Arthur Nortje remembered 50 years on by Selwyn Milborrow

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Manage episode 279907858 series 2300930
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I would like to make a case for the repatriation of the remains of Arthur Nortje, a poet from Port Elizabeth buried in Wolvercote Cemetery, Oxford, United Kingdom. He died of a suspected barbiturate overdose on 11 December 1970. Dennis Brutus, Nortje’s mentor, claimed that he had died from an overdose of forty-five barbiturate tablets while other sources vary in the details of his death. The coroner, however, declared an open verdict because he believed that his death could not have been accidental.

Cecilia Potgieter, a Coloured domestic worker, gave birth to Arthur Kenneth Nortje on 16 December 1942. The father was “a young Jewish man named Arthur Kaplan who was thought to be the son of Cecilia’s employer” (McLuckie & Tyner, 1999). Nortje spent most of his childhood years in Korsten and Gelvandale, two areas in Port Elizabeth he wrote about fondly in his poetry.

The discriminatory apartheid system under which Nortje lived, had a devastating impact on him. Sadly “Nortje found himself between two opposing forces of Black and White while Coloureds were reduced. Coloureds were disenfranchised by apartheid laws and distanced from all others”.

Nortje took a one-way exit permit in 1965 after receiving a scholarship to attend Jesus College at Oxford. It was during those years of isolation that his poetry started showing signs of deep psychological insight as he searched for meaning to his existence. Arthur Nortje was a complex character and tragic figure. He used his sharp powers of observation to write about life. In 2004, Dirk Klopper wrote that “Many studies of Arthur Nortje's poetry have commented on the prevalence in his work of images of alienation, seeing this as a function either of political conditions in South Africa in his lifetime or of Nortje's exile from his home country.”

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