Petersen, Sydney Vernon

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Petersen, Sydney Vernon

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1916-1987

History

Sydney Vemon Petersen was born on 7 September 1916 in Riversdale. He was one of five children of Sydney Petersen and his wife, Maria Cupido. His paternal grandfather was Swedish. Petersen attended the Berlin missionary school in Riversdale until he was 12 years old and then continued his schooling at the Trafalgar High School in Cape Town. His tuition was in English from the outset. After qualifying as a teacher at the Battswood Training College, he taught in Ladismith in the Cape Province and at the Berlin Mission School in Cape Town's District Six for a number of years. He then lectured at the Battswood Training College and later became the head of its primary school section. In the course of his career he attended evening classes at the University of Cape Town and obtained BA and BEd degrees. When the Athlone High School was established in 1947 he was appointed headmaster. He occupied this position until he retired in 1975. As a dedicated educationist, he remained involved with the Hewat Training College and the teacher training college in Bellville after his retirement. In 1982 he was appointed to the SABC Board. Although he made his mark as a teacher, it is as a poet that he will be remembered. He attracted attention with his first poetry volume. Die enkeling (the individual) (1944), particularly because of its denouncement of racism in the line 'the curse of a dark skin'. Petersen was classified as a Coloured. Later on militant critics held it against him that he lamented, but failed to ever protest. But he explained that he was no politician. Neither was he a 'coloured poet'. He was a poet and a South African. He continued to write poetry in his uniquely clear style, paying no heed to critics. Other volumes of poetry followed: Die stil kind (The quiet child) (1948), Kinders van Kain (Children of Gain) (1960), Suiderkruis (Southern Cross) (1965), Alleenstryd (Lonely struggle) (1979), Nag is verby (Night has gone) (1980) and Laat kom die wind (Let the wind come) (1985). In 1962 an English volume. Meditations on the brink, appeared in the Netherlands. This was later published in South Africa as Meditations (1980). In 1946 Petersen published a highly acclaimed novel, As die son ondergaan (When the sun sets). Petersen traveled extensively. Some of his poetry was translated into English, Italian, Russian and German. He became known as one of the prominent poets of the 1940s. He is remembered for his individuality, simplicity and directness of style, and his contribution to making people aware of the unworthiness of racial discrimination. Various honours were bestowed on him; inter alia a medal of honour for literature from the South African Academy for Science and Art (1959) and the State President's Decoration for Meritorious Service (1982). Petersen died on 20 February 1984 in Germiston. He was survived by his wife, Mavis Hamer, also a teacher, and a son.
Source: Sonderling, N.E. (ed.) New Dictionary of South African Biography, v.2, Pretoria: Vista.

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