The long journey of Elsa Joubert

Distinguished South African author Elsa Joubert died in Cape Town on Sunday, at the age of 97 of  Covid-19-related causes. 

The writer was awarded the Order of Ikhamanga, for South Africans who have excelled in the arts, culture, literature, music and sport, and was made a fellow of the British Royal Society of Literature.

The book for which she is best known is her 1978 novel, Die Swerfjare van Poppie Nongena (translated by Joubert as The Long Journey of Poppie Nongena). The story is about a black woman who attempts to keep her family together when the apartheid pass laws threaten to tear them apart. When she decided to write The Long Journey of Poppie Nongena, Joubert dealt herself the delicate task of a white woman writing about the a black woman  in apartheid South Africa. Joubert knew the woman the story is based on and had many conversations with her. By doing so, Joubert could intimately detail the ways in which themes like colonisation, migration and religion conspired to the detriment of the protagonist while doing her best to maintain the source’s ownership to the narrative. 

The Johannesburg Review of Books noted in its obituary for Joubert that Booker prize winner Andre Brink had this to say of her in his book, Writing in a State of Siege: Essays on Politics and Religion: “Elsa Joubert … caused a furore in Afrikaner circles with her Poppie Nongena … has done for Afrikaners what Alan Paton’s Cry the Beloved Country did for white readers. 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.”

Joubert associated with Die Sestigers, a group of Afrikaans writers in the 1960s who confronted apartheid and who included Ingrid Jonker, Adam Small and Breyten Breytenbach.

Over the past 42 years, The Long Journey of Poppie Nongena has been translated into 13 languages and won the Luyt, CNA and Hofmeyr awards. It was voted one of Africa’s Best 100 books of the 20th Century. Backed by acclaimed writer Ali Mazrui, a jury chaired by Professor Njabulo Ndebele compiled this list during the 2001 leg of the Zimbabwe International Book Fair. The book has continued to make waves through adaptations by theatre and filmmakers. In 1982 Joubert partnered with actress Sandra Kotzé, to adapt the book into a stage play of the same name. The play was first staged at the Market Theatre in Johannesburg before gaining international acclimation after its two-year stint in the United States and in other capitals around the world, where it collected two more awards. Tafelberg published the text, Poppie: The Drama, in 1984. Its 2020 Afrikaans film adaptation, Poppie Nongena, earned the director, Christiaan Olwagen, multiple awards.

She wrote plays, travel stories and short stories in addition to numerous books, among them Ons Wag op die Kaptein (her debut novel in 1963) and Die Reise van Isobelle (1995) and Cul-de-Sac: A Memoir (2019).

Jobert grew up in Paarl in the Western Cape. Her undergraduate years were at Stellenbosch University and her master’s at the University of Cape Town. She married journalist, novelist and playwright Klaas Steytler in 1950 and they had three children, Elsabe, Henriette and Nico.