Hitting the Big Time - Mourning Jonker and Nakasa

Letter from Athol Fugard

Nat fell to his death in New York on the 4th July 1965. Three days later the newspapers carried the story of Ingrid Jonker's death in Cape Town.

We have paid again. Let us make no mistake; this was another instalment in the terrible price and South Africa - that profligate spender of human lives - paid it.

As far as I know Nat and Ingrid never met. She must have known of him of course as the editor of Classic, and he in turn must at least have read her poem Die Kind - if not in the original anthology then certainly when published by Drum magazine. It is a waste of time now to speculate on the possible consequences of that meeting. In any case I don't think it would have changed anything. I say this not in disparagement of what they might have given each other as individuals, but because it almost doesn't seem to have been necessary.

I am thinking here particularly of Ingrid who is still accessible to us in the poetry she left behind - more specifically a few of the poems in "Rook en Oker", the book that won her the Afrikaanse Pers prize. Think of Nat and then read her poem "My pop val stukkend". It is almost impossible not to use a word like 'prescience' to describe its disturbing relevance. This is there not only in the image of the fallen, broken doll:

"deur die lied van die penniefluitjies
geval op die dreunende straat
my pop met 'n naam soos 'n liggaam
wat net soos 'n mens kon praat"

but in her, and so our, agonised conscience after the event.

Here is the third verse:

"My pop soos 'n mossie geskiet
korrel-kaal van die vensterbank
of was dit die wind uit die verte
of was dit my eie hand"

Can South Africa ever escape, ever answer the question in those last two lines?

And in the final verse:

"Die skaduwee waarsku die son
porselein met die ver lug bo -
as ek sou val uit 'n hoë balkon
as ek sou val lyk ek ook sò"

there is, in the tone of the abused Ophelia-like innocence which is so uniquely the sound of her voice, a recognition of the frailty which binds us all to that terrible moment in New York when Nat fell, and which her own death proved three days later.

In other poems in her book Ingrid is more explicit. I have already mentioned "Die Kind" - which she wrote after the death of the African child who was shot on his mother's back during the Nyanga troubles. Maybe tomorrow, or whenever I can say 'Nat is dead' and really believe it, I will be able to join her in the almost strident conviction of this poem that out of the appalling waste of human life something strong and good is going to emerge. Today we look for something fragile and precious, something that can be broken, or lost, or - since that is her metaphor - not heard. We find it in "Madeliefies in Namakwaland".

"Agter my gesneeuwelde woord
Agter ons verdeelde huis
Agter die hart gesluit teen homself
Agter draadheinings, kampe, lokasies
Agter die stilte waar onbekende tale
val soos klokke by 'n begrafnis
Agter ons verskeurde land
Sit die groen hotnotsgot van die veld
En ons hoor nog verdwaasd
Klein blou Namakwaland-madeliefie
iets antwoord, iets glo, iets weet."

There is little comfort in the small note of affirmation that ends that poem. Why are they dead if not because each finally failed to get an answer from the penny-whistles and daisies, and found themselves in silence and without courage?

Nat and Ingrid are dead. And South Africa being what it is, they have gone their separate ways. Laws are laws. But no one can legislate for our hearts and memories - where it all starts and where it all ends. Ingrid knew this:

"...een-een loop die paadjies
na dieselfde plek terug".

We have the memory of a man and a woman. In mine they share the same grave.

- The Classic (2.1): 78-1966, from Historical Papers, Cullen Library: A 2696 NAKASA, Nathaniel

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"The moral responsibility of the artist is to keep alive a total awareness of the realities of our time."
Athol Fugard
Athol Fugard
© Sunday Times


Resistance through theatre - Reviews as sources

In this lesson plan, learners will be asked to think about how theatre can speak to people in powerful ways that are not always possible through other media. By reading reviews and assessments of Fugard's plays, learners will appreciate the kind of impact that they had on audiences living under apartheid.

Lesson plan
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Archive Photo Gallery
A selection of images from Athol Fugard’s life and plays.
Artwork Photo Gallery
Get a closer view of the memorial to Athol Fugard in Port Elizabeth’s St George’s Park
Athol Fugard and John Kani
Athol Fugard discusses his relationship with Sam Semela, the inspiration behind the protagonist of ’Master Harold’ … and the boys, with Dali Tambo