Tribute to Stephanie Kemp (1941-2022)

By Maeder Osler

I was saddened to hear, a few months ago, that Stephanie Kemp had died. She was an old friend — I knew her as a student, and met her again more recently following her return to South Africa a long period in exile, when she became one of many returnees who visited Hanglip Farm.

She was a vivid, unforgettable person who lived an extraordinary life, much of which is encapsulated in the title of her memoir: My life: The making of an Afrikaner revolutionary in the South African liberation struggle.

She was also a child of the Karoo, having been born to a conservative but loving family with a stern Afrikaner father in the nearby town of Steynsburg. She then grew up in Malmesbury, where she developed an aversion to apartheid, which was honed further when she started studying physiotherapy at UCT. She joined the SACP, and then the African Resistance Movement (ARM), a small underground movement started by Lib ral Party members which set out to sabotage non-human targets such as electricity pylons and railway infrastructure.


In the early 1960s, for a brief, wonderful while, I shared a house with Stephanie and other students, shortly before her arrest by security police in the infamous ‘Fourth of July raids’ in 1964.

Stephanie was very beautiful, and also very friendly. Together, we protested against the legislation introducing 90 days detention without trial, among other newly introduced repressive measures, to which, ironically, she would soon fall victim.

Those were also the days of the musical ‘King Kong’, with fun songs such as something like ‘ like a ping pong ball on a mountain stream, like paper blowing in the breeze … ’ which one could also dance to … but I digress …

Like other members of the African Resistance Movement (ARM), Stephanie was betrayed by Adrian Leftwich, a former NUSAS president, who caved in rapidly under security police interrogation. To the dismay of many, he also turned state witness and testified against her and others at their subsequent trials.

Aghast at what he had done, Leftwich left the country and never returned, eventually building a career in England as an academic. In 2002, after many years of silence, he wrote a widely read essay in Granta magazine titled  ‘I gave the names …’ in which he sought to analyse and come to terms with his conduct. Stephanie was among those who forgave him, and she communicated with him until his death in England in 2014.

I vividly remember helping Stephanie’s shocked and anxious mother to make contact with her daughter during her detention. Her concern was justified – during her interrogation, Stephanie was physically assaulted by security police, and held in solitary confinement for lengthy periods. She is believed to be the first white women to be assaulted or tortured while in police custody.

Eventually, in a Cape Town trial, Stephanie and four other ARM members were tried for sabotage. After pleading guilty to a lesser charge of belonging to an unlawful organisation, she was sentenced to five years in prison, of which two were suspended. B.J. Vorster, then minister of justice, announced that if the parents of those convicted could show they had been ‘influenced by NUSAS’, he would consider their early release. Her father then went to see Vorster in Pretoria. Despite her protests against receiving privileged treatment because she was white, her sentence was reduced by a year. While the sentence of some other ‘white’ accused in the Cape Town trials were also reduced, Eddie Daniels, who was classified as ‘coloured’, spent 15 years on Robben Island. After another trial in Johannesburg, the liberal activist and journalist Hugh Lewin served his full sentence of seven years, after which he also left the country on an exit permit.

In the meantime, shortly after Lewin and others had been arrested, a remaining member of ARM, John Harris, planted a  bomb in Park Station in Johannesburg. According to Stephanie, this was done without the knowledge of any other members. Harris phoned the police and newspapers beforehand, and told them where the bomb was planted, in a seeming attempt to prevent it from exploding. They failed to respond, and the bomb went off, killing an elderly woman and severely injuring others. Harris was arrested, tried, and hanged seven months later. Following his arrest, security police threatened other members of ARM who were in custody — including Stephanie – with death sentences as well.

The arrest, trials and convictions of the members of ARM and the detentions and house arrests of other activists brought this period of resistance to apartheid to an abrupt – and seemingly indefinite– end. Activists were smeared, lied about, ostracised, placed under house arrest, banned and banished and imprisoned on Robben Island and elsewhere. This was a time rife with spies, informers, and people who had been ‘turned’, in the SACP but also the PAC and the ANC.

NUSAS, the Black Sash, the Civil Right League, and the Institute of Race Relations were among few institutions working against apartheid to survive.  A few years earlier, following Sharpeville, the ANC and PAC had been banned, and their leaders were either imprisoned or in exile. The Liberal Party dissolved, and the embryo Progressive Party was hampered by racial exclusions.

A long political winter followed, punctuated by the Soweto uprising and the advent of BC. Again, leaders were banned, detained, arrested and imprisoned, and many more went into exile. Then came the turbulent eighties and the countrywide uprisings that resulted in the 1990 concessions and the negotiated settlement – some would say the ‘constitutional compromise’ — aimed at rebuilding the beloved country …


Stephanie with her eldest son, Alan, demonstrating against an All Black tour to South Africa.

In the meantime, Stephanie had settled in England, where she worked for the anti-apartheid movement, the SACP and the ANC. In 1990, following Mandela’s release and the unbanning of the ANC and PAC, I heard that she too had returned from exile.

Among others, the return of exiles led to a steady stream of new visitors at Hanglip Farm, particularly people I had known during my time at UCT and in NUSAS, including Jonty Driver and his family, Hugh Lewin, Neville and Muriel Ruben, David Russell, Magnus Gunther, John Daniel and Horst Kleinsmidt. Other visitors over the years included Paul Pretorius, Tim and Ilse Wilson, Francis and Lindy Wilson, Eddie Webster and Luli Callinicos, Duncan Innes and Sheila Barsel (better known as Sheila Lapinsky).

Stephanie visited Hanglip Farm in the course of a series of road trips aimed at reconnecting with the country of her birth. We sat on the stoep and around the dinner table in the historic old farmhouse, with roots going back to the trekboer days and encounters with the local San, talking into the night.

It turned out that – as also recounted in her memoirs – her homecoming was a bitter-sweet experience. Like many other returnees, she felt alienated from the South Africa she could hardly recognise. After an idealistic period in which she was very active in the SAP and the ANC, she became disillusioned, resigned from both parties, and joined COPE instead. At Hanglip, she shared her disillusionment with Les and myself. Once again, she felt used and abused, but this time by some of her own compatriots.

On her last morning on the farm, before she resumed her exploratory trip. I took her a rusk and a cup of coffee in our daughter Kathy’s old bedroom, I never saw her again.


In 2017, Stephanie published her memoirs, first titled Through an Unforgettable Storm: The Forging of a Loyal Cadre, as an e-book on Amazon. A second edition was published in 2018 by SA History Online, titled My Life: The Making of an Afrikaner Revolutionary in the South African liberation struggle. The entire book can be downloaded from SA History Online (just click on the title). It’s a vivid and moving work in which she writes about her life – and the South Africa she returned to — with seemingly unsparing honesty.

In one memorable passage, she writes: ‘‘With pain in my heart, I still see our country in a sorrowful political transition from the legacy of 400 years of white minority hegemony. I see now that when I spoke on public platforms in Britain saying that Apartheid was brutalizing the people, this is what I meant. Every day people are murdered, often gratuitously and with horrifying violence. In the absence of a strong visionary guidance from the leadership, our country looks more and more like a post-apocalyptic devastation. Nevertheless despite the political disappointments and the looming dangers to our democracy, these are our failures. We must set them right. We are our own enemy now. …’

In a brief update in the second edition, she spoke about a ‘dramatic shift in the political scene’ in the form of Zuma’s resignation and Ramaphosa’s election as president, upon which she decided to rejoin the ANC. She expressed the hope that ‘we would take up where we left off in 2009 and take our country forward. We cannot fail again. THUMA MINA. …’ As we know now, this promise has not been realised.

Stephanie in later life with a friend, Rebone.


While vivid, and often finely crafted, parts of the book are also quite disturbing. Among others, Stephanie wrote about her experiences during her road trips in bleak and uncompromising terms:

‘ … over vast swathes of our country in small towns and on farms, little has changed — even two decades later [after the transition to democracy] … In the smaller towns, whites still occupy the centre of town, and black police armed with guns and without supervising whites in higher ranks, are the only visible sign of the new South Africa. “Die outa sal jou kar was” [the old black man will wash your car] signalled that in many places the white minority retained control and paternalistic arrogance. …

‘White farmers still own large tracts of land where black farm workers eke out an insecure and unsafe existence. Those who dare take a shortcut walking across a white farm still run the risk of being beaten or shot to death. …

‘In many towns the new government RDP houses spread out in soft pastel colours, usually retaining the old spatial arrangements with the poor pushed outside the towns. In Steynsburg, as in most other small places, black people are still relegated to locations far out of town. Walking, walking. Far from jobs. In rural areas where densely over-populated Bantustan administrations were dismantled, extreme poverty persists. …’

However, she continued: ‘And yet, as I got to know people, many who grew up in these areas, I found that somehow, despite the horrific repression, people had made lives for themselves during those dark years. Families found ways of surviving with strong bonds within communities. Some nurtured children who grew up proudly, admirably despite the injustice, the white obstacles.

‘Where it was possible, people gained tertiary education despite the demeaning schooling for African children under Apartheid’s Bantu Education. People continue to have a deep love of their poverty-stricken rural homes, pride even. Memories of the culture and closeness of life in Apartheid’s ghettoes remain warm and nostalgic, even as the Apartheid guns fell quiet. Under the extremes of minority race rule, a warm humanity survived. …’

While rural dwellers, on farms and in towns, continue to face enormous challenges, I believe this portrayal is too one-sided. Many people have made huge efforts to change the lives of rural people for the better, and we would like to think some progress has been made.


In an annexure, Stephanie also wrote about ‘NUSAS and the White Liberals’ in highly dismissive terms. Again, I find this passage quite disturbing, and believe that, whatever their shortcomings, both NUSAS and ‘white liberals’ contributed more to the fight against apartheid than she is prepared to acknowledge.

I intend to write about this at another time. Right now, it feels as if I’ve stepped with bare feet onto a patch of dubbeltjies, honed to perfection after aeons on this old Karoo farm.

I first need to sit down on a stone, brush the dubbeltjies from my soles, and think about things before continuing on this journey. In the meantime, Stephanie, I salute you; thank you for your visit; and look forward to continuing our conversation … RIP …

FEATURED IMAGE: Stephanie as membership secretary of the Anti-Apartheid Movement, 1967 – 1970. All photographs drawn from SA History Online.

Share via
Copy link
Powered by Social Snap