Elsa Joubert’s last journey: her sad chat with son
Nico Steytler talks about growing up with the ‘Poppie Nongena’ author – an ‘intellectual sparring partner’
To the world Elsa (Elsabé) Joubert was an award-winning writer, but to her son she was an intellectual sparring partner and friend.
Joubert died on June 14 at the age of 97.
Her son, Nico Steytler, confirmed that she died of Covid-19, and also had pneumonia.
“Our last conversation was sad; that was when she heard she contracted Covid. She was still positive and hopeful that she’d make it. She was a very strong person,” Steytler, a law professor at the University of the Western Cape, said on Tuesday.
“My early childhood was of her being just a mother, not the great writer everyone knew. She never had a study where she wrote. She wrote in the sitting room and when we got back from school it was tidy, there were no books or writing pads. She was able to talk and engage me on any topic, as a friend and an intellectual sparring partner,” Steyler said.
Born in Paarl on October 19 1922, Joubert grabbed attention with her novel Die Swerfjare van Poppie Nongena (The Long Journey of Poppie Nongena), which was voted one of the top 100 best books of the 20th century and was translated into 13 languages. The novel was recently turned into an award-winning film, directed by Christian Olwagen and starring Clementine Mosimane.
“She always wanted to move beyond the narrow Afrikaans, National Party upbringing. From a young age she wanted to understand Africa. She travelled to many African countries, her reviving passion was Africa, and she realised the biggest passion was to travel in her own country,” Steytler said.
“She said this can’t be, I need to understand that world and how it functions with mine. That is how she was able to write the book Poppy Nongena,” he said.
Joubert studied at Stellenbosch University where she completed a Bachelor of Arts degree in 1942 and a Secondary Education Diploma the following year. She then completed her master’s degree in Dutch-Afrikaans literature at the University of Cape Town in 1945.
After graduating Joubert taught at an all-girls high school in Cradock before becoming editor of Die Huisgenoot(1946-48). During this time she met her husband, Klaas Steytler, a journalist and later publisher and author, who died in 1998.
At the launch of her book Reisiger in 2009, Hannes van Zyl of Tafelberg Publishers described Joubert as someone who was “curious, listens attentively and who always asked the difficult questions”.
The writer has won several prestigious awards locally and internationally. In 1981, the British Royal Society of Literature awarded her the Winifred Holtby prize and made her a fellow of that society.
She received an honorary doctorate from Stellenbosch University in 2001 for her contribution to literature. Speaking to Die Burger that year, she said: “From a young age, the written word in me was something precious. Even if it were just to capture it for a moment – hit a small wedge against the fleetingness. Words have a magical quality to me – constantly changing, with new shades of feeling or meaning added, vibrating intellectually at all times.”
Tafelberg and NB Publishers described Joubert in a statement as “a pioneer, ahead of her time”.
“In addition to the cultural and political dimensions of her work, it was always characterised by a powerful human element. In her own words, ‘the furthest journey is from person to person, though the heart’.”
NB’s Etienne Bloemhof said he was always moved by Joubert’s generosity of spirit, her sharp intellect and humility. “There are no words to pay true justice to her legacy.”
Jonathan Ball Publishers said of Joubert’s writing accomplishment: “Throughout her illustrious and very prolific career she has been awarded almost every prize for Afrikaans writing, some more than once. Die Reise van Isobelle was awarded the WA Hofmeyer Prize and the Hertzog Prize (probably the most prestigious award for Afrikaans writing).
“Elsa has also been recognised internationally for her work. Elsa’s latest book, The Hunchback Missionary, was published by Jonathan Ball Publishers in 2014.”
In a poignant open letter she wrote in mid-May, Joubert pleaded with the government to lift lockdown restrictions to allow elderly people to see their loved ones in person.
Speaking of the pain of having them turned away at the door, Joubert, who lived in an old-age home in Gardens, Cape Town, said: “Naturally speaking, we are in the final weeks and months of our lives.”
About the loss of personal contact, she said: “I am waning without it. Telephones and videos and Skype ... help, but it is not enough. It is not the same.
“A true connection goes so much deeper.”
• Joubert will be cremated this weekend and the family will have a memorial service for her at a later stage. Joubert is survived by her son Nico, daughters Elsabé and Henriëtte, and grandchildren.