Jonker, Ingrid (1933–1965)

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Jonker, Ingrid (1933–1965)

Afrikaaner poet whose death was regarded by many as a protest against apartheid. Born on September 19, 1933, in Douglas Cape Province, South Africa; drowned herself in the ocean at Green Point, Cape Town, on July 19, 1965; daughter of Abraham Jonker (a writer and editor) and Beatrice (Cilliers) Jonker; attended high school; married Pieter also seen as Peter Venter; children: daughter Simone Venter (b. 1957).

Completed first collection of poetry, Na die Somer (1949); published first collection, Ontvlugting (1956); published Rook en Oker (1963); won South Africa's largest literary prize; traveled around Europe; her last collection, Kantelson, published from her manuscripts after her death.

Selected works:

Ontvlugting (Escape, Cape Town: Uitgewery Culemborg, 1956); Rook en Oker (Smoke and Ocher, Johannesburg: Afrikaanse Pers-Boekhandel, 1963); "Die Bok" (The Goat, short story published in London magazine); (published posthumously) Kantelson (Setting Sun, Johannesburg: Afrikaanse Pers-Boekhandel, 1966); Versamelde Werke (Complete Works, including the titles listed above, as well as "Enkele vertalings deur Ingrid Jonker" [three poems in English], "Fragmente en opdragte," "Jeugwerk" [poems in Afrikaans], "Prosa," and five short stories, Human & Rousseau, 3rd rev. ed, 1994).

On July 19, 1965, Ingrid Jonker, an Afrikaaner in her early 30s, took her life, purposefully drowning in the ocean at Green Point, Cape Town. Three decades later, on May 24, 1994, President Nelson Mandela gave his first State of the Nation address to the Houses of Parliament in Cape Town. In his speech, he invoked the memory of a woman whose death many regarded as a tragic protest against the immorality of the South African government during apartheid.

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. … [A]mong these we shall find an Afrikaaner 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 Afrikaaner 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. 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 the despised.

Ingrid Jonker was born on September 19, 1933, in Douglas Cape Province, the daughter of Abraham Jonker, a writer and editor, and Beatrice Cilliers Jonker . Beatrice had left Abraham before Ingrid was born, and Ingrid's grandfather died when the child was five, leaving three generations of women to eke out an existence. Along with her sister, Ingrid spent her early years accompanying her mother and grandmother, who were relegated to collecting scraps and throwaways. At age six, she began writing poetry, an act she later referred to as "making my own happiness." The rhythms of the Afrikaaner hymn book she used as a guide would later be transformed into free verse.

After the death of their mother around 1943, the Jonker sisters moved to the house of their father who had remarried and had a new family, but the sisters never managed to fit in. It was Abraham Jonker who helped write the laws which censored and silenced dissident voices. At 16, Ingrid completed her first collection of poems, Na die Somer, and vainly attempted to get it published, but it would be another seven years before her first book, Ontvlugting, appeared in print. Perhaps in response to her difficult childhood, she was often subject to periods of hopelessness, and her poetry is filled with images of despair. Wrote Jonker in "Pregnant Woman":

I lie under the crust of the night singing,
curled up in the sewer, singing,
and my bloodchild lies in the water.

Jonker married Peter Venter and worked as a publisher's reader, a secretary, and a typist while continuing to write. In 1957, she gave birth to a daughter, Simone Venter , then, like her mother before her, left her husband soon thereafter. In the same year, a young African lawyer named Nelson Mandela was one of the 156 activists charged in the notorious Treason Trials. The South Africa of Jonker's day was one in which the legislative apparatus of apartheid was being established. Pass laws to control movement of Africans around their country and education laws designed to make sure that Africans learned only how to be menial workers were passed in the early 1950s. In response, anti-apartheid organizations, including the African National Congress (ANC), mobilized people around the country to protest the repression.

In 1960, there were violent clashes in Langa and Sharpeville where the police shot and killed unarmed civilians who were protesting the passlaws. On March 21 in Sharpeville, 69 people were killed, most of whom died from bullet wounds to the back. In Nyanga, a baby was shot in the head. During a time when the white power minority was repressing the majority African population, Jonker's poetry mirrored the horror. Now the mother of a three-year-old, Jonker wrote "Die Kind wat doodgeskiet is deuv soldate by Nyanga" (The Child Who Was Shot Dead by Soldiers in Nyanga) which tells of a child who, though victim to the violence Jonker was witnessing, lives on in the public conscience. Destined to be invoked as a testament to the evils of apartheid, the poem appeared in her second collection Rook en Oker, for which she won South Africa's largest literary prize. With the £1,000 prize, Jonker traveled to England, Holland, France, Spain, and Portugal.

Although she is best known as a poet in the Afrikaans language, Jonker also studied English poetry, especially that of John Keats and Dylan Thomas, and translated some of her own work into English. Her poems have also been translated into 12 other languages including Zulu and Hindi. In addition to her poetry, Jonker published the short story "Die Bok," which appeared in London magazine, and completed the play, A Son after My Heart.

Ingrid Jonker was unable to come to terms with the despair and sense of foreboding with which she lived. The lines of a poem she had written at age 20—"My body lies in seaweed and in grass/ washed up in every place that we have passed"—foreshadowed her death 12 years later. In a speech delivered at the International Conference on "Children, Repression and the Law in Apartheid South Africa" held in Harare on September 24, 1987, her suicide was called "as powerful an indictment of the apartheid system" as had been her dissident voice. On that occasion, Jonker's poem "Die Kind wat doodgeskiet is deuv soldate by Nyanga" was recited, including the lines:

The child is not dead
not at Langa nor at Nyanga
nor at Orlando nor at Sharpeville
nor at the police post at Philippi
where he lies with a bullet through his brain. …
this child who wanted only to play in
the sun at Nyanga is everywhere

"We share with her," noted the keynote speaker, "the knowledge and confidence that the wanton massacre of the children at Langa and at Nyanga, at Orlando and at Sharpeville, at Soweto, Athlone, Maseru, Gaborone, Harare, Maputo and Kassinga, the knowledge that this succession of massacres will not deny us our journey over the whole world—free at last, at last free, the last to be free but free, at last."


Ingrid Jonker: Selected Poems. Translated from the Afrikaans by Jack Cope and William Plomer. London: Jonathan Cape, 1968.

In Memoriam: Ingrid Jonker. Kaapstad, Pretoria, South Africa: Human & Rousseau, 1966.

suggested reading:

A Century of South African Poetry. Introduced and edited by Michael Chapman. Johannesburg: Donker, 1981.

Cope, Jack. The Adversary Within: Dissident writers in Afrikaans. Cape Town, South Africa: D. Phillip, 1982 (NJ: Humanities Press).

The Penguin Book of South African verse. Compiled and introduced by Jack Cope and Uys Krige. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1968.

related media:

Opdrag: Ingrid Jonker, one-woman play performed by acclaimed South African actor Jana Cilliers , written by Ryk Hattingh, directed by Mark Graham.

Muhonjia Khaminwa , freelance writer, Cambridge, Massachusetts

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Jonker, Ingrid (1933–1965)

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