A famous man took the podium and read a poem entitled “Die kind” (The Child). He did this on an august occasion, the celebration of a new chapter in his nation’s history: a now freely elected parliament would see South Africa into a new future; and he, its first democratically-elected president, would lead the nation. The language of the poem is Afrikaans; the man was Nelson Mandela; the poet, Ingrid Jonker; the date: 24 May 1994. Ingrid Jonker had died in 1965. Just as Virginia Woolf before her, so had she surrendered her life to the waves.
The late Nelson Mandela had said this, amongst other things, about Ingrid Jonker on that day:
The certainties that come with age tell me that among these we shall find an Afrikaner woman who transcended a particular experience and became a South African, an African and a citizen of the world.
Her name is Ingrid Jonker.
She was both a poet and a South African. She was both an Afrikaner and an African. She was both an artist and a human being.
In the midst of despair, she celebrated hope. Confronted with death, she asserted the beauty of life.
The full title of the poem is “Die kind (wat dood geskiet is deur soldate by Nyanga)” or in English, The child who was shot dead by soldiers at Nyanga. It had been inspired by a phrase from Dylan Thomas’s poetry and the shooting death of a child. Jonker composed the poem to commemorate a slain child and to express her defiance against apartheid, against the senseless violence at Sharpesville, Langa, Nyanga and Vanderbijl Park in March of 1960.
Protestors had peacefully gathered in those places and, in the spirit of nonviolence, offered themselves up for arrest to contest the colonial practice of dompas, the need to produce a pass which stipulated where, when, and how long a black South African could stay in a white area. I should point out that ‘dompas’ literally means ‘dumb pass.’ Unfortunately, the principles of nonviolence did not work on 21 March 1960 or the days thereafter. People were shot. People died. A mortified Ingrid saw the photograph of a woman with her dead child in her arms. The child, who had been sick, who had been in transit to a doctor, carried in his mother’s arms, had been shot dead. Look at the title of the poem in Afrikaans and notice the parenthetical. Jonker, in my view, places death within the parenthesis, but subverts it later in the poem, as if there is this initial fact (shot dead) and then later, denial (is not dead/Who shouts Afrika). The parenthesis fails to contain injustice, suggests an aside. Later in the poem, she describes things that that boy might have done as a man, but cannot and will not because of the last devastating line:
This child who just wanted to play in the sun at Nyanga is everywhere
the child grown to a man treks through all Africa
the child grown into a giant journeys through the whole world
Without a pass
Search online and you will invariably find Ingrid Jonker compared to Sylvia Plath and Anne Sexton, poets who ‘confessed’ their struggles and demons. The comparisons perplex me, for Jonker may have committed suicide like Plath and Sexton, may have been self-destructive like them, too, but her poetry is very different from theirs. Plath is often an angry poet and Sexton, indignant. All three poets are technicians of meter. In this poem, “The Face of Love” (Gesig van die liefde), dedicated to her lover Jack Cope, she braids the specific and the eternal aspects of the Beloved and Love. I think that this poem can be read (in translation, at least) top-down and then bottom-up.
Your face is the face of all the others
before you and after you and
your eyes calm as a blue
dawn breaking time on time
herdsman of the clouds
sentinel of white iridescent beauty
the landscape of your contesses mouth
that I have explored
keeps the secret of a smile
like small white villages beyond the
and your heartbeats the measure of
There is no question of beginning
there is no question of possession
there is no question of death
face of my beloved
the face of love
Jonker did have a tumultuous life: a mentally unstable mother who died when she was ten; money problems; a failed marriage, although it produced a daughter, Simone, in 1957; and later, affairs with the much-older Jack Cope and then with the married André Brink. Both men were writers and active in the fight against apartheid, and both men rejected her. The relationship with Cope led to pregnancy and an abortion in 1961. Abortion would remain illegal in South Africa until 1997. She was mercurial and contradictory. Jonker experienced bouts of erratic behavior. She had undergone shock therapy before she ended her life. She believed that she had lost her gift for words. She was 32 years old.
One can only conjecture the emphatic horror and pain that Jonker must have felt when she saw that photograph. While the abortion and the dramas in her romantic life contributed to a stay at a mental hospital, I place the greater parcel of blame for her unhappiness squarely on her father, Abraham Jonker, a National Party Member of Parliament and Minister of Censorship. He wasn’t a simple domestic tyrant. His very public position allowed him to attack artists, including his daughter.
I leave the reader with the statement that he had allegedly made after she walked into the sea and drowned: “They can throw her back in the sea for all I care.” Father and daughter, although they shared the craft of writing, were political antagonists. She dedicated her first volume of poems to him. His response? He was offended and disowned her after its publication. He criticized her work at every turn. In a word, he makes Sylvia Plath’s “Daddy” seem demure.
Jonker would produce three volumes of poetry of increasing power and range. Here, at this link, Tony McGregor provides the reader with a deeper, nuanced appreciation of Jonker’s diction and themes. Black Butterflies is both a collection of her poems translated into English, by André Brink and Antjie Krog (2007), and a film from director Paula van der Oest (2011). Unfortunately, the two available translations of her poetry into English are out of print. That compounds the tragedy.
Ingrid Jonker deserves more readers.