Ingrid Jonker

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Ingrid Jonker
Ingrid Jonker 1956.jpg
Ingrid Jonker in 1956
Born(1933-09-19)19 September 1933
Died19 July 1965 (aged 32)
Cause of deathSuicide by drowning
NationalitySouth African
EducationWynberg Girls' High School
Known forPoetry
Spouse(s)Pieter Venter
Parent(s)Abraham Jonker and Beatrice Cilliers

Ingrid Jonker (19 September 1933 – 19 July 1965) (OIS), was a South African poet. While she wrote in Afrikaans, her poems have been widely translated into other languages. Jonker has reached iconic status in South Africa and is often compared with Sylvia Plath and Marilyn Monroe, owing to the tragic course of her turbulent life.

Early life[edit]

Ingrid Jonker was born on a farm near Douglas, Northern Cape. She was the daughter of Dr. Abraham Jonker (1905–1966) and Beatrice Catharina (née Cilliers) (1905–1944). Neighbors in the Cape Town suburb of Vredehoek told of frequent arguments after which Beatrice Jonker temporarily fled the house with her first born, Anna. Before Ingrid was born, Beatrice fled to the farm of her parents, Fanie and Anna Cilliers, after Abraham accused her of carrying a child who was not his. A letter survives in which Beatrice firmly rejects Abraham's plea that she return to him.[1]

Ingrid and Anna's childhood was spent on a succession of small farms owned by their grandparents. According to South African historian Louise Viljoen, "Their grandparent's attitude towards the Church was unconventual for the time and community of which they were a part. Grandfather Fanie was not a churchgoer and could even be suspected of religious indifference, his son conceded in his memoir, sometimes treating the dignified ministers of the Dutch Reformed Church with witty insouciance. Grandmother Annie was a devout woman who later in life preferred to preach to coloured people or to attend the Apostolic Church, because they were so 'lively and jolly', Ingrid later wrote."[2]

Jonker’s grandparents moved to a farm near Durbanville. In 1938, her grandfather Fanie Cilliers died, leaving the four women destitute. In the aftermath, the family moved to the Strand and later to Gordon's Bay. In 1940, Ingrid began attending kindergarten.

According to Viljoen, "Their mother and grandmother allowed them greater freedom and mobility than was usual for the time. During their stay in Gordon's Bay, they often wandered off into a pine Forest on their way to school, to sit and read their books. Once they stayed away from school for so long that that their teacher thought that the family had moved again. Here, they were also allowed to keep small animals and continued exploring the veld and beach. They picked fruit from plants in the veld, gathered shellfish from the rock pools, played with tadpoles in the stream behind their house and buried small objects called 'secrets' in the ground. It is not surprising that Gordon's Bay is one of the spaces that would later gain symbolic importance in Ingrid's poetry."[3]

According to Louise Viljoen, "Ingrid's early years, spent in the company of her mother and grandmother, had a profound influence on the rest of their lives. Theirs was a home that gave the two girls tender and loving care but also exposed them to the suffering brought about by nervous disorder, illness and death. It was also an unconventional upbringing that allowed them to some degree to move outside the constraints of Afrikaner society of the day. Although their grandmother upheld strict religious values, their mother did not keep them on a tight rein. They could read what they liked, they were not as housebound as most children then and they treated other races with less of the prejudice and condescension usual at the time. They had little contact with their well off relations, who seemed to lead more regulated and ordered lives."[4]

A shadow was cast over this idyllic time by the increasing mental illness of Ingrid's mother. During their first year in the Strand, Beatrice Jonker suffered a mental breakdown and was committed to Valkenberg Hospital in Cape Town. The trauma of this experience affected Ingrid deeply and strengthened her bond with her grandmother, who was the only person she could talk to about it. Annie Cilliers also encouraged Ingrid's talents as a writer by reading her granddaughter's first poems to the Coloured congregations she preached to on Sundays.

Soon after her mental breakdown, Beatrice Jonker was also diagnosed with cancer. As she lay dying, Ingrid and Anna visited their mother as often as possible. They often shared news with her about boys that they felt unable to discuss with their devout grandmother. After two years in hospital, Beatrice Jonker died of cancer on 6 August 1944.[5]

Ingrid later wrote, "My moeder, sterwend, was so sonnig soos 'n liewenheersbesie, so geheime, so verassend, so teer." ("My mother, dying, was as sunny as a ladybird, so full of secrets, so surprising, so tender.")[6]

Also according to Viljoen, "Beatrice's death brought an end to Ingrid's life within the intimacy of the maternal family. After the death of their mother in August, the two girls stayed on with their grandmother until their father Abraham came to fetch them in December 1944 and took them to live with him in Cape Town. The loss of two mothers within such a short space of time must have had an incalculable effect on Ingrid... Surreptitiously, Anna wrote their father a letter to say that they would prefer to stay with their grandmother and go to one of the local schools because they did not have clothes that were grand enough for Cape Town. But the letter had no effect and they had to leave their grandmother behind when Abraham fetched them. Although Ouma Annie died only in 1956 or 1957, the children rarely saw her after that painful farewell during which Ingrid tried to hold on to her grandmother's hand as long as possible."[7]

Cape Town[edit]

Until the death of their mother, Anna and Ingrid's contact with their father had been minimal. According to Anna's memoirs, Abraham had once visited them in Durbanville, brought a red top for Ingrid, but otherwise refused to acknowledge her presence. In the years since his divorce from Beatrice, Abraham Jonker had briefly remarried one Barbara Gill before his third marriage to Lulu Brewis, an author of children's books, in 1941.[8]

At the time Abraham fetched Anna and Ingrid, his own house was not large enough to accommodate them. For this reason, both girls were put into lodgings in Central Cape Town. Both girls were brought to his Plumstead home on Sundays to spend time with their father, stepmother, half-brother Koos, and half-sister Suzanne.[9]

According to Louise Viljoen, "Anna and Ingrid each gave different accounts of their time in this house. According to Anna's, they were given a nice room with a balcony. She also remembered that though her father worked hard he made time for them when he could, reading them poetry and teaching Ingrid to waltz around the dining room table. Ingrid, on the other hand, later told Jack Cope and Laurens van der Post that they had to sit apart from the rest of the family at the dinner table and eat the food given to the servants. Although it is difficult to gauge where the line between truth and fiction lies in these accounts, life with their stepmother Lulu was not easy for the two young girls. Although Lulu was kind to the girls when they were still boarding in Cape Town, things changed once they went to live with the family in Plumstead. In an interview, Anna once painted a dark picture of emotional deprivation and misunderstanding. The two young girls' self confidence was constantly undermined by snide remarks and there was little understanding for their physical needs as young girls entering puberty. André Brink remembered that Ingrid recounted tales - with some exaggeration, he felt - in which Lulu lived up to the harsh stereotype of the fairytale stepmother. Other friends also spoke of Ingrid's hostility to her stepmother. Although there was no love lost between the two girls and their stepmother, they had a good relationship with their much younger step- siblings, Koos and Suzanne."[10]

Both Anna and Ingrid were used to wandering around on their own and always speaking their minds. Lulu Jonker, on the other hand expected them to conform to the strict Calvinist values of the Afrikaner middle class. Abraham Jonker seems to have been either powerless to intervene or too focused on his political career to take notice.[11]

While living with their father and step mother, Ingrid and Anna began attending Wynberg Girls’ High School, where teaching was in English rather than Afrikaans. School records reveal Ingrid to have been a well behaved but average student, who preferred to devote herself only to those subjects she liked. Her writing was praised by her teachers[12] and she began writing poetry for the school magazine.[13][14]


Ingrid Jonker started writing poems when she was six years old and, by the age of sixteen, she had started a correspondence with D.J. Opperman, South African writer and poet, whose views influenced her work greatly.

Her first collection of Afrikaans poems, Na die somer (“After the summer”) was produced before she was thirteen. 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.

Ingrid 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 Abraham Jonker's embarrassment, his daughter was vehemently opposed to the censorship laws he was charged with enforcing 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 relationships with two writers, Jack Cope and André Brink. She became pregnant and had an abortion, even though abortion was illegal in South Africa at the time. The depression caused by her father's rejection of her and by her abortion forced Ingrid 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 her publishers. While the anthology was praised by most South African writers, poets and critics, it was given a cool reception by supporters of the ruling Party.

Thereafter, Ingrid Jonker became known as one of the Die Sestigers, a group that also included Breyten Breytenbach, André Brink, Adam Small and Bartho Smit, who were challenging the extreme Afrikaner nationalism of the ruling National Party.

Rook en oker won Jonker the £1000 Afrikaanse Pers-Boekhandel (Afrikaans Press-Booksellers) Literary Award, 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 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"). She then witnessed a shattering event; a black baby was shot and died in his mother’s arms. She underlined from Dylan Thomas; "after the first death, there is no other". She wrote Die kind (wat doodgeskiet is deur soldate by Nyanga) ("The child (who was shot dead by soldiers at Nyanga)").


During the night of 19 July 1965, Ingrid Jonker went down to the beach at Three Anchor Bay in Cape Town, walked into the sea, and committed suicide by drowning.[15]

Copyright and papers[edit]

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.

Jonker's literary papers went to the National English Literary Museum (NELM) in Grahamstown. Her sister Anna Jonker borrowed these with the intention of writing a biography on her sister. November 2005.[16]


Die Kind as a wall poem in Leiden

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.

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 in 1965. This yearly prize, consisting of R1000 and a medal, is awarded alternately to an Afrikaans or English poet who has published a first volume in the previous two years.

Nelson Mandela read her poem, Die kind (wat doodgeskiet is deur soldate by Nyanga) ("The child (who was shot dead by soldiers at Nyanga)"), in English translation, during his address at the opening of the first democratically elected Parliament on 24 May 1994.[17]

In 2001 a documentary about Jonker was produced for Dutch television by Saskia van Schaik: Korreltjie niks is my dood.

In 2002 the one-woman, interactive play by Ryk Hattingh, Opdrag: Ingrid Jonker ("Assignment: Ingrid Jonker"), was staged at the Grahamstown National Arts Festival starring Jana Cilliers. The play dealt with questions and comments on Jonker’s life, interwoven with her poems and other writing.

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."[18]

A number of her poems have been set to music over the years, beginning with the song cycle Vyf liedere for soprano and piano by Stefans Grové (1981), and sung by such artists as Laurika Rauch, Anneli van Rooyen and Chris Chameleon.

In 2003 ddisselblom, an Afrikaans pop group, released an eponymously titled CD containing the track Falkenburg, a very well executed adaptation of Jonker's "Ontvlugting".

In 2005 Chris Chameleon (known better as the lead singer of the South African band Boo!) released the album Ek Herhaal Jou ("I Repeat You"), which consisted of a number of Jonker's poems that he had set to music. The release coincided with the 40th anniversary of Jonker's death. Some of Jonker's poems that inspired Chameleon's songs are Bitterbessie Dagbreek ("Bitterberry Daybreak"), Lied van die gebreekte Riete ("Song of the Broken Reeds") and Ontvlugting ("Escape").

In 2007 a documentary Ingrid Jonker, her Lives and Time by Mozambique-born South African film and documentary maker Helena Nogueira was released in South Africa. Hailed as the definitive work on Jonker this is the first literary documentary to receive theatrical release in South Africa.[19]

Also, in 2007 work was already underway on a feature film about Ingrid Jonker with the working title All that Breaks. Based on a script by Helena Nogueira workshopped at Johannesburg's Market Theatre, the film focusses on three years in the life of Jonker and the Sestigers who gathered around poet Uys Krige at Clifton in Cape Town. The film is produced by David Parfitt (Shakespeare in Love), Charles Moore (Schindler's List)[clarification needed] and Shan Moodley and is directed by Nogueira.[19]

In 2011, Dutch actress Carice van Houten played Ingrid Jonker in the biopic Black Butterflies, directed by Paula van der Oest. The film also starred Irish actor Liam Cunningham as Jack Cope and Rutger Hauer as Abraham Jonker. Despite being a fully Dutch production about a poet who spoke and wrote in Afrikaans, Black Butterflies was filmed entirely in English.[20]

Also in 2011, South African musician Chris Chameleon released an album of Jonker's works, entitled As Jy Weer Skryf ("If You Write Again").

In 2012, Nicola Haskins choreographed a dance drama which told the life story of Jonker for the National Arts Festival in Grahamstown and then later to be performed at various venues including the University of Pretoria.


Jonker's biographer is Petrovna Metelerkamp, who published Ingrid Jonker – Beeld van 'n digterslewe ("Ingrid Jonker – Image of a Poet's Life") in 2003. This book contains new insights into the poet's life, and includes love letters (some unsent) and an as yet unpublished account of the night of Jonker's death by her friend, Bonnie Davidtsz. The proceeds of the book are said to assist Simone Venter (Jonker's daughter) financially. An English, updated version of this biography appeared in 2012: Ingrid Jonker - A Poet's Life.


  1. ^ Louise Viljoen (2012), Ingrid Jonker: Poet under Apartheid, Ohio University Press. Page 16.
  2. ^ Viljoen (2012), pages 18-19.
  3. ^ Viljoen (2012), pages 20-21.
  4. ^ Viljoen (2012), page 23.
  5. ^ Viljoen (2012), pages 21-22.
  6. ^ Viljoen (2012), page 23.
  7. ^ Viljoen (2012), pages 24-25.
  8. ^ Viljoen (2012), page 25.
  9. ^ Viljoen (2012), page 26.
  10. ^ Viljoen (2012), pages 26-27.
  11. ^ Viljoen (2012), page 27.
  12. ^ Viljoen (2012), page 29.
  13. ^ "Ingrid Jonker: Poet of pain and freedom" (PDF). The Sunday Times. Archived from the original (PDF) on 17 August 2011. Retrieved 6 June 2009.
  14. ^ Jonker, Ingrid (1946). "Die baba". The Wynberg Girls High School Magazine. 31.
  15. ^ "Ingrid Jonker, famous in life, legend in death". Road Travel Africa. Retrieved 24 January 2016.
  16. ^ "Henk van Woerden died on November 16th 2005". Uitgeverij Podium. Archived from the original on 2 May 2007. Retrieved 7 December 2009.
  17. ^ [1] Archived 19 February 2006 at the Wayback Machine
  18. ^ "About Government - National Orders". 19 August 2008. Archived from the original on 5 May 2012. Retrieved 4 October 2013.
  19. ^ a b "Under Construction". Archived from the original on 5 October 2013. Retrieved 4 October 2013.
  20. ^ "Tweede Engelstalige film voor Carice van Houten (video) | | Het laatste nieuws het eerst op". Retrieved 4 October 2013.

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