Ingrid Jonker was born on 19 September 1933 on a farm in the rural area of Douglas, near Kimberley in the Northern Cape. After her parents’ divorce, Jonker experienced a childhood of material deprivation and emotional setbacks. In her early adulthood she had a short, unhappy marriage.
Jonker was a sensitive child with a keen self-awareness and gifted beyond her years. She started writing poetry at the age of six and her first published poems appeared in her high school magazine. Her first known collection of poems, Na die Somer (After the Summer) was compiled in 1946, when she was just thirteen.
By sixteen, she was corresponding with seasoned Afrikaans poets such as D.J. Opperman and her work was published regularly in family magazines such as Die Huisgenoot.
The first collection of poems by Jonker to be published was Ontvlugting (Escape), in 1956. After delays caused by the apprehension of nervous publishers, her second collection of poems, Rook en Oker (Smoke and Ochre), was published in 1963. This collection, replete with Jonker’s now characteristic free verse and sensual yet surrealistic imagery, was received amid much critical acclaim from writers, poets and critics, and fierce official opprobrium.
Jonker’s work was also condemned by her father, then a leading member of the National Party and the chairperson of the parliamentary committee responsible for the apartheid system of censorship. Through sheer depth and the impact of her words, Rook en Oker won the prestigious Afrikaanse Pers-Boekhandel Prize.
Jonker was an active member of Die Sestigers, a group of anti-establishment writers and poets, which included Breyten Breytenbach, Andre Brink, Adam Small and Bartho Smit, who had taken it upon themselves to challenge the conservative literary norms of the time.
South Africa lost a gifted and sensitive poet when, at the age of 31, Ingrid Jonker ended her own life on 19 July 1965. Much of Jonker’s early writing evidently relates to the episodes and trauma of her early life. Yet as a mature poet, Jonker never failed to express compassion for her fellow human beings, reflecting a refreshing innocence devoid of pernicious social prejudice and hatred. This seminal Afrikaans language poet sensitively engaged with the cause of the poor and the lot of black South Africans from the position of a common humanity.
The advanced ideas inherent in Ingrid Jonker’s poems have made her a recognized literary figure internationally, with her poems being studied, translated and published in many languages including English, German, French, Dutch, Polish, Hindi and Zulu. The collected works of Jonker, including several short stories and a play, were published in 1975 and re-issued in 1983 and 1994.
Former President Nelson Mandela, in commenting on Jonker’s poem Die Kind (The Child), which he read out in full in his inaugural State of the Nation address to Parliament in May 1994, said, “… in this glorious vision, she instructs that our endeavours must be about the liberation of the woman, the emancipation of the man and the liberty of the child”. Of Jonker herself, Mandela said that: “She was both a poet and a South African. She was both an Afrikaner and an African. She was both an artist and a human being. In the midst of despair, she celebrated hope. Confronted by death, she asserted the beauty of life.”
Ingrid Jonker’s sensitive, humane and forward-looking perspectives have made her a literary icon of a whole new generation of Afrikaners and South Africans, who have re-discovered her relevance in 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, the South African Government bestowed Ingrid Jonker with the Order of Ikhamanga in Silver at the National Orders awards on 19 October 2004.