homehomepeopleElsa Joubert

Names: Joubert, Elsa

Born: 19 October 1922, Paarl, Cape Province (now Western Cape), South Africa

In Summary: Teacher and celebrated novelist

Elsabé Antoinette Murray Joubert (married surname Steytler) was born on 19 October 1922 in Paarl where she grew up, and studied at the universities of Stellenbosch (BA and SOD) and Cape Town (MA in Afrikaans-Nederlands).

Within two years of starting a career as a high school teacher in Cradock she became editor of Die Huisgenoot (1946-1948) and thereafter a full-time writer. Since then Joubert has written numerous novels, short stories, travelogues and plays.

Joubert’s works are mainly inspired by the continent of Africa, in which she has travelled extensively. Very early on in her career as a writer, Joubert rejected the strictures of mainstream Afrikaner writing and threw in her lot with the emerging Afrikaner literary dissident movement.

The publication in 1979 of her novel Die Swerfjare van Poppie Nongena (translated by Joubert herself into English in 1980 as The long Journey of Poppie Nongena) - an epic tale of the endless adversity and struggle of a humble black woman under Apartheid laws - had a major impact, both in the literary world as well as in broader South African society.

In that novel, Joubert chose to portray South Africa in a poignant yet honest manner. The plot reflected the brutality and injustice of the Apartheid system, while her characterizations reflected the courage and fortitude of people in the face of hardship and difficulty.

Her novel Die Reise van Isobelle (published in 1995 and translated into English by Catherine Knox as “The long journey of Isobelle” in 2002), which deals with the story of the women of an Afrikaner family spanning 100 years, is sometimes described as the “racial flipside of Poppie” in that it explores with deep insight and sensitivity, the cultural and historical milieu within which essentially well meaning people were misled into supporting Apartheid. This novel lifted the veil to reveal the essential truth of the Apartheid tragedy, and won Joubert the Eugène Marais and Hertzog prizes in 1997.

Joubert is much celebrated and internationally recognized for her contribution to South African, and especially Afrikaans, literature. She has been awarded several prestigious literary prizes locally and internationally. She is the recipient of almost every prize for Afrikaans writing, many more than once. For Poppie, Joubert received three prestigious prizes (the W.A. Hofmeyr, the Louis Luyt and the CNA prizes). She was also awarded the Winifred Holtby prize in 1981 by the British Royal Society of Literature and was made a fellow of that society.

Poppie is commonly regarded as one of the best novels to have emerged on the African continent in the 20th century.  Joubert’s work has been translated into many languages, with Poppie being translated into no fewer than 13 languages. From 1982 to 1984, her drama based on Poppie (co-authored with Sandra Kotzé) was performed worldwide to much acclaim.

For this work Joubert and the co-author received the Olivier award for the best play (London), and an Obi award for best script (New York). In 1998 Joubert was again awarded the Hertzog prize for Prose.

Elsa Joubert received an honorary doctorate from the University of Stellenbosch in 2001 for her contribution to literature.  The total body of work of the illustrious and prolific Elsa Joubert remains seminal to the development of South African and Afrikaans literature.

Elsa was married to the late journalist and writer, Klaas Steytler. She has two daughters and a son, and lives in Cape Town.

The South African Government bestowed Elsa Joubert with the Order of Ikhamanga in Silver at the National Orders awards on 19 October 2004 for her excellent achievements in literature, and for contributing to the development of journalism in South Africa. 

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