Ingrid Jonker, famous in life, legend in death

Ingrid Jonker is a South African icon often compared to Sylvia Plath, Virginia Woolf and Anne Sexton, due to the intensity of her writing and the tragic course of her life.  She was the shinning star of the “Sestigers” (artists of the 60’s) who gathered around poet Uys Krige, on Clifton beach in Cape Town.  They were the first generation of Afrikaners to turn away from the brooding Calvinism of their fathers and look to Latin Europe for new inspiration.  They scoffed at religion with its dubious morals on race and sex and, with flagrant disregard for Apartheid, and mixed freely with Black artists.  They had wild affairs that they wrote into novels that were banned before they were even published.  In one decade they changed forever the course of Afrikaans literature.  Ingrid Jonker was their brightest star.
Jonker was born 19 September 1933 on a farm in Douglas, near Kimberley.  She was the daughter of Abraham Jonker and Beatrice Cilliers.  Her parents separated before she was born and Jonker’s mother moved back home with her two daughters.  Jonker’s grandparents moved to a farm near Cape Town.  Five years after the move her grandfather died, leaving the four women destitute.

Her short life was characterized as much by genius as by torment.  Rejected by her father before she was born – the prominent MP threw out his wife in disgrace – Ingrid watched her mother descend into poverty and spiral into madness until she commited suicide when Ingrid was 10.  The fear of ending up like her mother haunted her all her life.  Especially as she found herself rejected by men and was forced to contemplate abortion.

Jonker started writing poems when she was 6 years old and by the age of 16, she had started a correspondence with D.J. Opperman, South African writer and poet, whose views influenced Jonker’s work greatly.  Her first collection of Afrikaans poems, entitled Na die somer (“After the summer”) was produced before she was 13.  Although several publishers were interested in her work, she was advised to wait before going into print.  Her first published book of poems, Ontvlugting (“Escape”), was eventually published in 1956.  Jonker married Pieter Venter in 1956, and their daughter Simone was born in 1957.  The couple moved to Johannesburg, but three years later they separated.  Jonker and her daughter then moved back to Cape Town.  Her father, already a writer, editor and National Party Member of Parliament, was appointed chairman of the parliamentary select committee responsible for censorship laws on art, publications and entertainment.  To his embarrassment, his daughter was vehemently opposed to these laws and their political differences became public.  In a speech in parliament Jonker’s father denied her as his daughter.  During the same time period she had affairs with two writers, Jack Cope and André P. Brink.  One of these affairs resulted in a pregnancy and she underwent an abortion (a crime in South Africa at the time).  The mental distress of her father’s rejection and the abortion contributed to her decision to enter the Valkenberg Psychiatric Hospital in 1961.

Jonker’s next collection of poems Rook en oker (“Smoke and Ochre”) was published in 1963 after delays caused by the conservative approach of her publishers.  While the collection was praised by most South African writers, poets and critics, it was given a cool reception by the more conservative white South African public.  Rook en oker won Jonker the £1000 Afrikaans Press-Booksellers literary prize, as well as a scholarship from the Anglo American Corporation.  The money helped her to realize her dream of travelling to Europe, where she went to England, The Netherlands, France, Spain and Portugal.  She asked Jack Cope to accompany her, but he refused.  Jonker then asked André P. Brink to join her.  He accepted and they went to Paris and Barcelona together.  During the trip Brink decided against leaving his wife for Jonker and went back to South Africa.  Jonker then cut her tour short and returned to Cape Town.

Jonker had started writing a new collection of poems just before her death.  A selection of these poems was published posthumously in the collection Kantelson (“Toppling Sun”).  And then she witnesses a shattering event: a Black baby was shot in his mother’ arms…  She underlined from Dylan Thomas: “after the first death, there is no other”.  And she wrote: “The child who died at Nyanga”.  Like Dylan Thomas she understood that she could no longer soar above the horror and the moral collapse of her world.  During the night of 19 July 1965, Jonker went to the beach at Three Anchor Bay in Cape Town where she walked into the sea and committed suicide by drowning.  She was 31 and the greatest poet of her generation.  Her life had made her famous.  Her death made her a legend.

Nelson Mandela read one of her poems, “Die kind (wat doodgeskiet is deur soldate by Nyanga)” (“The child (who was shot dead by soldiers at Nyanga)”), in Afrikaans, during his address at the opening of the first democratic parliament on May 24, 1994.

Die kind wat dood geskiet is deur soldate by Nyanga

Die kind is nie dood nie
die kind lig sy vuiste teen sy moeder
wat Afrika skreeu skreeu die geur van vryheid en heide
in die lokasies van die omsingelde hart

Die kind lig sy vuiste teen sy vader
in die optog van die generasies
wat Afrika skreeu skreeu die geur
van geregtigheid en bloed
in die strate van sy gewapende trots

Die kind is nie dood nie
nòg by Langa nòg by Nyanga
nòg by Orlando nòg by Sharpville
nòg by die polisiestasie in Philippi
waar hy lê met ‘n koeël deur sy kopDie kind is die skaduwee van die soldate
op wag met gewere sarasene en knuppels
die kind is teenwoordig by alle vergaderings en wetgewings
die kind loer deur die vensters van huise en in die harte
van moeders
die kind wat net wou speel in die son by Nyanga is orals
die kind wat ‘n man geword het trek deur die ganse Afrika
die kind wat ‘n reus geword het reis deur die hele wêreld

Sonder ‘n pas

The child who was shot dead by soldiers at Nyanga

The child is not dead
The child lifts his fists against his mother
Who shouts Afrika ! shouts the breath
Of freedom and the veld
In the locations of the cordoned heart

The child lifts his fists against his father
in the march of the generations
who shouts Afrika ! shout the breath
of righteousness and blood
in the streets of his embattled pride

The child is not dead
not at Langa nor at Nyanga
not at Orlando nor at Sharpeville
nor at the police station at Philippi
where he lies with a bullet through his brain

The child is the dark shadow of the soldiers
on guard with rifles Saracens and batons
the child is present at all assemblies and law-givings
the child peers through the windows of houses and into the hearts
of mothers
this child who just wanted to play in the sun at Nyanga is everywhere
the child grown to a man treks through all Africa
the child grown into a giant journeys through the whole world

Without a pass

After Jonker’s death, copyrights and control of her literary estate and papers were awarded to Jack Cope by the Master of the Court.  He established the Ingrid Jonker Trust.  He remained a trustee of the Trust until his death in 1991.  Jonker’s daughter Simone Venter is the beneficiary.  Copyright is still vested in the Trust.  The prestigious Ingrid Jonker Prize for the best debut work of Afrikaans or English poetry was instituted by her friends to honour her legacy after her burial.  This yearly prize is awarded alternately to an Afrikaans or English poet who has published a first volume in the previous two years.

Jonker’s poetry has been translated from Afrikaans into English, German, French, Dutch, Polish, Hindi and Zulu, among others.  She wrote a one-act play ‘n Seun na my Hart (“A son after my heart”) about a mother’s illusions about her handicapped son.  Jonker also wrote several short stories.  In April 2004 Jonker was posthumously awarded the Order of Ikhamanga by the South African government for “her excellent contribution to literature and a commitment to the struggle for human rights and democracy in South Africa.

Koos Kombuis

The following article was written by journalist Sam Woulidge and appeared in the magazine Cape Review (2000). It provides a good summary of who Koos Kombuis is. Translations for all Afrikaans terms used in the article, appear at the end.

“Koos A. Kombuis has always instilled fear in the hearts of conservative Afrikanerdom. Thank God.

I was a student at Stellenbosch University in the late 80’s, when I first heard of Koos Kombuis, then known as André Letoit. He was part of a group of maverick Afrikaans musicians, who, under the collective name of Voëlvry, toured campuses across South Africa, liberating Afrikaans from the shackles of its past. No longer was Afrikaans the exclusive property of the Nationalist Party or the Dutch Reformed Church, these artists passionately believed in their right to sing in their mother tongue, in the way they wanted to, about issues that mattered to them. And so with lyrics such as, ‘As Afrikaans net kon dans en die NP beweeg. As al die ladies’ bars vol was en die tronke net leeg… As wit en swart een was en die polisie net nice, dan was hierdie land ook ‘n sweet paradise’, they liberated the rest of us.

We had found our icons. They were different: progressive, outspoken and brave. The ruling Nationalist Party hated them, the Broederbond inadvertently made them famous by banning them from campuses and radio stations, the Church denounced them and the security police hounded them.

But Koos Kombuis is an unlikely villain. Thirteen years later I meet him in Somerset West at the home he shares with his wife Kannetjie and his son, Simon. Cuddling his baby in his arms, he inserts a ‘Tellytubbies’ cassette into the video machine, explaining that Simon watches it at least three times a day. With the voices of Lala, Po, Tinky Winky and Dipsy ringing in our ears, the man with the soft voice, gentle eyes and bad reputation, offers to make us Rooibos tea. Strange stuff.

Embarrassingly, I gush when telling him how much I admire his writing and his music and what an impact he’s had on my life, I suspect that I make him uncomfortable. He’s shy and modest and laid back, and me, well I’m star- struck – a real pain in the ass fan. But Koos Kombuis is a nice man; he laughs at my jokes and patiently answers questions he’s replied to a hundred times before. I look at this 40-something, balding, slightly overweight man before me and am completely and utterly captivated by him, by his serenity, his kindness and his humility.

Koos takes a deep breath, when asked what the Voëlvry Movement was really like. ‘I’m incredibly glad we did it; the impact of the movement was moerse big. Under normal circumstances, what we did might not have been that important, but it was the right thing, in the right place, at the right time. But we were thrown in at the deep end and it was terrifying. One shouldn’t be confronted with these things when you’re young.’

Yet they all pushed ahead, why? His answer is simple. ‘Because we had to. We knew there was kak in die land and we felt that our music just might make a difference.’

But the pressure took its toll. ‘There was very little time to stand still and think about what we were doing. But when I eventually faced what was happening, I went into denial and started using drugs heavily. I started taking drugs to lessen the psychological pain and in the end the drugs became the problem.’

Eventually he managed to give up drugs. ‘If I could have my life over, I’d rather not ever have had the whole drug experience. It’s easy to say it now, because I’m no longer curious about it, but it wasted a lot of time and I missed out on a whole lot of other nice things.’ He shakes his head, ‘I never want to do it again. I miss dagga every now and then, but even that dies a slow death. It’s not worth it. There are so many other great things you can do when you’re young. You can travel, you can make friends, you can have affairs… I wasted a large part of my life on politics and drugs; politics, because I couldn’t stand by and do nothing and drugs, which I turned to, in order to help me deal with the pain of politics.’

Speaking to Koos while sitting on the lawn of his suburban home, it’s hard to recall the furiously anti-establishment anti-hero that he was. But his anger about the injustices of the past simmers below the surface. He may have mellowed, but he hasn’t sold out. Even as a child the politics of our country made Koos uncomfortable. ‘I always thought the flag was ugly and hated the patriotic songs we had to sing. When I was in Std 2 (10 years old), I remember not understanding why I wasn’t allowed to swim kaalgat with the klonkies. When I asked questions I was told ‘ they’re not like us’. But it was only when I was in Standard 9 and started reading Breyten Breytenbach’s poetry that I really became aware of how wrong the policy of Apartheid was.’ As a poet and musician, Koos too, was able to express his anger as well as be the voice of a generation who rebelled against the ruling regime.

‘The Afrikaner is not as genetically depressed as what the NP tried to make out. Ons is ‘n nice klomp mense, but we have so many hang-ups because of this one generation. PW Botha and his mates had this idea that Afrikaans were supposed to be the light in darkest Africa and they fought so hard to protect this dream that in the end they formed this Third World Banana Republic. They feared the likes of Idi Amin and eventually they became what they feared. I still get angry at them; I don’t think I’ll ever be able to forgive them. We Afrikaners are not really so special, we’re just one more tribe. There are 11 official languages and we’re only one of them. If I have a mission then it’s to learn one more of these languages, rather than forcing my ideas on the rest of my countrymen.’

As a writer Koos Kombuis has changed the face of Afrikaans literature. He is no language purist, preferring to write in the way ordinary Afrikaners speak. For him the language is an evolving one, it originated as a form of Kitchen Dutch and as a living language it seems only natural that it will adapt to it’s surroundings. The conservatives may object, but the public has firmly cast their votes in his direction. His phenomenally successful and painfully honest autobiography Seks & Drugs & Boeremusiek – die memoires van ‘n volksverraaier (Human & Rousseau), has gone into it’s fifth printing and another book My Mamma is ‘n Taal (Human & Rousseau)- a collection of articles written for the print media and internet, is proving as successful. Despite his success as a musician, writing is his first love. ‘I started making music when I was gatvol of Broederbond publishers. So I announced that I was now a musician and that writing would only be a hobby. I managed to do this for a few years, but now I’m back where I started.’ While most of Koos’s writings are in Afrikaans, it is his English novel Paradise Redecorated which is his favourite. ‘I don’t even have a copy of it, there are so many printing errors and it is so flawed, but still, that’s the sort of book I want to write. Humoristic Science Fiction.’ He likes Douglas Adams and Terry Pratchett and really smaaks the Harry Potter books.

Koos Kombuis is so very different to any of the preconceived ideas you may have about him. He’s mellowed, so if you were expecting the irate fighter of old, you’d be disappointed and if his love poetry and ballads lead you to expect a smooth operator, you’d be surprised. He’s no longer restless and angry and rather than being cynical you will find elements of vulnerability and enormous amounts of kindness. It’s hard to believe that there were those who perceived him as a traitor to the volk or a dangerous corruptive influence to the youth. Koos radiates contentment, he obviously adores his wife and son and appears to have found peace at last. I ask him if in all the years he ever thought he’d find this inner peace; this level of happiness. ‘I always wanted to be at peace, I just never knew how to get there. I always wondered at the ability of others to find contentment; it always looked so complicated to buy a house.’ He smiles. ‘I dated some beautiful girls, some more beautiful than my wife, but there were so many betrayals, from my side as well as theirs, I was a lot younger. But what I have now is different, we suit one another and while nothing is ever 100%, but I wouldn’t change anything, wouldn’t go back to the way I was… that would make me a dirty old man. He roars with laughter. There’s an Afrikaans tradition of getting married at an early age, we go from being children to being middle aged, but it’s the in between stage where you’ve got to learn as much as possible. I was a teenager until I was 35. But you can’t be a teenager forever, it’s exhausting.’

Marriage and fatherhood suit Koos, but his views on the white picket fence scenario are realistic.

‘You pray every day when you have a child. We are vulnerable, and I feel even more so now that I have a child.’

As a writer of some of the most beautiful love poetry and ballads I incorrectly assume that he would have written numerous songs for Kannetjie. ‘In the past, the more poems I wrote about a girl, the shorter the duration of the relationship. I’ve only written one song for Kannetjie. It’s as if when you’ve written about someone you’ve exhausted her, then you’ve got to go in search of another muse. I’d rather live out my feelings for her. I don’t want her to be my muse; to put her on a pedestal. I’ve done that too often in the past. Women were either sex objects or goddesses. I don’t want to make her either of these two things.’ He laughs again, ‘ but if I have to choose, I’d rather make her the former! I could have made a lot of other choices that would have been all wrong. I’m really happy. But happiness isn’t something that makes you feel ecstatic all day, every day. It’s simply something that makes sense. Of course there are times that things are difficult, but I’m happier now than I’ve ever been before. It’s lekker driving a Nissan Sentra, I like going to the post office to fetch our mail, and kak like that. And sometime or another I’ll get around to mowing the lawn.’

Holding his son in his arms, Koos greets us as we leave, ‘toe, sê koebaai vir die tannie’ (say goodbye to the auntie) he encourages Simon. The Kombuis family are in a hurry to go and buy a wedding gift for a friend at Tygervalley Mall. Yeah right. Try as they might, they’re no ordinary family; Koos Kombuis is far too special for that.”

Since the publication of this article Koos has traded his Nissan Sentra for a Nissan X-Trail, become the proud father of Marleen (sister to Simon) and continues to entertain fans all over with his music and writings.

For a complete list of books by Koos Kombuis, go to “My Boeke”

For a complete list of CD’s by Koos Kombuis, go to “My CD’s”


Voëlvry: Outlawed

As Afrikaans net kon dans en die NP beweeg. As al die ladies’ bars vol was en die tronke net leeg… As wit en swart een was en die polisie net nice, dan was hierdie land ook ‘n sweet paradise:
If only Afrikaans could dance and the NP could move. If only all lady’s bars were full and jail cells empty… If white and black could be one and the police nice, then this land would be a sweet paradise

Broederbond: A secret society of white, Afrikaans, Christian males who controlled virtually every position of power in South Africa.

moerse: Helluva, very big

kak in die land: Shit in the country

kaalgat: Naked

klonkies: Non-white children

Ons is ‘n nice klomp mense: We’re nice people

Seks & Drugs & Boeremusiek – die memoires van ‘n volksverraaier: Sex Drugs and Boeremusiek (tradisional Afrikaner music) – the memoir of a traitor

My Mamma is ‘n Taal: My Mother is a Language

gatvol: Fed up with

smaaks: Likes

volk: Nation

lekker: Nice