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The child who was shot dead by soldiers and the tragic life of Ingrid Jonker

The body in the sea

In the early hours of the morning of 19 July 1965 a lovely young woman walked into the sea at Three Anchor Bay, Cape Town, and drowned. Her lifeless body was found by the police in about three feet of water at about 7.30 that morning. And so ended the life of one of South Africa's most promising young writers, a poet of great power and originality, a voice of honesty and openness, a person with a great love of life and the life of words.

Ingrid Jonker, the young poet who died so tragically, has since become an icon in South Africa, especially among young people who love literature, and has achieved in death a fame far beyond what she had experienced, or, perhaps, even hoped for, in life.

She was an Afrikaner, the daughter of a Nationalist Party Member of Parliament, and yet was honoured by the Government of a free and democratic South Africa for "her excellent contribution to literature and a commitment to the struggle for human rights and democracy in South Africa."

Even before the advent of democracy in South Africa, the then President of the African National Congress, the late O.R. Tambo, in a 1987 speech in Harare, Zimbabwe, had this to say about her: "By her death, she joined herself to the children of our country about whom she had written. Her tragic passing was as powerful an indictment of the apartheid system as were these verses which she has left us."

And when Nelson Mandela, on 24 May 1994, opened the first democratic parliament in South Africa as the first democratically elected Black president of the country he quoted her poem "Die kind wat dood geskiet is deur soldate by Nyanga" (The child who was shot dead by soldiers at Nyanga) and said these words: “The time will come when our nation will honour the memory of those who gave us the right to assert with pride that we are South Africans, that we are Africans and citizens of the world. The certainties that come with age tell me that among these we shall find an Afrikaner woman… Her name is Ingrid Jonker.”

Cover of the Collected Works, Third Edition, 1993

Cover of the Collected Works, Third Edition, 1993

Cover of the Brink and Krog collection of translations of a selection of Ingrid Jonker's poems published in 2007

Cover of the Brink and Krog collection of translations of a selection of Ingrid Jonker's poems published in 2007

The memorial to Ingrid Jonker on the beach at Gordon's Bay with a brief quotation from the poem "The child who was shot dead..." Photo by Tony McGregor

The memorial to Ingrid Jonker on the beach at Gordon's Bay with a brief quotation from the poem "The child who was shot dead..." Photo by Tony McGregor

"Die Kind" set to music and sung by Dutch composer Peter de Jonge

Die Kind

Nyanga is one of the Black townships around Cape Town and was a centre of protest in March 1960 against the infamous "Pass Laws" then in force, protests which were violently suppressed by police and army units there and, in a better-known incident, at Sharpeville in the then Transvaal. Ingrid was deeply moved by the report of a child who was shot in his mother's arms and wrote this poem, "Die Kind", about which she wrote in a Drum Magazine article in1963: "Go back to the days in March 1960, when blood flowed in this land. For me it was a time of terrible shock and dismay. Then came the awful news about the shooting of a mother and child at Nyanga. The child was killed. The mother, an African, was on her way to take her baby to the doctor. ... I saw the mother as every mother in the world. I saw her as myself...I could not sleep. I thought of what the child might have been had he been allowed to live. I thought what could be reached, what could be gained by death?"

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 kop


Die 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 English translation below is by Ingrid's friend, mentor and lover Jack Cope, famous South African author.

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