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The child who was shot dead by soldiers and the tragic life of Ingrid Jonker

Updated on September 12, 2012

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.”

Cover of the Collected Works, Third Edition, 1993
Cover of the Collected Works, Third Edition, 1993
Cover of the Brink and Krog collection of translations of a selection of Ingrid Jonker's poems published in 2007
Cover of the Brink and Krog collection of translations of a selection of Ingrid Jonker's poems published in 2007
The memorial to Ingrid Jonker on the beach at Gordon's Bay with a brief quotation from the poem "The child who was shot dead..." Photo by Tony McGregor
The memorial to Ingrid Jonker on the beach at Gordon's Bay with a brief quotation from the poem "The child who was shot dead..." Photo by Tony McGregor

"Die Kind" set to music and sung by Dutch composer Peter de Jonge

Die Kind

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

in lanes

by canals

and the tower of tears

You came

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.

Copyright Notice

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


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    • profile image


      7 years ago

      L'enfant a été abattu par des soldats à Nyanga.

      L'enfant n'est pas mort,

      l'enfant lève les poings contre sa mère

      qui crie : - Afrika !

      Et pleure le parfum de la liberté et de la bruyère

      à jamais dans son cœur d'assiégé.

      L'enfant lève les poings contre son père,

      au mois de mars toutes les générations

      crient : - Afrika !

      Et pleurent

      la justice et le sang

      dans les rues de sa fierté exacerbée.

      L'enfant n'est pas mort,

      ni à Langa, ni à Nyanga,

      ni à Orlando, ni à Sharpville,

      ni au poste de police à Philippi

      où il gît avec une balle dans la tête.

      L'enfant est l'ombre noire des soldats,

      des gardes de Saracen* armés de fusils et de matraques.

      L'enfant est présent à toutes les assemblées gouvernementales.

      L'enfant regarde à travers les fenêtres

      des maisons et le cœur des mères.

      L'enfant qui voulait juste jouer au soleil de Nyanga est partout,

      l'enfant devenu un homme marche à travers toute l'Afrique,

      l'enfant devenu un géant voyage dans le Monde entier,

      sans laissez-passer.

      Mars 1960

      * —Saracen International, est une société d'origine sudafricaine née au temps de l'apartheid et qui a la réputation d'avoir servi à éliminer physiquement les opposants au régime blanc raciste de l'époque : belle image de marque, celle des Croisés, correspondant assez à l'état d'esprit qui anime Érik Prince, plus proche du Ku-Klux-Klan que d'autre chose. Prince est un mercenaire américain évangéliste ayant des liens de longue date au Pentagone et à la CIA.

    • profile image


      8 years ago

      What a story. What a woman. I am inspired to dig deeper into poetry that influenced music and to enjoy the benefit of both diciplines brought together.

    • profile image


      8 years ago

      Today I watched a movie named "Black Butterflies" on HULU, encompassing life of Ingrid Janker. It was very touching and sad story. I wonder how only few of us have the courage to say something against injustice prevailing around us. Ingrid did it defying her father who was a politician. Her unstable marriage and love affairs, animosity of her father who tried to institutionalized her and permitted electric-shock therapy, probably forced her to commit suicide. I agree with all reviewers that her death at such a young age was unfortunate for the literary world.

      Thanks for your HUB, which included many facts about Ingrid I did not know before.

      I particularly liked this couplet of her poem:

      All the breaks, falls, or dies away,

      like the ejaculation of seed,

      has no other significance and betrayal,

      because everything shaped, completed or begun in the womb,

      has like life begotten, no other fulfillment in the tomb.

      Thanks Tony.

    • kimh039 profile image

      Kim Harris 

      8 years ago

      Wow! Another profound and extremely well written hub. Gripping too. I was pulled in by the first paragraph. Thanks Tony:)

    • tonymac04 profile imageAUTHOR

      Tony McGregor 

      8 years ago from South Africa

      Martie - ja, ek stem! I did not know that about Marike de Klerk. I often think of her when I'm in Cape Town with my in-laws who live very close to where whe lived and was murdered.

      I too can seldom read Ingrid's words or words about her without tears in my eyes. She was a very special person. Always wish I could have met her and am very sorry that I first heard of her only when she walked into the sea.

      Thanks for the comment.

      Love and peace


    • MartieCoetser profile image

      Martie Coetser 

      8 years ago from South Africa

      Marike de Klerk tried to write her own biography before she asked Maretha Martens to do it. Marike’s words: “Ek vermoed ’n paar ossewaens moet oor ’n mens ry voor hy ’n skrywer kan word.”

      Personally I don’t think writers become writers because of what happens to them – the same thing happens to many others. Writers - 99% of all artists - have extremely sensitive souls, so they experience everything intensely. Ons maak berge van molshope, sê die harde koejawels. Ons is maar net ‘kleinserig’? Well, I prefer to be like this, and to befriend people who are like this. I don’t feel comfortable amongst people who are insensitive, apathetic, phlegmatic and callous. Ingrid was a victim of the latter. My heart will never stop hurting for her.

      Take care, Tony - Hugs and peace to you and yours.

    • tonymac04 profile imageAUTHOR

      Tony McGregor 

      8 years ago from South Africa

      Martie my vriend! Baie dankie vir die mooi woorde en moori besoek. Haar pa het seker sy eie redes vir sy optrede gehad, maar ek stem saam, dit is asof hy glad nie verstaan het nie, glad nie omgegee het nie. It is clear that his attitude hurt Ingrid to the depths of her being - she spent a great of her life trying to win his attention, mostly without any success. I think one of the sources of her deep melancholy was her feeling of rejection by her father. She wanted to admire and love him and he just shoved her away, as he had done to her mother.

      And then I have a question that I often have about such relationships - had he accepted her, had she felt his love, would she have written the glorious poems that she did and which have enriched us so much?

      It's a big mystery to me - do some artists have to go through pain and suffering to produce great art? Is that why so many creative people end up with only one ear?

      thanks for stopping by, dear friend.

      Love and peace


    • MartieCoetser profile image

      Martie Coetser 

      8 years ago from South Africa

      Typical insensitive ploert-van-’n-Boer: “...My child, I hope there's more to it than the cover. I'll look at it tonight to see how you have disgraced me." What a disgrace for a country is men/fathers like him? And they - at least 99% - were all like him and too many are still like him. Bokslagters. Bombaste. Korrelkoppe. But on the other hand, why were they so hard and heartless? Without affection and compassion for their own wives and children the blacks certainly had no chance at all.

      Tony, I’m so glad I’ve discovered this hub of yours about Ingrid Jonker. The sadness of her soul is braided in her poems. Two of my favorites: ‘Dubbelspel’ and ‘Bitterbessie Dagbreek’.

      I wish you joy and peace on this Valentine’s Day, and some romance as well.

    • tonymac04 profile imageAUTHOR

      Tony McGregor 

      9 years ago from South Africa

      Dear Sister Freya - thanks so much for your wonderful and thoughtful comment. She was a rather troubled young woman who, for all her brilliance, struggled to find peace or love. She loved, as the bard said, too much but not too wisely!

      The 30 day challenge pic is not true for me! It was just a graphic that was used for the 30 day challenge back then. I am long retired and write now almost full time! Thanks for the concern, though. I really appreciate it.

      Love and peace


    • Freya Cesare profile image

      Freya Cesare 

      9 years ago from Borneo Island, Indonesia

      This is really great Hub. Beautiful tribute for beautiful soul whose lost under the pain of her life. It is very sad to think that nobody able to help her while she already moved so many heart. So ironic how even for the most loveable woman, life can be far from love she need. :(

      And I really like her poem: "The child who was shot dead". So deep and strong. Picturing about those poor children of pain and also war. picturing about herself. Picturing about many of us, in our struggle to find peace in this cruel world.

      Thank you, Sir, for introduced me with her works. ^_^

      PS: What is that pic against 30 days challenge about? Please don't tell me the incident which written in it is the truth? That can be really awful if it is true.

    • tonymac04 profile imageAUTHOR

      Tony McGregor 

      9 years ago from South Africa

      Peggy - thank you so much. I love the work of Ingrid Jonker so much and she was so much part of this beautiful country. I will be in Cape Town again on Friday for about 10 days and hope to pay my respects again to her memory at Three Anchor Bay.

      Coincidentally I was just thinking about another Hub to write about Ingrid and was reading a book about her at about the time you were leaving this lovely comment!

      Love and peace


    • Peggy W profile image

      Peggy Woods 

      9 years ago from Houston, Texas

      Such a sad life she had and yet she left an amazing legacy with her powerful words. That first video was so beautiful showing various areas of Africa. There is such beauty there! If only mankind could reflect inner beauty such as is everywhere in nature! This is a wonderful hub even if I now have a lump in my throat...

    • tonymac04 profile imageAUTHOR

      Tony McGregor 

      9 years ago from South Africa

      My brotherman Micky - you are so kind. I know about the waiting while others go. Mum-in-law is still at death's door and so many others that I've treasured over the years have left us. Some of them younger than me, for goodness sake. And now there's something in my eyes too! So I'll just have to sign off - can't see the keyboard too well.

      Love and peace


    • Micky Dee profile image

      Micky Dee 

      9 years ago

      Tony - I could only get through a fraction of the write before something got in my eyes. It's my age. It's the waiting while others go on before me. It's life. I do grow so weary of tragic, senseless death. Maybe worse than death is the lack of respect that is shown to God's people by people. God bless you BrotherMan Tony!

    • tonymac04 profile imageAUTHOR

      Tony McGregor 

      9 years ago from South Africa

      Thanks for dropping by and commenting, Deepanjana. Your visit and comments are deeply appreciated.

      Love and peace


    • deepanjana profile image


      9 years ago

      Thanks Tony for this hub!

    • Cris A profile image

      Cris A 

      10 years ago from Manila, Philippines

      Indeed, a fascinating life and thought-provoking poetry. Thanks for pointing me to this hub.

    • profile image


      10 years ago

      I'm glad you like it then. I think if you look for "Korreltjie sand" for example on youtube,you will find some of his videos.He sings that live as far as I remember. Probably 'Die Onverkrybare' too.

      In any case, it was great to read more about "Die Kind",it's one of those things that really get to you

    • tonymac04 profile imageAUTHOR

      Tony McGregor 

      10 years ago from South Africa

      Thanks Jo - I actually have the Chris Chameleon album. I like it also but I thought the vids I embedded were not too bad.

      Love and peace


    • profile image


      10 years ago

      I'm just telling you about it because I saw you embedded a few youtube videos that really don't to any justice to the poems

    • profile image


      10 years ago

      Did you know that a man by the name of Chris Chameleon made a whole amazing album out of her poems? It was pretty huge in South Africa

      You should all take a listen,because he has the amazing ability to put them on music

      Here's the page where the full length songs are:

    • profile image

      Peter Kirstein 

      10 years ago

      Thanks for the reminder of a remarkable woman. I first heard of her from my parents shortly after her death - I was around 12 years old at the time and remember both mom and dad admiring her greatly and sadened at her tragic death.

    • bingskee profile image


      10 years ago from Quezon City, Philippines

      reminded me of Sylvia Plath.. it made me wonder why these talented women resorted to suicide when they have all the wonderful words (including the painful ones maybe) to describe the world. could it be the lack of it enable others to deal with the harshness of this world?

      thank you for sharing. another one insightful information added to my info box.

    • tonymac04 profile imageAUTHOR

      Tony McGregor 

      10 years ago from South Africa

      Ah, Larry - coincidences abound! Glad you made it out.

      Love and peace


    • maven101 profile image


      10 years ago from Northern Arizona

      Tony..Interesting you should mention 20 July 1965 as a bookmark of memory for you...on that very date I left the grasp of Viet Nam and returned to the land of my birth...Larry

    • tonymac04 profile imageAUTHOR

      Tony McGregor 

      10 years ago from South Africa

      Larry - interesting that you should mention Camus, as the person who introduced me to Camus was also the one who introduced me to this great poet, Dr Johannes Degenaar, with whom I was taking a philosophy course at the University of Stellenbosch in 1965, and indeed one of the texts we were studying that year was the Myth of Sisyphus. So I can date exactly when I first heard of Ingrid - 20 July 1965 in Dr Degenaar's philosophy lecture. I remember him expressing his shock and dismay the day after her death.

      Frog - indeed Igrid is often called the "Sylvia Plath of South Africa." Something about the great sensitivity of such people making it very difficult for them to cope with the ugly things in life?

      Tom - you are very welcome. It is always a joy to me to write about the many great people who have contributed so much to life from this country. I will be following up with other people in due course, maybe even Dr Degenaar?

      Love and peace


    • Tom Rubenoff profile image

      Tom rubenoff 

      10 years ago from United States

      Thank you, Tony, for this very moving article. I am glad to be introduced to the profound work of this poet.

    • frogdropping profile image


      10 years ago

      Tony - so many great writers seems to suffer such mental pain. Sylvia Plath and Virginia Wolf spring to mind.

      This was a wonderful article, for me it was in part about Ingrid Jonker and part about the struggles in Africa. A beautiful country.


    • maven101 profile image


      10 years ago from Northern Arizona

      A remarkable woman of whom I was totally unaware until reading your poignant and moving Hub. Thank you, Tony, for giving us this gift from South Africa...

      I know you are familiar with Camus, and taking from his assertion that there is but one truly serious philosophical problem, and that is suicide, you could understand Ingrid's sense of absurdity with the tragic consequences of Apartheid, and become overwhelmed by the injustice of it all...Stay in Peace, my friend...Larry


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