Ingrid Jonker, The Escape

Ingrid Jonker was born in September 1933 on a farm in Douglas in the Northern Cape, to Beatrice and Abraham Jonker. Shortly before she was born, Abraham, in a fit of jealous rage, accused his wife of carrying a child that wasn’t his. Beatrice left him that night and moved in with her parents.

This would not be the last time that Abraham Jonker would disown his daughter.

All her life Ingrid would search for her father’s acknowledgement and approval, often replacing him with the affections of much older men. Loved by both Andre P. Brink and Jack Cope, and adored by countless other men, Ingrid would never lose her childlike vitality and aching vulnerability that so enchanted everyone that met her.


She would instead, commit pen to paper and reach iconic status in South Africa, and a on a chilly night in July 1965, commit suicide by drowning.

After her parents’ divorce, Ingrid’s childhood consisted of destitution and emotional setbacks. The family wandered between Strand and Gordon’s Bay just outside of Cape Town. Ingrid and her older sister Anna ran wild, delighting in roaming the beaches, while their mother pined after a husband whom she still loved. After yet another nervous breakdown in a long series of breakdowns, Beatrice was sent to Valkenberg Psychiatric Hospital for treatment. She would return to Valkenberg sporadically over the next few years until she died of cancer in 1944.

Ingrid and her sister were sent to live with their father, who was like a total stranger to them. Abraham treated the girls as outsiders, which caused a permanent rift between him and Ingrid. During this time Ingrid escaped through words. She attended Wynberg Girls’ High School and wrote poetry for the school’s magazine. Encouraged by her teachers, Ingrid submitted a collection of poems for publication. Although rejected, her work grabbed the attention of writer and poet D.J. Opperman. By the age of sixteen, Ingrid and Opperman shared a regular correspondence, and his views influenced her work greatly.

Ingrid’s first book of poems, Ontvlugting (Escape) was published in 1956 when Ingrid was 23. That same year she married Pieter Venter, a writer fifteen years her senior, and their daughter Simone was born a year later in 1957. After a dramatic three year stint in Johannesburg during which time Ingrid left Pieter and returned to him a short time later, the couple separated and Ingrid returned to Cape Town with her daughter.

Her father, Abraham, a National Party Member of Parliament, was appointed chairman of the parliamentary selection committee responsible for censorship laws on art, publications and entertainment. Ingrid’s vehement opposition to these laws embarrassed him deeply and their opposing political views became public knowledge. In a speech in parliament, Abraham denied Ingrid as his daughter.

During this time, Ingrid became involved with Jack Cope and Andre P. Brink, both writers. Her involvement with Cope resulted in an unplanned pregnancy and it’s been said that Cope coerced her into having an abortion (a crime in South Africa at the time). Her father’s continued rejection and her dark depression following her abortion led her to be hospitalised in Valkenberg Psychiatric Hospital.

In 1963, Ingrid published Rook en Oker (Smoke and Ochre) a collection of poems praised by most South African writers, poets and critics. The more conservative white South African public received the collection coolly, and Ingrid became known as one of Die Sestigers (The Sixty-ers) – A group that included Breyten Breytenbach, Andre P. Brink and Bartho Smit, who were challenging the conservative Afrikaans literary norms at the time.

Rook en Oker won the Afrikaanse Pers-Boekhandel Prys (Afrikaans Press-Bookselllers Literary Prize), and Ingrid used the £1000 prize money to travel. The money was enough to take in London, Paris and Amsterdam and to spend a month touring Spain with Andre. The experience would prove to be disastrous. Brink decided against leaving his wife for Ingrid and returned to South Africa. Ingrid followed shortly.

By early 1965, Ingrid was overdoing the booze on top of her medication, and she was admitted to Valkenberg for yet another breakdown. For the next few months Ingrid spiraled into deep depression.

On the 28th June she wrote a letter to Jack Cope where she chillingly outlined her intentions to commit suicide by drowning. Overleaf she scribbled: “One may think this is heartless, defiant, or all the rest, but to me it is really no more heartless than a person dying from stomach cancer – I’ve got it in the soul now, that’s all.”

During the night of 19 July 1965, Ingrid went to the beach at Three Anchor Bay in Cape Town where she walked into the sea and drowned.

On hearing of her death, her father reportedly said: “They can throw her back into the sea for all I care.”

On 9 May 1994, Nelson Mandela read her poem “Die Kind Wat Doodgeskiet Is Deur Soldate By Nyanga (The Child Who Was Shot Dead By Soldiers At Nyanga) at his first presidential address. He described her as: “a woman who transcended a particular experience and became a South African, an African and a citizen of the world... In the midst of despair, she celebrated hope. Confronted with death, she asserted the beauty of life... To her and others like her, we owe a debt to life itself.”