The poet of colouredness and exile

Dennis Brutus described Arthur Nortje as “perhaps the best South African poet of our time.”

Trade union meeting at a fishery industry in Cape Town in 1985. Credit UN Photo CC BY-NC-ND 2.0.

Some 50 years ago, on a cold December evening in 1970 in Oxford, a brilliant graduate student from South Africa—a prize-winning poet who had already completed undergraduate degrees at both UWC and Oxford and was about to embark upon his doctorate—died from a drug overdose at the age of 27. His name was Arthur Nortje, and his life and work deserve to be remembered and celebrated far more widely than they have been.

The coroner’s inquest into his death returned an “open” verdict, and to this day the exact circumstances are unresolved. In fact, conjecture remains as to whether it was an accident or a suicide. What is known is that, returning home to college accommodation after a party, he overdosed on barbiturates and choked to death. The bald, squalid facts of his demise do no justice to Nortje, who strove with a lyrical voice throughout his short life to express truth, freedom, and belonging.

Arthur Nortje was born on  December 16, 1942 in Oudtshoorn in the Western Cape, and moved with his mother Cecilia to Port Elizabeth, where he was raised in a working-class Colored township. His mother was a Colored domestic worker and his father a white Jewish man called Arthur, thought to be the son of his mother’s employer.

Given his penurious childhood, during which he lived in an iron shack, Nortje’s trajectory was a remarkable one. A gifted and industrious student, in 1961 he received a scholarship to study English at the University of the Western Cape. On completing his degree, he taught briefly in Athlone, a Colored township in Cape Town.

Coloredness was a bedrock of Nortje’s identity, not to mention a source of profound mental anguish, at a time when the concept of race was paramount in South Africa. Writing poetry was his passion; he was published in Black Orpheus magazine in 1961 and won the Mbari Poetry Prize (as did his teacher, mentor, and poet Dennis Brutus) in 1962. In October 1965, he arrived at Oxford to read for a second degree in English, where he remained until 1967. On graduation, he emigrated to Canada, teaching English in Hope, British Columbia, and in Toronto. When his teaching contract was terminated due to ill health, he returned to Oxford in 1970 to start a DPhil.

Life in the UK gave Nortje the freedom, which had been systematically denied to him in South Africa, to be a human being, one who was incidentally Colored. Yet he remained all too aware of the plight of his friends and family back home suffering under an ignoble regime. Nortje’s is an elegiac and harrowing life, in which he was a victim of apartheid’s draconian, de-humanizing laws and their knock on, deleterious effects on the Colored psyche. Both profoundly took their toll on his mental health—as did his copious smoking, drinking, and liberal use of LSD.

His poetry, published posthumously in the collections Dead Roots (London, 1973) and Lonely Against The Light (Grahamstown, 1973), is suffused with meditations on the Colored plight (often deemed “too black to be white and too white to be black”) and the pain of physical exile from his homeland, probing what it means to be Colored in poems like Dogsbody Half-Breed and My Mother Was A Woman, and the exilic predicament of the self-proclaimed “dispersed Hotnot” cast up on foreign shores in Finally Friday, Cosmos in London and Autopsy.

Loss and alienation also permeate his poetic oeuvre (for example, in Waiting and Immigrant), but they are articulated with a lightness of touch that never descends to self-pity. Moreover, his poems are imbued with a powerful combination of existential angst and ontological disorientation, due to the deracination which his Coloredness, and subsequent exile from South Africa engendered. Both a perennial outsider and a nomad, Nortje’s Homeric peregrinations indicate a restless spirit and a reluctant acceptance of his quasi-Dantean exile.

The hybridity, liminality, and ambivalence inherent in Colored identity are all evident in Nortje’s poetry. So too is Fanonian self-hate, as well as a fractured, wounded sense of self and the pathos of never quite belonging. However, there is a more than a touch of Catullus’ amorous passion in his love poems, Baudelaire’s opiate-induced revolt, ennui and debauchery in his London flanerie, and overtones of Rimbaud with regards to his ambiguous sexuality.

While in the UK, Nortje developed friendships with South African poet and playwright Cosmo Pieterse (about whom he wrote Cosmos in London) and novelist Richard Rive. It is also probable that he was in contact with novelist Alex La Guma (who lived in London from December 1966), as well as frequenting a milieu of other South African intellectuals, writers, and activists. However, Nortje’s own role in the politics of exile is unclear. Probably at Brutus’s urging, he read at anti-apartheid rallies in London, and despite evident solidarity with such activism, he seems to have resisted overt membership of political groups. Thus, his limited involvement with South African freedom movements operating in the UK at the time indicates that Nortje was more Larkin than Milton, more Keats than Shelley, intent on courting the poetic muse more than the political one.

Sadly, Nortje did not live to see the end of apartheid. Today he lies buried in Wolvercote Cemetery in Oxford, joining a list of illustrious South African writers who died in exile, such as Nat Nakasa (Harlem,1965) and Alex La Guma (Havana, 1985).

Like many consummately talented poets who died prematurely, one wonders tantalizingly what Nortje could have achieved, had he lived longer. But equally, we should rejoice at the poetic legacy he did bequeath us. Half a century has now passed since his death, but his poems and his recalcitrant spirit of Colored introspection and defiance most certainly live on.

In a post-apartheid South Africa in which Colored’s, despite being in the majority in the Western Cape, are still routinely marginalized and disenfranchised—this time not by the Afrikaner regime, but by the ANC government, Nortje’s work is both timely and apposite. His poetry speaks eloquently of the liminal, painful space that the Colored community still occupies in today’s “Rainbow Nation.”

Moreover, in 2021, post George Floyd and the burgeoning Black Lives Matter movements in the US and Britain, racial injustice and identity dominate our consciousness. As a result, Nortje’s poetry has a striking contemporary relevance.

Ultimately, he was never able to fully reconcile the emotional tensions inherent in his Coloredness or to find peace with an identity fraught with racial ambiguity in a Manichaean world. Nor did he manage to expunge the sense of despair and rootlessness that exile engendered—sentiments he beautifully articulates in All Hungers Pass Away. Yet Nortje left an indelible mark on South African poetry, and Dennis Brutus’ description of him as “perhaps the best South African poet of our time” remains the most fitting epitaph for this humane, tortured genius.

Further Reading