Jeremy Gordin's murder: Through a glass darkly …

Riaan de Villiers says such horrors should shock us into reevaluating where we are as a society

Through a glass darkly …

4 April 2023

Jeremy Gordin's murder has haunted me for days -- yet another of those horrifying and senseless incidents that force us to reconsider our beliefs, our understanding of our society, and even our values. One key question would be why, after thirty years of our transition to a constitutional democracy, do we still live in a society in which this is possible?

Together with memories of Jeremy, two things – a book I’ve read over the past few days, and a recent conversation with young black author -- have been swirling in my mind …

The extraordinary Afrikaner political activist Stephanie Kemp died in October last year, aged 80. She was born in Steynsburg into a conservative Afrikaner nationalist family, developed an aversion to apartheid during her childhood in Malmesbury, and studied physiotherapy at UCT where she became thoroughly radicalised. After a spell in NUSAS, she joined the SACP and then the African Resistance Movement (ARM), the small group of white leftists which set out to bomb non-human targets like pylons and railway installations.

Like other members of the movement, she was betrayed by Adrian Leftwich, held in solitary confinement, became the first white woman assaulted by the security police, convicted of sabotage, and sentenced to five years in prison, of which three 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. After her father went to see Vorster in Pretoria – and despite her protests at being privileged because she was white -- her sentence was reduced by a year. While the sentence of all four white acused in the Cape Town trials were reduced, Eddie Daniels, who was classified as ‘coloured’, spent his full 15 years on Robben Island.

Stephanie was then allowed to leave the country, relinquishing her SA citizenship in the process, and settled in England, where she married Albie Sachs, who had represented her in court, and worked for the anti-apartheid movement, the ANC and the SACP. She later had a long relationship with Joe Slovo.

Like many other exiles, she returned to South Africa in 1990. At first, in a spirit of idealism and faith in the new South Africa, she threw herself headlong into the ANC and the SACP, but gradually became disillusioned with the course they were taking to the point where she resigned from both organisations -- in the case of the SACP, after 40 years of membership. Like many other older and more idealistic members of the liberation movement, she was gradually marginalised.


In 2017, she published her memoirs, 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. Tellingly, while taking nothing away for SA History Online and its laudable effort, one can only assume that mainstream publishers did not think the book was worth publishing.

The whole book can be downloaded from SA History Online, and it's a riveting – and often searing -- read. With the particular clarity of a returnee -- and also, I suppose, due to her spiky disposition – Stephanie looked at South African society with a very sharp and sober eye. Some extracts follow. Much of this was written during the Zuma pesidency, but remains broadly relevant. She also comments briefly on the transition to the Ramaphosa presidency

‘Under the Zuma presidency, it has become very clear that South Africa is teetering on the edge of an abyss. … Our power has corrupted. We could never have imagined such venality as we now experience. At times of national crises, and while our social fabric crumbles, there is leadership silence. …

‘Television exposes to all of us the massive persistence of poverty everywhere in our country. The majority of people are living in appalling squalor. In other places, in stark contrast, we can drive down beautiful tree-lined avenues and … fall silent at the splendour. We also see TV programmes of the beautiful elegantly decorated homes of the rich with views across our beautiful land and coast. … Personal wealth is unimaginable – mostly in white hands and a smattering of the new black rich. Since freedom the rich get richer and richer while the poor are mired in poverty. South Africa has the highest unemployment figures in the world, and the highest inequality. The social fabric is being torn to shreds. Violence sees three-years-olds raped and murdered. Femicide figures are higher than anywhere else in the world. …

‘Under Zuma’s leadership, the door has been flung open to massive, shameless corruption and patronage networks. We have become a kleptocracy. More, our country has been stolen with the assistance of the president and his family. … Institutions of state have been systematically drawn into the network of the president’s patronage. Daily we see and hear of clashes and burnings in rural villages and urban poor habitations across the country. Communities are frustrated, feeling powerless. Freedom’s door has been banged shut and they are excluded. On radio traffic reports we are warned of tyres burning on roads here, there, everywhere. The leadership does not wake up.

‘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. …’

She commented as follows on the current economic system and its political consequences:

‘In the old days, as resistance to apartheid gained momentum, damaging the economy, white liberals insisted that if apartheid restrictions were removed, if job reservation, restrictions on the free movement of African labour were removed, capitalism itself, the free market, neo-liberal economic growth would organically bring an end to apartheid. But it hasn’t. … Among those white capitalists, racism is alive and strong.

Despite laws to redress white minority control of free enterprise, very few black people have become leaders of industry or senior managers. Even in smaller enterprises – malls, restaurants, theatres, blocks of flats, private schools – white ownership remains the overwhelming norm.

In time, against unrealised expectations and the failure of democratic political leadership, many young revolutionaries who had not seen struggle began to wish they could put the still privileged white minority against the wall and shoot them. Inexperienced cadres hanker after the revolutionary rhetoric evoking a previous era. Experienced cadres use that rhetoric to keep the voting population in line. …’

In a brief closing passage, 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. …’


Last week, at a function in Cape Town, I met a bright and personable young black academic and author. We started to chat, and one topic led to another. We started talking about Johannesburg and Cape Town, then the chasm between the 'Fairest Cape' myth and the appalling conditions in the black ghettoes on the Cape Flats, then the disconnect between our indolent and self-enriching political elite and the ordinary people, and then, with a sense of sudden, shared insight, we both said -- almost simultaneously -- that Ramaphosa's presidency had failed. I was struck by my acquaintance’s deep sense of disillusionment: irrespective of how this would happen, or what the consequences would be, he said Ramaphosa must just go, and, somehow, the ANC should be removed from power.


I’m not saying Ramaphosa or even the ANC are solely responsible for our social ills, or that socialism, which Kemp advocated for much of her life, is a viable alternative for South African society. She herself seemed to think that this was a fading dream. Poignantly, she wrote: ‘Communism or socialism in theory only, without actively organizing within a collective, without clear concrete strategic objectives, is not communism. And the theory that underpinned our collective activism, no longer supports reality …’

But that’s not the point here. Incidents such as Jeremy's murder shock us into taking a fresh look at our society and how it is being governed, and even at ourselves. Kemp reminds us that we shouldn't like what we see.