forty years threw a searchlight into a way of life that many of us young white women didn’t know, or didn’t want to know much about – and certainly didn’t understand.
Nearly forty years on, here comes Poppie again in a newly released edition, with a cover image of Clementina Mosimane who plays Poppie in the film released earlier this year (2020). But ‘Poppie’ has had a remarkable history in the intervening years. Elsa Joubert translated her original 1978 Afrikaans book into a wonderfully vivid English in 1980. It went on to be translated into 13 languages and was acclaimed as one of the most important books to come out of Africa in the 20th century. Over and above which it was made into a play starring Nomsa Nene as Poppie, performed at the Market Theatre and later on Broadway in the US in 1982.
But aside from the story of the book, what is the story of Poppie herself? Her real name was Ntombizodumo Eunice Msutwana, born February 28 1936 in Upington and raised in a township called Blikkies. Her Xhosa name means ‘girl born from a line of famous women’. Joubert now 97 and something of a legend herself, knew Ntombi for just two years before she wrote the ‘Poppie’ story – and remembers that ‘she was an intelligent person with a great memory for detail’ (I quote an article in the Sowetan). In a note ‘To the reader’, she says ‘This novel is based on the actual story of a black woman living in South Africa today. Only her name Poppie Rachel Nongena, born Matati, is invented. The facts were related to me not only by Poppie herself, but by members of her immediate family and her extended family or clan, and they cover one family’s experience over the past forty years.’
I’m presuming that inscription was included in the original edition of 1978. But the truth of the matter is that whilst the story of this ‘black woman living in South Africa today’ would not be the same in 2020 – the stories of so many ‘black women’ whilst different, may not be much better.
The Poppie journey starts with her childhood in Upington where she ‘looked after mama’s children till I was thirteen because at thirteen the factory took children to work as cleaners’. From there to Lambert’s Bay, forcibly removed to Cape Town then to Mdantsane in the Eastern Cape and back to Cape Town. All the while dogged by the impossible apartheid laws. It’s an education in so many ways, not least of which is the ability of a woman to love and care for her husband, her children, her extended family, despite all.
But what is special about the Poppie story, then as now, is that you can hear her voice and that of her family members so very clearly. You can understand and empathise with her challenges, her traditions, her humour and her love. All of which is a testimony to the quality of Joubert’s listening skills as well as her writing. It’s an absolute must read.
The real ‘Poppie’, mother of five was only 56 when she died of cancer in April 1992 in Khayelitsha, Cape Town. At 97 Elsa Joubert recently published 'Cul de Sac' 'a memoir 'exploring the continent of old age.'