Ingrid Jonker was an Afrikaans poet who died when I was just a small child. Not being particularly interested in poetry generally and Afrikaans poetry specifically, I somehow missed learning about this extraordinary woman until a film maker, Helena Nogueira, brought Ingrid Jonker to my attention in 2007 when a documentary entitled Ingrid Jonker, her Lives and Time was released in South Africa.
Jonker was born in 1933 to Abraham Jonker who had already separated from his wife, Beatrice Cilliers, in the Northern Cape. Her mother moved back to her parents’ farm near Cape Town, but died in Valkenberg Psychiatric Hospital when Jonker was only ten. Educated at Wynberg Girls’ High School, Jonker was already writing poetry for the school magazine. She was a fan of D J Opperman (another famous South African poet). Although her first collection of poems was complete by the time she was thirteen it was only in 1956 that her first book of poems, Ontvluging (Escape) was published.
Jonker married Pieter Venter in 1956 and gave birth a daughter, Simone, in 1957. The couple separated. Later she would have affairs with Jack Cope and Andre Brink.
Her father was a Member of Parliament in the National Party with special responsibility for censorship laws on art, publications and entertainment. His daughter publicly opposed these. Relations between father and daughter were strained and he disowned Ingrid Jonker in a speech in parliament.
This, together with the fact that Jonker underwent an illegal abortion, caused Jonker a great deal of mental distress and she was admitted to the Valkenberg Psychiatric Hospital in 1961. Her next book of poems, Rook en oker (Smoke and Ochre) was published in 1963 but was not well received by the conservative white South African public although it won a thousand pound (a lot of money at the time) prize from the Afrikaanse Pers-Boekhandel. In addition the work established her artistically she was part of the group known as Die Sestigers, a group of writers who were challenging conservative literary norms of the Afrikaans community. Other members were Breyten Breytenbach, Andre Brink, Adam Small and Bartho Smit. The prize money enabled her to travel to Europe with Andre Brink, but he then returned home to try and repair his marriage.
Jonker had started writing a new collection of poems just before her death, one of which was a response her her witnessing a black baby was shot dead in his mother’ arms. She underlined from Dylan Thomas: “after the first death, there is no other”. And she wrote: Die kind (wat doodgeskiet is deur soldate by Nyanga), The child (who was shot dead by soldiers at Nyanga). Nelson Mandela quoted this poem at the opening of the first democratically elected parliament in 1994.
During the night of 19 July 1965, Jonker committed suicide by walking into the sea and swimming out until she drowned. On hearing of Jonker’s death, her father reportedly said: “They can throw her back in the sea for all I care.”
Jonker’s poetry has been translated from Afrikaans into many other languages. She wrote one play, ‘n Seun na my Hart (A son after my heart) about a mother’s illusions about her handicapped son and several short stories. There is an Ingrid Jonker Prize for poetry. In 20014 she was posthumously awarded the Order of Ikhamanga. Various artistic works, songs, dances, movies an the likes have examined her life and works. Her poetry has been set to music by many artists. Her legacy lives on.