Ingrid Jonker – the child is not dead
Updated: Oct 26, 2021
Such was the impact of poet Ingrid Jonker that decades after her death in 1965, the late Nelson Mandela read her poem, The Child who Was Shot Dead by Soldiers at Nyanga, at the opening of the first democratic Parliament on 24 May 1994.
"The time will come when our nation will honour the memory of all the sons, the daughters, the mothers, the fathers, the youth and the children who, by their thoughts and deeds, gave us the right to assert with pride that we are South Africans, that we are Africans and that we are citizens of the world," he said 20 years ago.
"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."
She had written the poem following a visit to the Philippi police station to see the body of a child who had been shot dead in his mother's arms by the police in the township of Nyanga in Cape Town. It happened in the aftermath of the massacre of 69 people in Sharpeville, south of Johannesburg, in March 1960. They were marching to the police station to protest against having to carry passbooks.
The third and fourth verses of the poem read:
The child is not dead neither at Langa nor at Nyanga nor at Orlando nor at Sharpeville nor at the police station in Philippi where he lies with a bullet in his head
The child is the shadow of the soldiers On guard with guns saracens and batons the child is present at all meetings and legislations the child peeps through the windows of houses and into the hearts of mothers the child who just wanted to play in the sun at Nyanga is everywhere the child who became a man treks through all of Africa the child who became a giant travels through the whole world Without a pass*
Writing in Drum magazine about the poem, Jonker said: "I saw the mother as every mother in the world. I saw her as myself. I saw Simone [Jonker's own child] as the baby. I could not sleep. I thought of what the child might have been had he been allowed to live. I thought what could be reached, what could gained by death? The child wanted no part in the circumstances in which our country is grasped... He only wanted to play in the sun at Nyanga... [The poem] grew out of my sense of bereavement."
She sent it to several local Afrikaans newspapers for publication, but it was rejected. The Child was eventually published in Contrast magazine, and reprinted in the Netherlands, where Jonker still has a big following. It was translated into several languages, including Hindi, writes Louise Viljoen in A Jacana Pocket Biography of Ingrid Jonker. It was also translated into English and isiZulu and published in Drum, reaching a broader audience.
Jonker was born in 1933 in Douglas in Northern Cape. Shortly before her birth her mother, Beatrice Cilliers, left her father, Abraham, because he had accused her of being unfaithful, and that the unborn child was not his. It was the start of a tumultuous and troubled relationship first with her father and then with other men in her life.
She and her sister, Anna, were brought up by her mother and grandmother in the small coastal town of Gordon's Bay, across False Bay from Cape Town. "The girls played on the beach and in the sea like two small otters, or buried themselves in the fantasy world of books, or spent hours gathering and then hiding 'secrets' in the pine forest," writes Andre Brink in Ingrid Jonker, Black Butterflies, Selected Poems, in which he and poet Antjie Krog translated a selection of her poems. Brink, an internationally renowned Afrikaans novelist who has had his novels translated into some 33 languages, was one of Jonker's lovers.
Her mother suffered from nervous breakdowns and was institutionalised. In 1943, when Jonker was 11 years old, her mother died of cancer. Leaving their beloved grandmother, the two sisters were forced to live with their father. A year later she lost the second important woman in her life – her grandmother passed away in 1945.
Her father had by now married again and had two children. The sisters had to adjust to a very different life with their father, who made it clear to Jonker that he did not approve of her. He was a disciplinarian and a National Party member of parliament, who was later appointed chairman of the parliamentary select committee for censorship laws on art and publications. His daughter opposed censorship, leading to clashes between them. At one point, he reportedly claimed in Parliament that she was not his daughter.
By now Jonker had already begun to write poetry, encouraged by a teacher, but her father refused to acknowledge her talent. At high school she published a series of poems in the local school magazine, encouraged by a teacher. She left home as soon as she matriculated and went to work for several publishers in Cape Town, copy editing and proofreading. At the age of 23 she published her first volume of poetry, appropriately called Ontvlugting, or "escape". She dedicated the volume to her father, but his reaction, according to Brink, was rejection before he had even opened the first page: "My child, I hope there's more to it than the covers. I'll look at it tonight to see how you have disgraced me."
Himself a writer, Abraham Jonker was well-educated and had been a journalist before going into politics. He had published several novels and volumes of short stories – perhaps this was one of the reasons she longed to have his approval of her writing.
An attractive and sensual woman, Jonker began to mix with a Bohemian group of poets and writers, including Uys Krige, Breyten Breytenbach, Jan Rabie, and coloured poet Adam Small and others. It was a progressive group of Afrikaans writers who became known as the Sestigers. In 1956 she married one of them, Piet Venter. Within a year she had given birth to her only child, Simone. But the marriage broke up, and after living with Venter in Johannesburg for a while, she moved back to Cape Town with Simone, where she felt more at home.
She met the writer Jack Cope, a divorcee 20 years her senior, and fell pregnant with his child. According to Brink, when she told Cope she was pregnant, he responded: "What are you going to do about it?" She had an abortion, but their relationship cooled. At this point she met Brink, with whom she had an instant rapport.
Rook en Oker
During this tumultuous time, in 1963, she published her second anthology, Rook en Oker, or "smoke and ochre". In 1964, she won the Afrikaanse Pers-Boekhandel prize for the anthology, and decided to spend her prize money travelling in Europe. She spent time in Amsterdam and Paris, from where she wrote to both her lovers, Brink and Cope.
Brink joined her in Amsterdam, but their relationship was already winding down. "Time and time again we would break up, sometimes with a whimper, often with a bang. Time and time again we would dive back into the love that beckoned like a dark and dangerous current. It could not possibly last," he writes.
It didn't. Jonker appeared to be on a self-destructive roller coaster, unable to stop herself. As a teenager she had first spoken of suicide; on several occasions throughout her life she would stop midway in a conversation with friends, and ask: "Do you think I will commit suicide one day?" It was a premonition she obviously felt strongly throughout her short life.
Her last months appeared to slip and slide out of control, with her spending time in the same mental institution in which her mother had been confined. Brink records: "There are confusing and conflicting reports about the last few months. About several heady affairs, surrounding the central relationship with the painter. About one or more abortions. About ruptures with friends. About an accident in which she broke her leg. About terrible financial straits."
'I can no longer go on living like this'
Jonker had been treated for depression for several years, exacerbated by her break up with Brink and rejection by Cope.
Viljoen writes: "Periods of elfin charm and emotional calm alternated with bouts of extreme anxiety and tension, which led to drinking and an excessive use of medication. Generosity and loyalty towards her friends alternated with selfishness and a childish need for attention and affirmation."
In April 1965, she wrote a letter to Cope, with whom she had remained friends: "I can no longer go on living like this, and by the time this reaches you, it will be no good to search for me. I am not threatening you, this is the sum total of my desperation."
Viljoen records that her cries for help were met "either with incomprehension or indifference". Her sister, Anna, recalls that Ingrid phoned her father to suggest they take a holiday together. "Apparently his response was that he would buy her a one-way ticket to Valkenberg [the state psychiatric hospital in Cape Town]."
In the early hours of 19 July 1965, at the age of 31, Jonker walked into the sea at Three Anchor Bay in Cape Town, and drowned. Her friends reeled in shock and wanted to read tributes and poems at her funeral. But her father threatened them with legal action if they even spoke at her graveside, recount Lauren Segal and Paul Holden in their 2008 book, Great Lives, Pivotal Moments. Instead they stood opposite the family, listening to a Dutch Reformed minister talk of Jonker as a "young housewife".
A week later they organised a second funeral, when they met at the grave again and read her poems. At this memorial, the Ingrid Jonker Prize for debut poets was created. It is still awarded.
Jonker retained a vulnerable, child-like quality throughout her life, seeking approval and acceptance from her father, which probably accounts for the broken relationships with the other men in her life. After her death, her father's health deteriorated and he died of an aneurism barely six months later.
A year after her death, Cope and Anna Jonker published an anthology of her unpublished poems, entitled Tilting Sun. Jonker had also written a play, A Son after My Heart, and several short stories.
Her poems have been translated into German, French, Dutch, Polish, Hindi and isiZulu, among other languages. In 2004, she was awarded the Order of Ikhamanga for "her excellent contribution to literature and a commitment to the struggle for human rights and democracy in South Africa".
* From the translation by Andre Brink and Antjie Krog in Black Butterflies