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Elsa Joubert, 97, dies; Afrikaans writer explored black reality
The Hunchback Missionary.

by Alan Cowell

NEW YORK (NYT NEWS SERVICE).- Elsa Joubert, one of South Africa’s best-known writers in the Afrikaans language, whose apartheid-era novel “The Long Journey of Poppie Nongena” opened the eyes of many white South Africans to the harsh treatment that the black majority had been enduring largely out of their sight, died June 14 in Cape Town. She was 97.

She had received a diagnosis of COVID-19, her son, Nico Steytler, told South African news media.

Joubert belonged to a group of dissident writers in Afrikaans — a language derived from the 17th-century Dutch spoken by South Africa’s first white settlers — who called themselves “Die Sestigers” (the Sixtyers, or writers of the 1960s).

Her work ranged from novels to autobiography to travelogues, but among her books it was “Poppie Nongena” that struck the most resounding chord in South Africa. First published in 1978 in Afrikaans as “Die Swerfjare van Poppie Nongena,” the novel tells of a black woman’s struggle to keep her family together in the face of oppressive apartheid laws intended to control the lives of the black majority from cradle to grave.

As writer and fellow Die Sestiger André Brink put it in an essay, quoted in her obituary in The Johannesburg Review of Books, the novel, based on the life of an actual South African woman, “caused a furor in Afrikaner circles.”

He added, “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” 30 years earlier in arousing world opinion against apartheid.

“Poppie Nongena” was translated into 13 languages and won a host of South African literary awards.

Elsabé Antoinette Murray Joubert was born Oct. 19, 1922, in the Cape settlement of Paarl, which was closely associated with the Afrikaners’ campaign for official recognition of their language. She was educated in a racially segregated system that predated apartheid.

Before becoming an author, Joubert was a teacher in the remote Eastern Cape town of Cradock, which would later be a crucible of black resistance. She married Klaas Steytler, a writer, in 1950 and had three children with him, Elsabé, Henriette and Nico. Steytler died in 1998. (Complete information on her survivors was not immediately available.)

In preparing to write “Poppie Nongena” Joubert had long conversations with the woman on whom she based the title character. Joubert said that only the woman’s name in the book, Poppie Nongena, was an invention.

Joubert trod a fine line as a white woman seeking to articulate the plight of a black protagonist at a time when many white South Africans displayed scant curiosity about the lives of black people, who most often occupied the most menial of positions.

The gulf between the Sestigers and many other Afrikaners produced what Brink, who died in 2015, called a “cultural schizophrenia.” In their early work, he said, “they could not reconcile their cosmopolitan outlook with the laager mentality of Afrikanerdom,” referring to a circle-the-wagons defensiveness.

They “finally resolved the conflicts within themselves by ‘coming home’ to Africa in the fullest sense of the word,” he added, coming to see their identity as part of a common African heritage.

“Poppie Nongena” appears on a list of the best 100 African books of the 20th century, as compiled in 2002 by the African Studies Center at Leiden University in Belgium. It inspired a play, adapted by Joubert and Sandra Kotze (it had its New York premiere off-Broadway in 1982), and a South African movie in 2019. Joubert was awarded high honors by the post-apartheid government in the early 1990s.

In 1995 she published what some reviewers took as a counter-story, “Die Reise van Isobelle” (translated into English in 2002 as “The Long Journey of Isobelle”), which explored the blinkered lives of women in an Afrikaner family over a century.

Joubert’s literary career spanned decades. Her brief debut novel, “Ons Wag Op Die Kaptein,” appeared in 1963 and was published in English in 1982 as “To Die at Sunset.” She published a final volume of her autobiography, “Cul-de-sac,” in English in 2019. The memoir, in which she contemplates the vagaries and indignities of aging, was published in Afrikaans as “Spertyd,” or “Deadline,” in 2017.

J.M. Coetzee, the South African Nobel laureate in literature, said of “Cul-de-sac,” “Seldom have the humiliations of old age been so nakedly laid open.”

In her last months, when the coronavirus pandemic forced Joubert to live under lockdown in a care home in Cape Town, her writing took a briefer, more urgent form. In an open letter in May, she appealed plaintively and passionately for a relaxation of the quarantine rules that prevented care home residents from seeing close relatives.

“We are in the last months and weeks of our lives,” she wrote, “and we who live in homes or institutions, however wonderful, are totally cut off from our family members.”

“I’m suffering. Telephone calls, videos, Skype and much more help, but it’s not enough,” she wrote. “It’s not the same.”

© 2020 The New York Times Company

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