Little girl with the face of an adult



JUNE 16, 1976, when the South African world caught fire, and Poppie Nongena’s story reaches its climax. Photograph courtesy UCT Libraries’ Special Collections and Archives.

THE POTENT TREASURE of the complicated situation of standing still in a place where history is in the making, turning and swirling on itself and all that it may mean to future generations feels particularly prescient in this age of coronavirus. In 2012, the Radio Sonder Grense radio drama team embarked on a production of Elsa Joubert’s 1979 novel which was to evolve into a South African classic: Die Swerfjare van Poppie Nongena. It is one of the gems in the radio station’s archives and will make your day feel that much more meaningful, segueing as it does with a very developed sense of the ownership one can take of history, however ugly it seems.

With the inimitable Zenobia Kloppers in the lead, the work is lent a gentle directness that doesn’t compromise its robust voice, as it paints an understanding of forced removals, the dompas system, love, loss and motherhood, in gritty textures and clear colours. There is a magnificence in Kloppers’ interpretation of this long-suffering character that raises her to biblical heights. Like Job she takes on complexity and disappointment with a simple directness, but not without heart. Like Mary, she presents the picture with a stoic serenity. Arguably more powerful than a filmed version of the tale, this radio rendition is devastatingly fine, giving presence to the theatre of the mind.

It is played with a very real sense of closeness to the text from which it derives. The words that are uttered descriptively or out of inverted commas in the text become the domain of the play’s narrator,  and while of course, the whole book is not read out loud and punted as a drama, the work’s texture as a fully fledged play fits more comfortably into an understanding of a reading.

But what a reading this is. The intonations and voices, the Afrikaans articulation and texture paint a landscape of not only the horror of apartheid abuse but of composure in a world cast into thorns and fire. While you may be tempted to approach this work with something of a jaded sigh as it feels like a cultural imperative that is wordy on the head and punishing on the heart, don’t. The political and historical bones of the country from the 1950s to the 1970s are described with clarity, but you get swept off your feet by the small narratives articulated here. The gives and takes between a young woman and her mother. The earnest observations of a naive teenager at the time of her wedding. The simplification of the surrealness of pass laws in a world caught in its own stupid hubris. All of these realities come under the loupe. This timeless piece in celebration of South Africa’s historical heritage is a true delight and achievement in radio technology.

  • Die Swerfjare van Poppie Nongena (The long journey of Poppie Nongena) is written by Elsa Joubert. Directed by Margot Luyt, and featuring technical input by Alan Rabie, it is performed by Ivan Abrahams, Shaun Arnolds, Merlin Balie, Johan Botha, Lida Botha, Christo Davids, Nic de Jager, Zenobia Kloppers, Sizwe Msutu, André Rousseau and Juanita Swanepoel. It was broadcast on RSG on 14 June 2012 and is available on podcast through the radio station’s website:

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