On the Brink

From Terry Herbst, Cape Town

Express man spoke to poet hours before suicide

"Nobody can help" - later Ingrid Jonker drowned

A few hours before Miss Ingrid Jonker, the Afrikaans poet, drowned herself at Sea Point this week, she told me: "I can't take it any more. I am going to finish everything."

Miss Jonker, whose father is Dr Abraham Jonker, the Nationalist M.P. for Fort Beaufort, stopped me along the Sea Point beach-front near the SABC offices after midnight last Sunday and said: "Please talk to me, I must talk to somebody."

I had met her casually on several previous occasions, but did not know her well. As she walked past me, she called my name.


She apologised for "being such a nuisance". She looked exhausted. Her face was drawn and there was an almost blank look in her eyes. At times, during the brief period we spoke, she seemed unaware of my presence.

I suggested that it was too late for a woman to be out on her own and offered to walk her home. "I can't go back there. They're waiting. I've fixed everything."

Realising that she was extremely upset, I asked if there was anything I could do to assist her.

Nobody can help me any more.

She began to cry. "Nobody can help me any more."

She wiped her hands across her eyes and said: "Everybody has let me down. I can't take it any more. I am going to finish everything."

I told her that things always looked better after a sleep and repeated my offer to see her home.

"Sleep... Soon I will get all the sleep I need."

I offered her a cigarette, which she declined. She kept shaking her head, muttering to herself. Suddenly she looked over her shoulder and said: "I must go. I have been away too long. They will be looking for me."

She walked off quickly, stopped, turned to me and said: "Thank you." Her voice was trembling. I watched her walk in the direction of the city.

The following day I heard that her body had been found floating in shallow water opposite the Sea Point Police Station, about half a mile from where she had stopped me to talk.

I understand she had attempted to kill herself on at least one previous occasion.


One of her literary colleagues told me: "She was an extremely unhappy woman. For years she had threatened suicide and, although her tragic death came as a great shock to me, it was not entirely unexpected.

"Ingrid had a touch of genius and her death is a sad loss to South African literature."

There were scenes of great emotion when Miss Jonker was buried at the Maitland cemetery on Thursday.

Cope, who cried throughout the funeral service, was so grief stricken he could hardly stand.

Sobbing bitterly, Jack Cope, the well-known writer, threw himself on the grave and had to be forcibly led from the cemetery. Cope, who cried throughout the funeral service, was so grief stricken he could hardly stand.

The funeral was attended by 59 people, including a number of non-Whites. Many of Miss Jonker's literary colleagues paid their last respects at the grave side.

These included writers Uys Krige, Jan Rabie, Gerald Gordon, W.A. de Klerk and artists Erik Loubser and Marjorie Lawrence [Wallace]. The Coloured poet Adam Smal also attended.

Before the cortege arrived at the open grave, Cope was led away by Loubser and Johan Cilliers. As the coffin was lowered from the hearse, Cope and his two friends came slowly forward. The sobs of the writer could be heard as he placed a bunch of flowers near the grave.

When the coffin was lowered he became hysterical and had to be held back from the grave.

"Don't take me away," he begged, as friends persuaded him to sit on a nearby grave.

Miss Jonker's family stood closely together during service.

Mr Krige sat beside Mr Cope comforting him.

After Miss Jonker's family left the cemetery, Mr Cope staggered to the open grave and threw himself down, his head and arms hanging over the edge of the grave. He stared down at the coffin, weeping. He was then led from the graveside by friends.

Read poems

Miss Jonker's colleagues had planned to read a number of her poems at the grave after the funeral, but emotions were so fraught that the plan was abandoned.

They refused comment on rumours that they had been told they would turn the service into a political event if they did this and that the police would be called. But Mr Krige told me: "If such allegation was made it was disgraceful. We merely wanted to pay a personal tribute to our friend, whom we loved dearly." When I asked Dr Jonker about a rumour that police would be called if Miss Jonker's friends spoke at the graveside, he said: "I was in my constituency when Ingrid died. My eldest daughter was instructed by my wife not to make arrangements for the funeral until I returned.


"When I heard that certain arrangements had already been made I took the matter in hand and with the co-operation of those who had made earlier arrangements, the matter was organised.

"Anybody who says there was an argument about this is just trying to cause trouble under terribly tragic circumstances."

Members of the Security Branch were among those who attended the funeral.

Members of the Security Branch were among those who attended the funeral. Miss Gillian Jewell, who is a banned person, received special permission to attend the service.

Footnote: Ingrid Jonker was only 19 years old when her first book of poems, "Ontvlugting", was published.

Later, she developed into one of the most promising of the younger Afrikaans poets and her works were eventually translated into English, Dutch and German and broadcast overseas.

She became the first Afrikaans poet to receive the R2 000 literary grant from A.P.B. The prize was awarded to her for her work "Rook en Oker", and was chosen as the best Afrikaans book produced in 1963. With this, she received an Oppenheimer bursary. She used the money to study modern poetry in Europe.

- "Express man spoke to poet hours before suicide", Sunday Express, July 25, 1965


back to the Ingrid Jonker memorial page

"She was both a poet and a South African. Confronted by death, she asserted the beauty of life."
Nelson Mandela on Ingrid Jonker
Ingrid Jonker
Picture: © National Afrikaans Literary Museum


Poetry as historical source

In this lesson plan, learners will be able to see that poetry was used as a weapon against the apartheid state, as well as a way of looking forward to a time of freedom and peace. Poetry can tell us a great deal about the personal and political feelings of people in the past.

Lesson plan
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Archive Photo Gallery
A selection of images from Ingrid Jonker’s short life.
Artwork Photo Gallery
Photographs of the memorial to Ingrid Jonker near the beach at Gordon’s Bay.
Audio Archive
Ingrid Jonker reads one of her poems for a 1965 Springbok radio recording. In Afrikaans.
Audio Documentary
Listen to Ingrid Jonker’s biographer, Petrovna Metelerkamp, and other friends talk about Ingrid’s life.
A 360° view of the sculpture on Beach Road in Gordon's Bay.
A Tribute to Ingrid Jonker
In his inaugural address to Parliament in May 1994, President Nelson Mandela read Ingrid Jonker’s poem, "The Child"