Novelist, poet, dramatist and scholar who helped establish Afrikaans as a cultural language in South Africa
He was born on 28 May 1881 in Dal Josafat in the Cape Colony, to P. J. Malherbe, a founder of the Genootskap vir Regte Afrikaners (Society for Real Afrikaners).
Malherbe attended the Gedenkschool der Hugenoten in the Dal, or Valley, and the Boy’s High School in Wellington. After completing school he studied at Victoria College in Stellenbosch and became a teacher in Montagu for two and a half years. He returned to Stellenbosch to further his studies and soon left for the Universities of Halle and Freiburg in Germany where he completed a doctorate.
On his return to South Africa Malherbe resumed teaching and played an important role in establishing Afrikaans as a recognised written language. On 12 October 1906 he delivered a keynote address at the Huguenot Seminary in Wellington titled “Is Afrikaans a dialect?” He presented philological proof that Afrikaans was not a dialect, but a separate language and should be used as a written language.
Malherbe also helped to found the Afrikaanse Taalvereniging (Afrikaans Language Society) and became its first chairman in 1907. Dedicated to the language, he traveled to many towns in the Cape Colony, establishing branches of the society, but remaining a teacher. From 1907 to 1909 he served as the principal of the school at Carnarvon and was hired as lecturer at the University of Stellenbosch under Professor W. J. Viljoen. Malherbe was an excellent student and became a Professor of Modern Languages at Grey University College in Bloemfontein in 1910. Here he advised the Afrikaanse Studente-Taalvereniging (Afrikaans Students Language Society) and assisted the drafting of the 1914 government ordinance in which the Provincial Council agreed to allow children in Orange Free State schools to be taught in Afrikaans.
In 1918 Malherbe became the first Professor of Afrikaans at Grey University College, now the University of the Free State, where he continued to inspire students and also assisted translators in translating the Bible from Dutch to Afrikaans. When the Suid Afrikaanse Akademie vir Wetenskap en Kuns (South African Academy for Science and Art) came into being, he served on its language commission as well as founded and edited its official journal, Tydskrif vir Wetenskap en Kuns (Magazine for Science and Art). His contribution to philology was also notable through his articles in this magazine, his 1917 Afrikaanse Taalboek (Afrikaans Language Book) and a standard work on idioms ad proverbs called Afrikaanse spreekwoorde en verwante vorme (Afrikaans proverbs and related forms).
From 1929 to 1934, and in 1941, he was Rector of Grey University College and was awarded the Hertzog Prize for Prose several times, as well as the Stals Prize for Philology in 1959. As further reward for his many accomplishments the Universities of Stellenbosch, the Witwatersrand and the Orange Free State gave him honorary doctorates in Literature, while in 1968 the Federasie van Afrikaanse Kultuurvereniginge (Federation of Afrikaans Cultural Societies) awarded him a medal of honour.
Malherbe’s passion for and support of Afrikaans made him a charismatic and popular speaker at festivals and national events, but his most influential role in the promotion of the language was as poet, novelist and dramatist. He was a most productive and creative writer, with an enormous influence in elevating Afrikaans prose from the mundane to poetic and powerful beauty.
At his core he was a lyricist and romantic symbolist. He did not strive to portray his characters realistically in their immediate environment, but rather communicated his philosophy and ideals, which were largely rooted in his intense sympathy for the Afrikaner nation in their battle for nationhood. He drew from his own youth, Biblical and national history and tended to represent reality only vaguely in order to blend it with his ideal. Through this technique he created an idealised world where he developed his own views on life and faith-based prophesies of nationalistic self-actualisation. His characters are heroic, dedicated to hard work, vigorous and presented, along with his elevated concepts, in richly metaphorical, lyrical and rhythmic sentences.
Malherbe was an Afrikaans literature pioneer, and his Vergeet niet (Do not forget), published in 1913, is recognised as the first artistic Afrikaans novel. The story was a historical romance set in the time of the Second Anglo-Boer War. Although he adhered to the basic principles of the genre, he produced the first Afrikaans novel filled with strong rhythm, accent, personal inspiration, beauty and a transfer from the inner lives of the characters. This milestone as followed by a second novel in 1926, Die meulenaar (The miller), which followed a theme of love for, and attachment to, the land. This book brought greater depth to the Afrikaans novel and was set on a wine-farm in the Western Cape. It was vivid, again drawing from Malherbe’s own youth, with a compelling aspect of tragedy in the burden carried by Faans, the miller.
In 1928 another book, Hans-die-skipper (Hans the skipper) represented the romanticised life of a small community of fishermen in a coastal Western Cape village. The story centres on the inner life of old Hans, who loves the fishing in the ocean and treasures his son, Johan. Hans’ friendship with the town’s schoolmaster is turned into a poetic tribute to hard work. 1931 saw the publication on Loutervure (Torture fires), where Malherbe’s idealised style was not cohesive, with the direct rendering of the Afrikaner nation’s struggle during the 1930’s. In his next effort, a neo-romantic Biblical trilogy written from 1933 to 1945, this approach was more successful as the book echoes the heartbreak of a national struggle against outside control. The volumes were called Die hart van Moab (The heart of Moab), Saul die worstelheld (Saul the struggle hero) and Die Profeet (The Prophet), and covered themes like the failure of nationalistic revolt through disloyalty, a leader’s failure in his duty as a result of foreign corruption, and the complete disorder caused by a leaderless nation’s damaging alliance with outside elements, as opposed to adhering to, and preserving, their own divine destiny.
At the end of the first trilogy there is a return to faith, which is succeeded by another trilogy about pioneer life that praises the efforts of a young nation striving for self-realisation. Die bergstroom ruis (The mountain stream rumbles), Vlam van die Suurveld (Flame of the Sour-grass plain) and En die wawiele rol (And the wagon wheels roll) celebrate the birth of a nation, awaken awareness of independent cultural existence as a result of conflict with Black people, and the merger of separate cultural lives. In 1948 Malherbe wrote Spore van Vleiland (Tracks of the Marshland), which marked the beginning of his creative decline visible in later novels.
Malherbe remained a romantic symbolist in his poetry with his penchant for pure lyricism. Initially he used nature as his muse, and produced Karoo blommetjies (Karoo flowers) in 1909, and Klokgrassies (Bell grasses) in 1914. Another edition of the second volume was published in later years and contains his best lyrical effort, a sonnet called Slaap (Sleep), demonstrating his talent for lengthy narrative poems.
In Vir Vryheid (For Freedom), published in 1919, he denotes ideal freedom by referring to the Great Trek, but his most successful poem is Die timmerman (The handyman), written in 1921. He was a prolific poet and published another collection of poems called Rivier en Veld (River and plain) in 1922, with Somerdae (Summer days) in 1928. The latter was his most mature selection and included possibly one of the best Afrikaans ballads: Jakob Ontong. Further volumes like Brood op die weg (Bread on the way) in 1939 and Kruis en kraai (Crucifix and crow) in 1957 clearly present the poet’s growing faith in and sympathy for his people. Malherbe also did much translation of hymns from Dutch to Afrikaans.
Spontaneous expression of intense emotion produced his best natural, image-rich verse, but when not emotionally stimulated he turned his skills to communicating philosophical truths, often becoming stilted, over-intellectualised and devoid of imagination.
Malherbe was at the forefront of Afrikaans drama and published 19 plays between 1921 and 1959. Afrikaans speaking South Africans, especially students, had long had a need for plays in their own language, and for this purpose he produced Koringboere (Wheat farmers) in 1921, Die mense van Groenkloof (The people of Groenkloof) in 1925 and Meester (Master) in 1927.
Some of his novels were also dramatised. Hans-die-skipper was performed as Die seeman (The seaman) in 1933 and Die meulenaar became Die meul dreun (The mill rumbles) in 1943. One-act plays like Die uur van die rooi maan (The hour of the red moon) from 1950 also originated in his novels.
The biblical themes visible in his novels were also carried through to his dramatic works like Moeder en seun (Mother and son) in 1945, Abimelech in 1948, Fariseër (Pharisee) in 1956 and Sisera in 1958. These plays do not contain strong dramatic action, development or forceful portrayal of characters and are better read, than performed. He also translated works like Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venice and Schiller’s Wilhelm Tell into suitable productions.
Malherbe died on 12 April 1969 in Bloemfontein in the Free State.
• Potgieter, D. J. (ed)(1970). Standard Encyclopaedia of Southern Africa Vol 7, Cape Town: Nasou.
• Joyce, P. (1999). A Concise Dictionary of South African Biography, Cape Town: Francolin.