History, Poetry and its Words

Nelson Mandela’s poetic icons

June 21, 2016

There will be no direct quotations from the poems that I’m about to mention, but if you are interested, you can surely look up these quickly over the internet. It is that easy nowadays to access poems from famous poets and hundreds of others whose names are not (yet) part of legend. Many of you may not have access to printed anthologies right now, so the internet is a quick search and find resource. In this case, all you need to do is look up these two poems listed below.

The first one, many of you might know quite well. Some of you may have even received it as part of a prescribed reading list back at high school or college.


The other one, many of you understandably may not have heard of, but it was written by one of the twentieth century’s greatest poetesses, South African born Ingrid Jonker. When I was completing my majors in Languages and Literature, Advanced theory of Poetry was one of the subjects given to me to do. I chose Ms. Jonker and her work as part of my studies. During my earliest readings of her work and her life, I drew parallels between her and Sylvia Plath whom most of you know well already. Before I go any further, let me just mention Ms. Jonker’s poem for you.

Simply look up this one.

The Child.

Anyway, most of you know how Ms. Plath tragically ended her life. Within a short space of a few years, Ms. Jonker drowned herself off a beautiful Atlantic coast beach near Cape Town where she was living at the time. The coincidences between these two women, tragic as they are, are remarkable. Nevertheless, it is even more remarkable that these two poems mentioned here had an indelible influence on an even greater human being, to take nothing away from our lady poets here.

It was Invictus that helped former South African president, Nelson Mandela endure some of his most challenging hours on Robben Island where he was famously incarcerated for nearly thirty years by the then apartheid regime. And when the great Madiba finally liberated over thirty million South Africans from the shackles of apartheid, he chose Ms. Jonker’s most iconic poem to address the nation at its first democratic opening of Parliament.

The Child responds directly to an encounter Ms. Jonker had when visiting one of Cape Town’s many strife-torn townships. Depending on which part of the world you are from, you may be able to relate to this derogatory name given to a town or suburb in which mainly black South Africans live. You could be thinking of the projects or you could simply be thinking of slums or shack lands. In any case, over twenty years of democracy in South Africa has yielded nothing for these poor South Africans.

As we speak, the numbers of the impoverished continue to grow. A universal phenomenon, more and more poor people are moving to industrialized and urban centers in search of work and for a better life. Inevitably, they end up living in shack lands, curiously referred to by authorities as informal settlements. Nevertheless, Ms. Jonker witnessed the brutal slaying of a young, innocent child during a fracas between protesters and state security riot squads.

This resonates with yet another global phenomenon. Whether it is street protests or unacceptably high levels of gang warfare, young children are often caught in the crossfire. And grimly, in certain cases, warring gangsters deliberately use these children as human shields. Even worse, rebels continue to recruit children who should be at school or at home with their mothers as child soldiers or sex slaves. The Child’s death broke Ingrid’s heart in two. Her tragic death, I am led to believe, was the culmination of the tragedies of South Africa’s racial conflict and not just her tragic love affairs with fellow-writers who could not cope with her eccentric and bipolar personality. Of course, it did not help that she was emotionally abused by a strict father who, himself, was indoctrinated by Calvinistic and racist ideologies.

As most of you know, Sylvia Plath was famously involved with British poet laureate, Ted Hughes, arguably one of the twentieth century’s greatest metaphysical poets. Ingrid Jonker, on the other hand, had many affairs, significantly with Jack Cope and South African literary giant, Andre Brink. At the highest level, Brink was honored for his tireless work against the grain of oppression. But it was Jonker who achieved the greatest honor that any African could have received at the time.

That it was posthumously done is a moot point. But Madiba pointed out to the world that it did not matter what your culture or creed was, if you were born of the soil, you were always an African.

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