Nelson Mandela began his inaugural Presidential address to Parliament on 24 May 1994, speaking about the poet, Ingrid Jonker (1933-1965), as someone who ‘gave us the right to assert with pride that we are South Africans, that we are Africans and that we are citizens of the world.’ He continued in his measured voice and manner that ‘In the midst of despair, she celebrated hope. Confronted with death, she asserted the beauty of life. In the dark days when all seemed hopeless in our country, when many refused to hear her resonant voice, she took her own life. To her and others like her, we owe a debt to life itself. To her and others like her, we owe a commitment to the poor, the oppressed, the wretched and the despised.’ This extraordinary recognition of an Afrikaner poet was followed by a recitation of her poem ‘The child who was shot dead by soldiers in Nyanga’, written in the aftermath of the massacre at the anti-pass demonstration in Sharpeville on 21 March 1960. Violence erupted throughout South Africa. When a black baby was shot dead in her mother’s arms by police in the black township of Nyanga, Cape Town, Jonker was outraged and went to the Philippi police station to see the body. Mandela’s reading, which differs from the 1968 Jack Cope and William Plomer and 2007 André Brink and Antjie Krog translations, manages to get to the poem’s core without embellishment. I have to say that I prefer his version. It is starker and to the point. I suspect that he memorised the poem and deeply felt its impact throughout his legal struggles and subsequent imprisonment.
The child is not dead…
the child lifts his fists against his mother
The child is not dead
Not at Langa nor at Nyanga
nor at Orlando nor at
nor at the police post at Philippi
where he lies with a bullet
through his brain…
The André Brink and Antijie Krog version in Black Butterflies: Selected Poems (Human & Rousseau) is quite different, far more flowery and wordy. The lack of firmness in their version is in stark contrast to Mandela’s more direct and blunt account. Jonker’s audio recordings of this and other poems display a cadenced and musical voice, which Mandela’s English recitation captures more closely in simpler language. It is in the final stanzas that Mandela’s radically different translation hits home hardest. Whereas Brink & Krog translate the original:
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
‘The child is the shadow of the soldiers / On guard with guns Saracens and batons / the child is present at all meeting and legislations / the child peeps through the windows of houses and into the / hearts of mothers / the child who just wanted to play in the sun at Nyanga is / everywhere’
the child is present at all assemblies and law-giving
the child peers
through the windows of houses
and into the hearts of mothers
who only wanted to play in the sun at Nyanga
I am happy with Mandela’s omission of a whole line. His version, much closer to Cope and Plomer, cuts to the core and uses the word ‘assemblies’ in terms of both protest and parliamentary gatherings. The poem ends powerfully with the child not needing a pass to be a South African, and it is this that aligned her with the banned Africa National Congress and Pan-Africanist Congress.
Ingrid Jonker, a central figure in the Sestigers group of bohemian poets and writers, petitioned the National Party government in 1963 protesting against its increasing censorship defying her father who was the chief censor. When her volume of poetry, Rook en Oker (Smoke and Ochre) was published in October 1963, Jonker offered to visit her father and bring him a signed copy. He told her to post it, adding that he had no wish to be seen with her in public. Her poem, ‘The child was shot dead by soldiers in Nyanga’, had an immediate galvanising impact. She was indefatigable in her opposition to censorship, the pass laws of apartheid, and decision not to change a word of her poem. She never compromised her thinking.
David Caddy 14th December 2014