South African poetry – The child is not dead by Ingrid Jonker

This poem, The child is not dead, by South African poet, Ingrid Jonker, is deeply moving. Reading the About Ingrid Jonker section below before reading the poem will give context to the poet and this poem.

The child is not dead

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.

About Ingrid Jonker

Picture credit: Wikipedia

From SA History Organisation

On 19 July 1965, Ingrid Jonker, a South African poet, committed suicide by walking into the sea. Jonker was 31 Years old.

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. Much of Jonker’s early writing related 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.

Jonker’s work was 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.

In April 2004, Jonker was posthumously awarded the Order of Ikhamanga by the South African government for “her excellent contribution to literature and a commitment to the struggle for human rights and democracy in South Africa”.

On 24 May 1994, in his State of the Nation Address to Parliament in Cape Town, President Nelson Mandela read this poem by Ingrid Jonker.

You can listen to Nelson Mandela reading this poem here:

You can read more about Ingrid Jonker here:

73 thoughts on “South African poetry – The child is not dead by Ingrid Jonker

      1. Hi, Robbie. Ingrid’s suicide did give me a turn. I immediately thought of three other woman writers who committed suicide: Anne Sexton, Sylvia Plath, and Virginia Woolf. I noticed that Nelson Mandela’s rendition of the poem was different from the version you shared.


  1. Such sadness that’s expressed in words and then in life. No amount of pleading will ever replace the life lost to the sea, but it leaves me wondering if life will ever answer her prayers.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Hi Danny, I frankly doubt it. Humanity has a horrible way of going around and around in circles making the same mistakes. I have been reading Divine Comedy and Dante’s Inferno and trip into hell really had me wondering about whether things ever really improve. I am just grateful for all the great people I know, that helps a lot.


    1. Hi, Jonker is a common name, there is a JOnker’s Huis (house) in Cape Town. I would think that total rejection by your father would cause great emotional angst, especially combined with her own views on how things were generally in her country.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. In life, we are visited by those with grace and understanding, with knowledge and prophetic words. Their presence and truth is a gift to our world. Ingrid Jonker was such a person. Her message continues to challenge and ignite our thoughts to seek positive outcomes for all. A wonderful post, Robbie!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. HI REbecca, what you say here is true. I can imagine that for Ingrid, the conflict and struggle just became overwhelming. I am nearly finished Divine Comedy and I couldn’t help thinking of his ideas about the fate of suicides in hell when I read this. It made me shudder. I am just loving Divine Comedy this time around.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Thank you, Robbie for introducing this poet to me. The poem is powerful and painful. It lingers sadly after being read. The poet’s life is too sad- to walk into the sea to one’s death, sounds terrible.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. As said Robibie, so sad and tragic that Ingrid’s father didn’t agree with her or appreciate her worth. I have no sound at present, so couldn’t hear Mandela’s reading. Feelings go so deep in some people as regards the inhumanity between people, which continues, despite our strongest wishes that there could be more peace and love between them. A poignant poem and a meaningful life lost. RIP..

    Liked by 1 person

  5. She wrote such powerful poetry, it’s not hard to see how overwhelming it became for her, Robbie. (That on top of the trauma of her young life that you allude to). Thanks for sharing another stunning South African poet and her poem.

    Liked by 2 people

  6. such a powerful poem and reading, and such a sad ending to her talented life!

    You and Val have inspired me to do some posts on Australian poets, sadly they are fairly unknown here let alone internationally ….

    Liked by 1 person

  7. Wow, powerful is the word for that poem. Who can write like that? Wow! I’m so sorry that she committed suicide. That must be one of the possible outcomes of feeling so deeply. Thanks for sharing this including the reading by Mandela

    Liked by 1 person

      1. I think you are right. There is a lot of anecdotal evidence studying the lives of creative geniuses that would suggest that. Who knows, there might be something chemical there too. One of my colleagues struggled with bipolar disorder. We all tiptoed around her or fought with her, but she was so brilliant. She hated her medication because she liked both sides of her personality – the huge influx of energy when she was productive, and even the down times when she retreated. She felt flat when on medication. I have a feeling that your creative author and poet had a bit of mental illness or chemical or hormonal imbalance to give her that boost of passion. The good or bad news is that if a person lives long enough, if might fade – depending on its cause – as a person ages.


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