The child who was shot dead by soldiers and the tragic life of Ingrid Jonker
The body in the sea
In the early hours of the morning of 19 July 1965 a lovely young woman walked into the sea at Three Anchor Bay, Cape Town, and drowned. Her lifeless body was found by the police in about three feet of water at about 7.30 that morning. And so ended the life of one of South Africa's most promising young writers, a poet of great power and originality, a voice of honesty and openness, a person with a great love of life and the life of words.
Ingrid Jonker, the young poet who died so tragically, has since become an icon in South Africa, especially among young people who love literature, and has achieved in death a fame far beyond what she had experienced, or, perhaps, even hoped for, in life.
She was an Afrikaner, the daughter of a Nationalist Party Member of Parliament, and yet was honoured by the Government of a free and democratic South Africa for "her excellent contribution to literature and a commitment to the struggle for human rights and democracy in South Africa."
Even before the advent of democracy in South Africa, the then President of the African National Congress, the late O.R. Tambo, in a 1987 speech in Harare, Zimbabwe, had this to say about her: "By her death, she joined herself to the children of our country about whom she had written. Her tragic passing was as powerful an indictment of the apartheid system as were these verses which she has left us."
And when Nelson Mandela, on 24 May 1994, opened the first democratic parliament in South Africa as the first democratically elected Black president of the country he quoted her poem "Die kind wat dood geskiet is deur soldate by Nyanga" (The child who was shot dead by soldiers at Nyanga) and said these words: “The time will come when our nation will honour the memory of those who gave us the right to assert with pride that we are South Africans, that we are Africans and citizens of the world. The certainties that come with age tell me that among these we shall find an Afrikaner woman… Her name is Ingrid Jonker.”
"Die Kind" set to music and sung by Dutch composer Peter de Jonge
Nyanga is one of the Black townships around Cape Town and was a centre of protest in March 1960 against the infamous "Pass Laws" then in force, protests which were violently suppressed by police and army units there and, in a better-known incident, at Sharpeville in the then Transvaal. Ingrid was deeply moved by the report of a child who was shot in his mother's arms and wrote this poem, "Die Kind", about which she wrote in a Drum Magazine article in1963: "Go back to the days in March 1960, when blood flowed in this land. For me it was a time of terrible shock and dismay. Then came the awful news about the shooting of a mother and child at Nyanga. The child was killed. The mother, an African, was on her way to take her baby to the doctor. ... I saw the mother as every mother in the world. I saw her as myself...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 be gained by death?"
Die kind wat dood geskiet is deur soldate by Nyanga
Die kind is nie dood nie
die kind lig sy vuiste teen sy moeder
wat Afrika skreeu skreeu die geur van vryheid en heide
in die lokasies van die omsingelde hart
Die kind lig sy vuiste teen sy vader
in die optog van die generasies
wat Afrika skreeu skreeu die geur
van geregtigheid en bloed
in die strate van sy gewapende trots
Die kind is nie dood nie
nòg by Langa nòg by Nyanga
nòg by Orlando nòg by Sharpville
nòg by die polisiestasie in Philippi
waar hy lê met ‘n koeël deur sy kop
Die kind is die skaduwee van die soldate
op wag met gewere sarasene en knuppels
die kind is teenwoordig by alle vergaderings en wetgewings
die kind loer deur die vensters van huise en in die harte van moeders
die kind wat net wou speel in die son by Nyanga is orals
die kind wat ‘n man geword het trek deur die ganse Afrika
die kind wat ‘n reus geword het reis deur die hele wêreld
Sonder ‘n pas
The English translation below is by Ingrid's friend, mentor and lover Jack Cope, famous South African author.
The child who was shot dead by soldiers at Nyanga
The child is not dead
The child lifts his fists against his mother
Who shouts Afrika ! shouts the breath
Of freedom and the veld
In the locations of the cordoned heart
The child lifts his fists against his father
in the march of the generations
who shouts Afrika ! shout the breath
of righteousness and blood
in the streets of his embattled pride
The child is not dead
not at Langa nor at Nyanga
not at Orlando nor at Sharpeville
nor at the police station at Philippi
where he lies with a bullet through his brain
The child is the dark shadow of the soldiers
on guard with rifles Saracens and batons
the child is present at all assemblies and law-givings
the child peers through the windows of houses and into the hearts of mothers
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
In the May 1963 Drum Magazine article Ingrid wrote further: "I am not sure how I came to write the poem. It grew out of my poetic technique, which I have slowly developed like any workman who improves his skill by hard work."
And yet the poem touches on issues that Ingrid returned to again and again in all her poetry - death and childhood, and the role of rejection, the impact of rejection, on both. Her own mother was rejected by her father before Ingrid was born, and she saw her mother descend into poverty and insanity as a result of this rejection.
Gedigte - collections of poems by Jonker
In her lifetime two collections of her poetry were published. The first, Ontvlugting (Escape), was published in 1956, and contained mostly works written in her youth. She dedicated the book to her father, Abraham H. Jonker, MP. His reaction on being told by her that her poems had been published and that the collection was dedicated to him, was typically dismissive and cruel: "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."
The second collection, Rook en Oker (Smoke and Ochre) appeared in 1963 and immediately drew favourable attention. It was a collection of a mature artist, sure of herself and her art, and indeed breaking new ground in Afrikaans literature.
A third collection, Kantelson (Tilted Sun) appeared in 1966. It was put together mostly by her sister Anna, from notes and poems left by Ingrid. It contains some of the most personal of her poems, written for various lovers and friends. Also one of the most unusual, called "Wagtyd in Amsterdam" (Waiting in Amsterdam), which she sent to two of her most intimate friends, with a dedication to each: the Afrikaans writer Andre P. Brink and the English South African author Jack Cope. This poem has been published in the collection of English translations of Ingrid's poetry by Andre Brink and Antjie Krog, Black Butterflies (Human and Rousseau, 2007).
She wrote the poem while on a trip to Europe in 1963. Her sister Anna was very dubious about publishing the poem because of one particular line which she thought too risqué.
The poem, in Brink and Krog's translation:
I can only say that I waited for you
through western nights
at tram stops
and the tower of tears
through the forlorn cities of Europe
I recognised you
I prepared the table
with wine with bread with grace
but unperturbed you turned your back
you took off your cock
laid it on the table
and without a word
with your own smile
forsook the world.
Anna found disturbing the use of the word "cock" in the context of a poem deliberately evoking Psalm 23 and the Christian Eucharist. Ingrid apparently thought it hilarious.
Andre Brink reads his translation of Ingrid's poem "Autumn Morning"
Valkenburg and the struggle for security
Her life, though, was not hilarious, it was a struggle, with poverty, with failed love relationships, with her sometimes tenuous grip on reality, and in particular, her constant and ultimately unsuccessful search for a caring, trustworthy father figure.
At one time, in July 1961, she spent time in the psychiatric hospital Valkenburg, in Cape Town, trying to deal with her reaction to having felt herself forced to abort the child of her lover Jack Cope. Again a failure of a father figure. Cope was considerably older than Ingrid and she had come to rely very much on him, both in terms of her writing and in her life. She wrote the now-famous poem "Korreltjie Sand" (Grain of Sand) in reaction to this experience. In fact, she gave the original copy of the poem to the psychiatrist who had treated her in Valkenburg.
The poem has in Afrikaans an almost childlike rhythm and rhyming structure, almost like a nursery rhyme, but the deeper significance of the words give it an overall bleakness belied by the outward form.
The last two stanzas read, in Brink and Krog's translation:
Small arrow feathered into space
love fades away from its place
Carpenter seals a coffin that's bought
I ready myself for the nought
Small grain of sand is my word, my breath
small grain of sand is my death.
While this translation does capture the literal meaning of the words, it doesn't quite capture the depth of the feeling which the Afrikaans words carry, which I can't read without wanting to cry with the pain:
Pyltjie geveer in verskiet
liefde verklein in die niet
Timmerman bou aan 'n kis
Ek maak my gereed vir die Niks
Korreltjie klein is my woord
korreltjie niks is my dood.
Not a poet myself I can only translate the words prosaically but hope to capture something of the feeling that I get from them: "little arrow shot into the distance (the word "verskiet" can also be understood as being "used up", or a shifting of pain) / love reduced into the nothingness / Carpenter is building a coffin / I get myself ready for the Nothing / little grain is my word / grain of nothing is my death."
In the poem the constant use of the diminutive is also important: Ingrid refers to the "little grain", the "little pebble", the "little sun", the "little eye" and so on. Its almost as if she is trying to reduce the impact of her pain and her feeling of loss. Again the sense of a lost future, just like the child who was shot at Nyanga the previous year. Such pain to feel.
Ontvlugting - a poem about Valkenburg
Uit hierdie Valkenburg het ek ontvlug
en dink my nou in Gordonsbaai terug:
Ek speel met paddavisse in 'n stroom
en kerf swastikas in 'n rooikransboom
Ek is die hond wat op die strande draf
en dom-allenig teen die aandwind blaf
Ek is die seevoël wat verhongerd daal
en dooie nagte opdis as 'n maal
Die god wat jou geskep het uit die wind
sodat my smart in jou volmaaktheid vind:
My lyk lê uitgespoel in wier en gras
op al die plekke waar ons eenmaal was.
This video is of Dutch artists Niki Romijn and bassist Erik Robaard singing a version of this poem.
This is an early poem which recalls Ingrid's childhood in the little town of Gordon's Bay on the coast of False Bay, on the Cape South Coast. The last couplet is poignantly prescient of the death she would actually die: "my body lies washed out in weed and grass / in all the places where we once were."
Love and redemption
In her last letter to Jack Cope, which he didn't receive until after her suicide, she listed all the people she loved, and especially, she wrote, "daardie kuikentjie van ons wat 'n graf het in die hemel (that chicken of ours who has a grave in heaven)".
The pain that she felt was to some extent countered by the love of life she had, the love of significant people, like Cope, to whom she dedicated a wonderful poem collected in Kantelson entitled "Gesig van die liefde (Face of love)" which Brink and Krog translated thus:
Your face is the face of all the others before you and after you and your eyes calm as a blue
dawn that breaks again and again
herder of the clouds
keeper of the white ever-changing beauty
the landscape of your declared mouth that I have discovered
retains the secret of a smil
like small white villages beyond the mountains
and your pulse the measure of their rapture
there is no question of beginning
there is no question of possession
there is no question of death
face that I love
the face of love
Mandela, in his address at the opening of the first democratic parliament quoted above, also said of Ingrid: "In the midst of despair, she celebrated hope. Confronted by death, she asserted the beauty of life. In the dark days when all seemed hopeless in our country, when many refused to hear her resonant voice, she took her own life. To her, and others like her, we owe a debt to life itself. To her and others like her, we owe a commitment to the poor, the oppressed, the wretched and despised."
I think she, in her life and in her death, answered her own question: "What could be reached?" - the breath of freedom and the veld, the breath of righteousness and blood.
The text and all images on this page, unless otherwise indicated, are by Tony McGregor who hereby asserts his copyright on the material. Should you wish to use any of the text or images feel free to do so with proper attribution and, if possible, a link back to this page. Thank you.
© Tony McGregor 2009
Link to a blog on Jonker
- Ingrid Jonker: Ingrid Jonker (19 September 1933 - 19 Julie 1965)
A blog dedicated to Ingrid Jonker and her poetry