The author Elsa Joubert passed away on 14 June 2020 at the age of 97. The Department of Afrikaans and Dutch pays tribute to this alumna of Stellenbosch University.
During the first half of June, South Africa lost two authors who both excelled in a variety of genres. Jeanne Goosen passed away on 2 June at the age of 81 and Elsa Joubert on 14 June. She would have been 98 in October.
Joubert obtained a BA from Stellenbosch University in 1942 and the following year she completed a senior teaching diploma, also at SU. She worked as a teacher and journalist, received an MA from the University of Cape Town and undertook a solo trip through Africa in 1948. In 1957 she debuted with a travel memoir on her journey through Uganda and Egypt.
Although travel (and by implication journeys and sojourns) is an important theme in Joubert's oeuvre, it would be an untenable oversimplification to reduce a writing career of sixty years to an obsession with travel literature. This is demonstrated very clearly by the numerous awards she received for her work, including two Hertzog prizes (considered the most prestigious award in Afrikaans literature), and the recognition she enjoyed as an author – among many other accolades she was awarded honorary doctorates by SU (2001) and the University of Pretoria (2007) and received the Order of Ikhamanga (silver) in 2004.
In 1978, Joubert garnered international attention with the publication of arguably her most famous work, Die swerfjare van Poppie Nongena (translated into English as The long journey of Poppie Nongena). The novel, which has been translated into more than 10 languages and received numerous prizes, emphasises that personal experiences are political.
In a 2006 review of 'n Wonderlike geweld (the first instalment in a three-part autobiography), Desmond Painter wrote that Joubert's representation of her own experiences as a child and young woman become the perfect instrument to register the shifts, both significant and subtle, in the Afrikaans world of that time. On the whole, Joubert's work functions not only as a way to register the world at a particular time, but also causes shifts in the reader. Die swerfjare van Poppie Nongena (as well as Christiaan Olwagen's film version, Poppie Nongena, released earlier this year) demonstrates the way in which Joubert forced herself and her readers to recognise the humanity of other people and acknowledge the need for (and importance of) interaction.
It is a supreme irony that a writer whose work is inextricably linked to journeys, both physical and emotional, died of COVID-19 during the lockdown.