Troubled, and inspired by troubles
In his inaugural address to Parliament on May 24, 1994, when President Nelson Mandela read "The child who was shot dead by soldiers at Nyanga" in full, he said of Jonker's poem: "... in this glorious vision she instructs that our endeavours must be about the liberation of the woman, the emancipation of the man and the liberty of the child".
Of the poet herself, he said: "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 by death, she asserted the beauty of life."
Ingrid Jonker's first published poems appeared in her high school magazine at Wynberg Girls' High. In 1949, aged 16, she sent her collection of poems Na die Somer (After the Summer) for publication, but it was rejected.
Much of her early writing reflects some of the upheaval and trauma of her childhood, but as a mature poet her work expressed compassion and sensitivity to the poor. This was most clearly evident in her poem "Die kind" (The Child).
In an interview with Drum magazine in May 1963, Jonker said of the poem: "It grew out of my own experience and sense of bereavement. It rests on a foundation of all philosophy, a certain belief in life eternal, a belief that nothing is ever wholly lost. I am surprised when people call it political. I am warmed when others read it and thank me for it..."
The 1960s was a decade that consolidated apartheid ideology in all aspects of South African life. This included censorship of the arts and suppression of free speech and political association.
Like other artists and writers of the Sestigers [Sixties] movement, Jonker hated the system. This set her against her father, Dr Abraham Jonker, also a writer, a National Party MP and chairman of the parliamentary committee responsible for censorship. He summed up the government of the day's position when he said: "The politicians run the country, why can't they rule art as well?"
Here we have writers ... standing up against politicians. And the writers are on the side of freedom.
Jonker was among a group of artists who petitioned the National Party government in 1963, protesting against increasing censorship. In the Drum interview, she said: "Here we have writers ... standing up against politicians. And the writers are on the side of freedom."
This heightened tensions between Jonker and her father. When her volume of poetry, Rook en Oker (Smoke and Ochre) was published in October that year, Jonker offered to visit her father and bring him a signed copy. He told her to post it, adding that because of her outspoken criticism of him and National Party policies he had no wish to be seen with her in public.
Notwithstanding the Afrikaner establishment's dismissal of her work, the brilliance of Rook en Oker was recognised by writers, critics and the Afrikaans press, and in February 1964 it was awarded the prestigious Afrikaanse Pers-Boekhandel prize.
In a letter to Laurens van der Post in 1964, Jonker repeated her opposition to censorship. "We are and have been fighting for freedom of expression in our country and we, as writers, shall never come to terms with the enemy."
Jonker had a troubled life. She was married in December 1956 but left her husband two years later. She had affairs that ended unhappily, with writers like Jack Cope and André Brink, and she was admitted to mental hospitals on several occasions. In June 1965, in a letter to Cope, a lifelong friend, she said: "The truth is, I can no longer go on living like this..." Less than a month later she was dead.
At the age of 31, in the early hours of July 19, 1965, Jonker walked into the sea at Three Anchor Bay in Green Point and drowned. At around 3am she had been seen on the promenade with a friend. Later, a depressed Jonker had gone to the Sea Point police station where she'd chatted to a sergeant, who walked her to her nearby flat. That was the last time anyone saw her alive.
At her funeral her father refused to let any of her friends participate in the service.
At her funeral on July 22, 1965, her father refused to let any of her friends participate in the service. The Dutch Reformed Church minister who conducted the service, apparently ignorant of her stature as a writer, referred to Jonker as a "young housewife". Her friends arranged a second gathering three days later at which they could pay their respects. Among them was the writer, Uys Krige who remarked: "Her words will be heard by us for a long, long time beyond her grave."
Two years later the literary magazine, Contrast, published an essay by critic David Lytton entitled, "Ingrid comes to Stratford". "Nothing is ever quite the same after a true poet has happened to us. Something has been added which was not there before. There is no doubt that Ingrid was a true poet. Afrikaans, at least, has received an addition which can never be dispensed with. The future will naturally wish to know as much as possible about the person responsible for that addition to its inheritance," he wrote.
Researched by Sue Valentine with acknowledgments and thanks to:
Petrovna Metelerkamp, Beeld van 'n digterslewe, Hemel en See, Vermont, 2003
Cape Times, July 20, 1965 (p6)
Cape Times, July 22 (p1) and July 26 (p5), 1965
Ingrid Jonker, Selected Poems, translated by Jack Cope and William Plomer, Human & Rousseau, 1988