Elsa Joubert – a writer who travelled life’s long journey


Vivien Horler

You can go a long way in 97 years, and Elsa Joubert did.

Born in Paarl in 1922, Joubert grew up in an orthodox Afrikaner family, and at first embraced their beliefs. In fact in her early years she felt her father was not sufficiently committed to the Afrikaner cause.

In 1938, when Afrikaners celebrated the centenary of the Great Trek, 16-year-old Elsa was in the crowd when the Cape Town wagon, on its way from the Mother City to Pretoria, passed through Paarl. The oxen were unhitched for the night and Joubert was one of the proud young Afrikaners who placed the yokes over their shoulders and pulled the wagon to the showgrounds. Later she wrote in her diary: “I shall never forget this day.”

Part of the celebrations that year included a series of flaming torches being carried in relays across the country to converge in Pretoria, where on December 16 the foundation stone for the Voortrekker Monument was to be laid. Elsa was one of the torchbearers, but was resentful of the fact she had been allotted just a quarter mile of its journey.

In the same year Joubert and her family visited the Women’s Monument in Bloemfontein, built to commemorate the women who died in Britain’s Boer War concentration camps. Afterwards, an overwhelmed Elsa decided she would fight to avenge their blood.

“On the road home I decide to give up everything and study to be a writer and to shake South Africa awake with my books.”

Well, she did, but perhaps not in the way she had imagined as a teenager. She had a sharp and inquiring mind, and travelled a long way from her beginnings in Paarl, physically, mentally and emotionally.

In 1947 after studying at Stellenbosch and teaching in Cradock for a year, her father offered to support her while she studied further in the Netherlands. But she rejected his offer – it would simply be following the pattern she already knew. In her memoir A Lion on the Landing, she wrote: “She wants to break out of the pattern. She wants to see what lies outside the pattern and who is outside the pattern.”

She saw herself as closed off from the world: “I think my own battle with be the hardest. To be a totally open person.”

And so, instead of joining so many of her friends in a trip to Europe, she booked a berth on a ship to carry her to Mombasa, and from there to travel through Africa.

Joubert was in her 50s when she wrote Die Swerfjare van Poppie Nongena, which she translated into English in 1980 under the title The Long Journey of Poppie Nongena. It is based on a true story of the life of a Xhosa woman struggling under the indignities and oppression of apartheid South Africa.

It won a slew of awards, was translated into several languages, and in 2004 was named one of Africa’s best books of the 20th century. It has been turned into a play and a film.

In 1988, some years after Poppie Nongena, she said in a speech: “After all these years I feel… that what you write should only be relevant in one regard, and that is to yourself and the matters that bother you and that you personally investigate. It is difficult enough as it is to write. I write because I try to make sense of all the nonsense, the bizarre, totally absurd things that go on around me, that break my heart.”

Poppie Nongena was never intended to be a “political pamphlet”, she told Irene M Wainwright, the translator of A Lion on the Landing. She told Wainwright something that the writer Richard Reve, had told her: “A writer cannot change laws, he can change the climate in which laws can be changed.”

Joubert married the journalist Klaas Steytler and they had three children. She died of Covid-19 in hospital in Cape Town on June 14, 2020. In May she pleaded to be allowed to have a face-to-face visit with her family, but this was not to be.

In an open letter she wrote: “Naturally speaking, we are in the final weeks and months of our lives.

Her last book Spertyd (Deadline) was written from her retirement home in the City Bowl. Almost exactly a year ago I reviewed the English translation, titled Cul-de-Sac, on this website. She made it clear that old age was not for sissies.



2 thoughts on “Elsa Joubert – a writer who travelled life’s long journey

  1. David Bristow

    In a time of #blacklivesmatter, on reflection it must have been painful for sentient Afrikaans speakers to watch their people go from noble victims to callous oppressors.

    1. FMR101.3 beverley roos-muller

      I understand where David is coming from, but there is a inherent flaw. “Sentient Afrikaans speakers” (and thinkers) did not ‘watch’ their people go on to become callous oppressors. They did something about it. The list is long, and in danger of being forgotten. They paid a heavy price; Afrikaner dissidents became outcasts, were denied promotion and jobs, and sometimes were jailed and banned and exiled, eg Braam Fischer would end his life in ‘disgrace’ from his natural community. Others like Van Zyl Slabbert and the strong Afrikaners in formal politics, and those outside it, including writers, those committed to underground movements and peace processes, faced intense criticism and alienation from their families and friends.
      In the end, it was Afrikaners and not English-speakers who ‘got the job done’ at the end of apartheid. Not before time, it has to be said.
      Just as the English were complicity and profited from centuries of slavery, it was also they, under the leadership of people like William Wilberforce, who forced it’s ending. Those that did, should be honoured rather than pondered.


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