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Elsa Joubert (1922 – )

Sonder Afrikaans is ek stom. ’n Taal word bedreig as hy nie meer die vanselfsprekende huis is waarin jy woon nie. So vanselfsprekend soos asemhaal.

Elsa Joubert began her literary career writing travelogues. She started writing about Europe but eventually gained notoriety for her African travel stories. She travelled on her own all over the continent at a time when institutions back home were trying their hardest to keep Africa at bay.

She wrote Suid van die Wind (1962) that focused on her travels in Madagascar, Die staf van Monomotapa (1964) about Mozambique and Die Nuwe Afrikaan about Angola. Nelson Mandela read her travelogues while he was in prison and expressed the deep impact her work had had on him. She was the first Afrikaner he knew who seemed to see herself as entirely a part of Africa – not separate and not superior. He called her on her birthday in 2002 and told her she was the first Afrikaner he read who “faced and embraced the possibility of shared white-black rule in South Africa.”

Her most widely known novel is Poppie Nongena: One woman’s struggle against Apartheid. Newsweek names it “South Africa’s Mother Courage.” It is the almost-true story of a Xhosa woman dealing with the ever-increasing reach of the Apartheid system of separation. Poppie Nongena tries for years to resist forced removal to the Transkei ‘homeland.’ Eventually she has to go and the book tracks the tragic circumstances the move to the raw and remote township has on Poppie and her family.

Elsa Joubert, who has been profoundly fascinated by Africa since her earliest work, caused a furor in Afrikaner circles with her Poppie Nongena, the heartrendingly sincere account of a simple black woman’s efforts to find a place she can call her own: it would not be an overstatement to say that, in this fictionalized biography, Elsa Joubert has done for Afrikaners what Paton’s Cry the Beloved Country did for white readers three years earlier. Works like these prove that the cultural schizophrenia experienced by the Sestigers who, in their early work, could not reconcile their cosmopolitan outlook with the laager mentality of Afrikanerdom, finally resolved the conflicts within themselves by ‘coming home’ to Africa in the fullest sense of the word.

– André Brink

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