expectations

A lie in fancy dress

Final word
Promises 002.jpg

With South Africa in turmoil and in the grip of unrest on many fronts, from wildcat strikes in the mining sector and violent protest in the farming industry of the Boland, to service delivery protest aimed at local authorities all over the place, analysts are searching frantically to identify the underlying reasons. One that pops up regularly is frustrated expectations among the majority of the population. 

Many of these expectations can be traced back to the birth of the South African democracy in 1994. They arose on the back of the promises made and implied during that first fully democratic and epic 1994 election – and the promises by political and other leaders since.

It may seem I’m being wise because this comes after the event, but perhaps our leaders should have heeded the advice of Abraham Lincoln when he said many years ago: “We must not promise what we ought not, lest we be called upon to perform what we cannot.”

Much of what we experience in the country at present is encapsulated in a quote from William Shakespeare’s All's Well that Ends Well:

                                    Oft expectation fails and most oft there

                                    Where most it promises, and oft it hits

                                    Where hope is coldest and despair most fits.

To these two quotations I would like to add a new expression: “A promise not kept is but a lie in fancy dress.” I could not find anyone who said it before, so this one I claim for myself.


The word 'promise' first appeared in English during the 15th century and was originally spelt 'promys'. Its Latin roots are the word promissum meaning a pledge or vow and the verb promittere meaning to send forth or to foretell. In English, from the word go, it meant a pledge or a vow.  

To this day a promise means that you make a declaration that you pledge or vow that you will do/deliver, or maybe not do something.

As to the relationship between a promise unlikely to be fulfilled and a “barefaced lie” (originally it was boldfaced) one would do well to take note that the tendency to lie goes way back to the earliest days of mankind. Just think about what the snake told Eve in the Garden of Eden about the apple!

Little wonder then that the word, lie in the English language goes back to a time before the year 900. It came to us via to Old High German word lugī as lēogan and lyge in Old English and lige in Middle English.


The word expectation arrived in the English language a century later by the mid 16th century also from Latin. Tellingly, in our current situation, from the Latin root expectātiōn via the French expectation, which meant ‘an awaiting’.

It is expecting too much to hope that the majority of the South African population, which had and still has so little, to heed the advice of Alexander Pope in a letter written in 1727: Blessed is he who expects nothing for he shall never be disappointed.”

And our leaders, even now when they frantically attempt to calm things down with new promises, would do well to take note of the words of George Bernard Shaw when he said, "Remember, our conduct is influenced not by our experience but by our expectations."

The rest of us, when listening to or reading the declamations of politicians, trade union leaders and the like, should heed an old Yiddish saying: “Words should be weighed, not counted.”

To those among us who argue that the reason that our leaders have not been able to deliver on their promises is because they are too busy enriching themselves and plundering the country’s resources, I want to offer for contemplation and introspection another old Yiddish proverb: “A man is not honest simply because he never had a chance to steal.”

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