Dr Willem Petrus Steenkamp – called the “The Lion of the North-West” by his numerous admirers, and far less flattering nicknames by his considerable body of political enemies – passed to his reward in 1956, but memories of this prominent son of the Hantam district live on to this day, although he and all his contemporaries have been dust for more than half a century.
Bitter political struggles in his later life have tended to obscure the range and depth of his achievements, but they were many. By the time he died at 77 he had been many things: a spell-binding preacher who was invited no less than 58 times to minister elsewhere – surely still a record – an equally spell-binding political orator; a respected naturalist; a best-selling author; an expert on Arabian horses; twice a political prisoner; a big-game hunter and world traveller; such a foe of Nazism that he was willing to sacrifice his political career to combat it, a fighter for the Afrikaans language who nevertheless spoke, wrote and enjoyed fluent English; a medical doctor with a huge practice among the poor of all races.
Yet in essence he remained a farmer’s son, the descendant of generations of frontiersmen – strong in his faith, full of a dogged determination which shouted defiance at the spectre of defeat, and yet possessed of an innate self-respecting humility that compelled him to face the many imperfections he saw in himself and made him at home in any company, whether he was sitting on a log at a shepherd’s camp-fire or walking with great men (as he did more than once).
He was truly a man of many contradictions. He could indulge in learned discourse, and yet relish meeting with his boyhood friends. He enjoyed the good things of life, yet he had no inclination to enrich himself and would literally take the shirt off his back to give to a man who had none, although he had no patience with someone who was poor because he was lazy or lacked the desire to improve himself. Like any believing Christian he was duty-bound to turn the other cheek, but, having done so, did not hesitate to take more direct action if this did not work and he felt the occasion demanded a different approach.
He was not an ascetic. He enjoyed a glass of gin and tonic when he was relaxing, relished a fat mutton-chop – where he was born they raise the tastiest eating sheep in South Africa – and liked to smoke cigarettes (in later years one of his granddaughters became adept at catching his cigarette’s ash before it dropped on to his waistcoat). He had a good, if sometimes sardonic, sense of humour.
He was a keen hunter, yet revered and made a lifelong study of wild creatures and plants. He could be rock-like in his determination, yet was privately often wracked by self-doubt. He knew little fear, but was not ashamed to weep at moments of high emotion. He would never blaspheme, but was not afraid to let rip with a curse or two when the occasion demanded it. He never doubted the fundamental truth of the Bible, yet he was not afraid of examining Darwin’s theory of evolution with scientific detachment (he found it wanting, and proposed a theory of his own that reconciled science and the Scriptures in a rigorously objective way).
He was intensely aware of who he was and where he had come from, yet always saw the greater picture, one that transcended race, religion, ephemeral political disputes and bitterness. He had a volcanic temper which sometimes got the better of him (on one celebrated occasion he actually assaulted a fellow parliamentarian after the House had risen for the day), and an unquenchable fighting spirit, although he believed fervently in peace, and in fact once risked execution for high treason in an effort to prevent a fratricidal internal uprising.
He had the instincts and voice-projection of a great actor. As a controversial Member of Parliament he was once invited to address an exceedingly h
ostile audience. When he rose to speak he was greeted by a deafening roar of disapproval. Steenkamp had taken accurate measurement of his audience and so he did nothing, simply waiting for the audience to run out of breath and epithets. When it did, he raised his hands and said: “With these hands I’ve fought for you. Now come and kill me.” The people fell silent, ashamed of their outburst, and Steenkamp launched into his speech.
The difference was that unlike an actor he did not wipe off the grease-paint and go about his other business after every performance. He stayed in character, because the man on stage and the one off it were the same person, and the lines he spoke were his own, not some playwright’s.
He was intimately acquainted with the works of the great philosophers, but at the same time he was a genuine populist who had faith in the innate wisdom of the ordinary man, and once he had made up his mind about the rightness or otherwise of a matter, he would cling stubbornly to what he believed, reckless of the cost – and sometimes the cost was heavy.
At a time when bigotry and status-consciousness were rife all over the world, he hewed to the belief that there were only two types of people in the world, the well-bred and the ill-bred. It did not matter whether you were a prince or a pauper, white or black, Christian or non-Christian: If you were well-bred you were a good man because you tried to do the right thing, and if you were ill-bred you did not, and so you were little better than a horse’s dung. It was not a popular belief among some people, to say the least, but he did not care.
But there was no ambiguity about his two great constants: his love for his wife, Antonetta (born Erlank), who reciprocated it with equal devotion, and his unshakeable faith in God, with whom he communed daily almost till the day he died.
His relationship with the Deity was almost child-like in its simplicity. Steenkamp’s intellectual integrity often left him with doubts, and he would lay them respectfully but insistently at the feet of the Lord and seek enlightenment, asking for a sign to guide him; when he received what he perceived as that sign, as was frequently the case, he would take the necessary decisions.
He believed firmly that God would watch over him, and in return would call on him from time to time to render some service or other – and whenever that call came, as it did several times during his tempestuous career, Steenkamp did not hesitate to respond.
His early years shaped him as a sculptor’s chisel carves a granite boulder into human form. He was born on 14 February 1870 on the farm Elandsfontein in the Calvinia district, just after his father had been thrown from prosperity into abject poverty by a swindler from Cape Town, a state of deprivation so great that for a period the family lived in a derelict old stone shepherd’s rondawel measuring barely two metres by two metres.
By hard work and forward vision his father returned to prosperity in time to enable his son to study, and after matriculating at Calvinia in 1896 Steenkamp entered the famously rigorous theological seminary at Victoria College (now Stellenbosch University).
When the Second Anglo-Boer War broke out in 1899 a great many Cape Afrikaners, though officially British citizens by conquest because the Cape was a crown colony, were willing to rebel in support of their fellows in the two Boer republics, even though under the martial law regulations in force throughout the colony they could be executed for the mere act of taking up arms or even assisting any rebel (more than 50 were actually executed, including one who was clearly mentally retarded).
Unable to get to the fighting, Steenkamp carried messages for the Cape rebels instead, till he was arrested for suspected espionage. He attempted to leap off the wagon taking him to the nearest lockup, but was thwarted when an alert Tommy in the back bayonetted him in one buttock.
He managed somehow to escape prosecution, however, and in 1902 graduated from the seminary with his intellect honed razor-sharp by his studies and his life’s aim clearly defined. No-one should be so poor that they had to depend on the mercy of others, he believed; therefore he must fight poverty in all its forms. It was an aim that was to take him through many twists and storms, but one from which he never wavered.
As an assistant and later a fully ordained minister he served in the Northern Cape and Transvaal, but his thirst for knowledge remained unslaked, and in 1907 he went abroad for further study. Three years later the Free University of Amsterdam awarded him a doctorate in theology; in characteristic fashion he achieved this the hard way by persuading his professors to allow him to write his thesis in Afrikaans, which did not then enjoy any official status whatever.
Just how he managed to talk the hard-headed Dutch academics into this leap in the dark is not known, and indeed baffling, but he was always a powerfully persuasive man – a very good technique for persuading someone to do something you wanted, he once said, was to “paint him about the mouth with a brushful of honey, then drag a thorn-bush through his backside.”
His choice of language was anything but quixotic. Although fluent in High Dutch and English, Afrikaans was the language of his heart, and like most Afrikaners he felt deeply affronted and hurt by British attempts to eradicate or at least subordinate it (Lord Milner, for example, once described it as a “kitchen language”). Thanks to the efforts of dedicated language fighters after the formation of the “Tweede Taalbeweging” (Second Language Movement”) of 1876, it had survived similar and largely successful efforts to eradicate Gaelic, Erse and the Welsh language. By the early 20thCentury Afrikaans had not only survived but had grown in sophistication by leaps and bounds.
But Steenkamp reasoned that Afrikaans would not be fully accepted till there was evidence that it had matured enough for a learned work to be written in it. Characteristically he attacked the problem head-on. The result was his doctoral dissertation on the agnosticism of the philosopher Herbert Spencer that remains a landmark in the history of Afrikaans and is a classic example of the language in its earlier form.
He returned to South Africa and became the incumbent at Nieuwoudtville, where he spent five years – a time of high adventure, great personal tragedy and wonderful achievement.
His first great challenge at Nieuwoudtville was not ecclesiastical but political. In 1914 the Almighty’s next great call on his services came just after the outbreak of World War I. As a semi-independent Dominion, the Union of South Africa was automatically at war with Germany, along with the rest of the British Empire, and late that year South African forces invaded German-run South West Africa at the request of the British government, which regarded the colony’s geographical location and powerful radio transmitters as a distinct threat to the war effort.
The direct result was the so-called “1914 Rebellion”, which was not a rebellion at all but a traditional “armed protest” which went horribly wrong. South Africa’s involuntary participation in the war was a cause of discontent among many Afrikaners, particularly in the Transvaal and Orange Free State, who had not yet managed to come to terms with the bitter sufferings of their people during the Anglo-Boer War as a result of the British “scorched earth” policy.
In the most inhumane act in South African history, imperial troops destroyed 30 000 Boer farms, and at least 36 000 women, children and old people died in the ill-run concentration camps set up to house the people who had so brutally been made homeless. Under duress the fighters of the two defeated Boer republics had taken the oath of loyalty to the British Empire and stood by it, but saw no reason why South Africa should take an active part in the war.
The ill-feeling was aggravated when the Union government acceded to the British request to invade South West Africa. Several unfortunate incidents, including the accidental fatal shooting of the venerated General Koos de la Rey at a roadblock set up to catch a gang of bank robbers, combined to give rise to an extremely tense situation.
But it was still basically a protest action. Then overnight it turned into a disaster that potentially threatened the entire Union Defence Force because most South African fighting men were part-time citizen-soldiers instead of full-time regulars.
In the North-West Cape, near the South West African border and far from the main locus of the protest, the military base at Kakamas was commanded by S G Maritz, who had also been a famous Boer general but was now a regular lieutenant-colonel in the Union Defence Force. Unbeknown to the protest leaders, Maritz had already moved on to the next level and was in contact with the Germans across the border with a view to outright armed rebellion.
On the eve of the outbreak of hostilities Maritz sent a trusted messenger to the Transvaal and Orange Free State to ascertain whether the protest forces there were ready to launch the rebellion. The messenger returned to Cape Town by train with an urgent message that Maritz was not to go into rebellion yet, and set off immediately by car for the Hantam region, hundreds of kilometres away.
He managed to reach Nieuwoudtville, but then, for one or other now-forgotten reason, was unable to proceed further. Steenkamp, who knew Maritz for a brave but impulsive man, realised that if he went into rebellion by himself it would be a disaster for the North-West Cape, not to mention the entire country, because the uprising was not well-supported and had no chance of success. So he undertook to carry the message to Kakamas, although he knew that this would make him an accessory to the rebellion and therefore open to a charge of high treason.
He and his bosom friend Piet Hugo, also an Anglo-Boer War veteran, hired a local man named Daantjie van Wyk to drive them through to Kakamas in one of the very few Model T Fords in the North-West. They arrived too late, however; the previous day Maritz had crossed over into South West Africa with a number of his troops. The rest refused. Their commander was Captain Tobias Johannes Nicolaas Beukes of Namaqualand.
Beukes, a notable fighting man of the North-West Cape rebels during the Anglo-Boer War, had been a reluctant participant in the rebellion. He and Maritz had been friends since they had fought together in 1901 and 1902, but he was not a kneejerk insurrectionist. His main motivation was a sense of responsibility towards his men, among whom he was an acknowledged leader, and whose lives he did not want to see wasted if they happened to come under a rash or incompetent commander.
He knew that as a serving part-time officer in the Active Citizen Force, he could be convicted of high treason and possibly executed; and at this remove his decision appears so selfless that it sounds more like a myth than the truth. But there used to be hundreds of Namaqualanders who could attest to it.
Steenkamp and Beukes did not know one another, and neither knew where the other’s sympathies lay. After a few minutes’ careful conversation, however, Beukes said bluntly: “Dominee, I don’t know where you stand, but I’m a Maritz man.” Steenkamp then passed on the now-futile message.
Beukes had long since grasped the true state of affairs. There had already been some skirmishes with the government forces, and his doubts had been crystallised when he had accompanied Maritz to the Ramansdrift border-crossing over the Orange River a little earlier. Beukes had asked a German officer they met there what his country intended for South Africa if it won the war. The German said South Africa would become one of the Kaiser’s new colonies.
Steenkamp’s tidings were enough for Beukes. To rise against the government was one thing; to fight against his country was something else. So he assembled his troops and took them home.
To the end of his life he was revered by the women of Namaqualand because he had brought their husbands, sons and brothers back to them instead of wasting their lives in what they knew in their hearts was a hopeless cause (in Namaqualand the Rebellion was known as the “Huiloorlog”, the war of weeping, because the womenfolk had shed such storms of tears when their men rode away).
That moment of meeting in Beukes’s tent at Kakamas was the beginning of a lifelong friendship between the two men and their families.
Steenkamp’s arrival at Kakamas had been noted, and he was arrested by the police and transported to the Castle in Cape Town. He was held without trial for five months on a charge of high treason, and was then transferred to the Fort in Johannesburg.
There he was lodged not with other detainees of the rebellion but among common criminals, and chained whenever he left his cell. The time in the Fort had a long-term bad effect on his health and prevented him from attending the funeral of his infant daughter Immanuela, dead from complications caused by a cold, a loss he mourned to his dying day.
Tobias Beukes did not try to avoid the consequences of his actions either, although it was the second time in little more than a decade that he faced a possible death sentence (as a Cape rebel during the Anglo-Boer War he had been captured after falling ill with typhoid fever, and had escaped a firing squad by a hair’s breadth). He was interned without trial at Kimberley.
The two men remained in custody till 1916, when the government decided on lenient treatment for the rebels, and released them both. Beukes returned to his farm high up on the Kamiesberg mountain range, and Steenkamp to his parish, where he put his personal grief behind him and threw himself into his pastoral work, in between fighting poverty, improving education and fostering the local economy.
He ministered with ferocious energy to rich and poor alike, making frequent trips by horseback so that even the most distant parishioner in his far-flung congregation would see him at least once a year, and continued to raise funds for various good causes.
His greatest achievement was his rescue of Nieuwoudtville’s beautiful church from a staggering building debt of almost £13 000; thanks to his boundless energy and exhortations, as well as schemes such as organising the Hantam district’s very first agricultural show, he raised so much money that there was about £5 000 left over, which later paid for a new church at near-by Loeriesfontein.
His basic fund-raising principle was quite simple: since everyone would benefit from the cause concerned, everyone must contribute according to his means. A rich man pulling £50 out of his pocket, a poor man giving a shilling or a goat, a pauper shamefacedly offering a single ox-riem, a thong used for leading an ox which he had made himself: all these were grist to Steenkamp’s mill and every item, no matter how humble, was accepted in the spirit in which it was given.
In January 1919 he accepted a call to Springbok. In between his parish duties there he nagged the government into building a high school in the town, and raised £20 000 to build a new church and manse. His greatest supporter in all this was Tobias Beukes, now a well-established and immensely respected farmer.
Superficially they differed from one another in almost every way. Steenkamp was big and burly, emotional by nature and passionate in his beliefs, a man who tended to blow up when angry and trumpet his ire to the world, but was then likely to cool down again just as quickly; Beukes was equally tall, but leanly muscled, reserved and temperate in thought and manner; slow to anger but, once aroused to righteous wrath, filled with an icy fury which awed those who observed it.
Steenkamp was well-educated, while Beukes had had little formal education, but read widely and was a deep thinker (his admirers several times begged him to run for election to Parliament, but he always refused – he did not speak English well enough, he said, to be sure that he would do his constituents justice). But they were linked by the iron bond of friendship and mutual respect forged that day at Kakamas, and they were equally contemptuous of minor prejudices and accustomed to seeing the world in its larger perspective.
Beukes was once visited by two Roman Catholic missionaries who were having a hard time of it because the staunchly Protestant farming community did not give them much support. He laved their hunger and thirst with tea and rusks, then wanted to know the purpose of their visit.
The missionaries replied that they had not come to ask for anything: They just wanted to meet and thank the man who had been sending them unsolicited financial help ever since they had established their mission. Beukes thought nothing of it; they were doing good work among the poor and disadvantaged, and he did not regard it as important that there was a yawning gulf between the teachings of his church and theirs.
Possibly Steenkamp’s most unusual exploit was to found a new town. At nearby Bowesdorp, south-west of Springbok, there was a little church settlement at a place in the Kamiesberg. It was not a good location: it was short of water – always a preoccupation in drought-ridden Namaqualand – and the church itself was badly dilapidated.
Steenkamp decided that this was simply not good enough. He got one of his well-off parishioners to donate 1 000 morgen of more suitable land a few kilometres away at the foot of the Kamiesberg mountain range, and talked the local church council into building a new church there (for which, naturally, he raised the funds).
Namaqualanders were frugal by sheer force of circumstances, and some members of the church council quailed at the scope and expense of the enterprise. But Tobias Beukes disagreed. Calmly – he was not a ranter, and did not need to be – he agreed that of course it was an ambitious plan. But a town would grow up around the church, and when that happened the church would be large enough to accommodate everyone.
The other councillors listened, as they always did when he gave his opinion, and allowed themselves to be persuaded; and the church stands tall and proud to this day, serving the town which, as Beukes had predicted, would grow up around it. Steenkamp named the new town Kamieskroon, the crown of the Kamiesberg mountain range in whose shadow it lay, and for many years only one of its streets had a name – Dr Steenkamp Street.
By the time the Kamieskroon church was inaugurated in 1924, though, Steenkamp was long gone. At the age of 44 he had decided to become a medical doctor, the better to serve the needy. His steely logic had told him that ill-health was a major obstacle to defeating poverty. Therefore it was necessary to heal a man’s body as well as ministering to his soul, and also make the best possible education available for his children. The obvious conclusion, in turn, was that he would have to become a medical doctor, no matter what it took
Some Namaqualanders thought him a lunatic, but he paid them no heed. He and his son Willem obtained their MD degrees at the University of Louisville, Kentucky, studied in Europe and in 1928 qualified as physicians at the University of Leiden – the first father-and-son graduation, it was said, in that famous old institution’s 300-odd years of existence.
For a short while they practised together in Cape Town, but then parted company. His son had spent his vacations working at the Mayo Clinic in New York State and wanted to specialise in surgery, but Steenkamp’s aim was to be a general practitioner, to serve the people who needed medical care the most in those days of minimal social parachutes. He approached the matter in typical fashion. At the time the common custom was for a doctor to maintain separate consulting rooms for patients of different races. He maintained one set of rooms in the city centre, because in his view everyone was equal in the sight of God.
He was not a particularly sophisticated doctor. He prescribed affordable basic remedies wherever possible, always told patients exactly what was wrong with them and carried out house-calls at half-a-crown a time – rock-bottom, even then. He took no great credit for his successes, because his philosophy was much like that of the great Ambroise Paré, who once famously remarked: “I dressed his wounds; God healed him
Among the legends which accrued about him was the one (true) of the day a child’s heart stopped during a tonsil operation. Steenkamp saved him by immediately injecting a stimulant directly into the child’s heart. But later he told the child’s mother: “Missus, your child died on the operating table, but God brought him back to life.” The fact that his instant reaction had saved the child’s life did not form part of the discussion. It is hardly surprising that within a few years he had an immense following of people of all races and religions whose faith in the “Oudokter” (his son being the “Kleindokter”) was sublime.
The Kleindokter hewed to the same philosophy. He, too, maintained only one set of rooms for all patients, and in due course he became a renowned surgeon whose many prominent patients paid well for the privilege of his services and thereby also unknowingly financed the operations he performed free of charge on innumerable people who could not afford first-class medical care. One case that brought him near to tears involved a man who had almost nothing in the world, but refused to accept charity, and so gave him his only spare possession, his second pair of pyjamas.
A succession of foster-children came to stay at the Kleindokter’s home, sometimes for years, and were fed, clothed and put through school at his expense. One brother and sister stayed on till young adulthood after he and his wife Huibrecht – Tobias Beukes’s daughter – rescued them from the social welfare’s intention to put them in an orphanage because their mother had died and their father, a ganger on the railways, had no-one to look after them.
But that came later. In between all his activities in the late 1920s the Oudokter also heeded the call from a new and cash-strapped congregation in the Cape Town suburb of Parow, where he not only ministered to its members but helped to raise funds for a church which is now the densely populated area’s mother church. Another beneficiary of his formidable fund-raising prowess was his old alma mater, the University of Stellenbosch.
He relinquished this last ecclesiastical position in Parow in 1929, when he successfully ran for election as the independent candidate for Namaqualand. He was the only independent MP in Parliament, and fearsomely independent he was, too, advocating two main causes – a national coalition of all parties and the combatting of the poverty caused by the Great Depression, which among other things required going off the gold standard.
He made political enemies by the score, but did not care; he was too busy exhorting and often infuriating his fellow politicians, raising money for a plethora of good causes, helping people to find work or fight off the demands of the Land Bank, and for good measure doctoring his voters free of charge when this was necessary. They liked what he was doing and in the 1933 election re-elected him against the doughty Dr A J R van Rhyn.
Steenkamp made full use of his position to fulfil his self-imposed task. Among other things he was instrumental in getting the government to construct the crucially important irrigation dams at Clanwilliam and Vioolsdrif, nagged the Minister of Mines to let Namaqualand’s poor into the diamond diggings, and brought relief to the hard-pressed school and congregation of his old parish of Ermelo in the Transvaal.
He dove head-first into bitter controversy by advocating a departure from the gold standard, which he and many others correctly saw as essential to recovery from the Great Depression. When that finally happened, he received little credit for his part in it, but he did not care. The thing was done; that was what mattered. He had rendered unto God, as he had intended, and what Caesar thought of it was a matter of minor concern.
If a challenge arose, he faced it head-on, with results that ranged from the dramatic to the comical. On one occasion he addressed yet another highly hostile political meeting in Bloemfontein, and at question-time an opponent came up with what he thought would be a real killer of a question: Would Dr Steenkamp care to show the audience his Boer War wound?
But he under-estimated the man he was dealing with. Steenkamp promptly unbuckled his trousers and did just that. The result was instant disorder: demure old ladies shrieked in dismay at the sight of Steenkamp’s large bared buttocks, rows of chairs were overturned and several spontaneous fist-fights broke out, with desperate policemen losing their helmets as they tried to restore order (they failed). One enthralled witness was a junior reporter named René de Villiers, and thirty years later, by which time he had risen to be Editor of the Johannesburg Star, the largest daily newspaper in the country, he was still laughing about it.
When the National and South African Parties formed a coalition in the mid-1930s as part of the recovery from the Depression, Steenkamp joined it, since he had long advocated just such a step. Many of his supporters, not to mention his existing political enemies, were outraged by his decision, and an unfortunate feud was born whose echoes linger to this day. Nevertheless, his support remained strong enough to return him as the member for Calvinia in 1938.
His membership in the new United Party was not always a peaceful one, his strongly-held convictions often clashing with party discipline. He was still there, however, when his last and greatest test came in 1939 with the outbreak of World War II.
The Prime Minister, General J B M Hertzog, advocated a state of armed neutrality, as he had suggested in 1914 as well, while his deputy, General Jan Smuts, believed that Nazism was so great a danger to the world that the country could not remain aloof, regardless of the fierce internal disunity that he knew would erupt within the electorate. It was time for everyone in the UP to stand up and be counted.
Thanks to his own reading and feedback from his son Willem, the Kleindokter, who had spent much time in Europe on clinical work while preparing to become a Fellow of the American College of Surgeons, Steenkamp was well-informed about Nazism, and his warm friendships with many of Namaqualand’s “boerjode”, the Jews who had settled there and become an integral part of the community, made it clear to him what the only ethical course of action would be.
Characteristically, he first communed with the Almighty and satisfied himself that he was on the right track. Then he consulted with the man he respected most in the world, Tobias Beukes of Modderfontein. Beukes agreed with him that mere armed neutrality would not do: it was necessary to destroy Nazism by force of arms.
That was enough for Steenkamp, and when his old friend General Hertzog lobbied for his vote during the intense debate in Parliament on whether to take an active part in the war Steenkamp turned him down. This done, he sent out Beukes’s son Sokkie, who happened to be visiting him in Cape Town, to tour the shops and buy up a good supply of his favourite Craven A cigarettes before shortages set in. Now he was ready to take on all comers, from his domestic enemies all the way up to Adolf Hitler himself.
He was painfully aware that it would be both the end of his and Hertzog’s long association and a thrust to the heart of the political career that was so important to him, that he frankly enjoyed so much and had used to such good effect in his fight against poverty, ignorance and disease. But that was the way it had to be. Steenkamp’s son the Kleindokter and Tobias Beukes’s eldest son Thys immediately volunteered for active service, first in Abyssinia and then in the Western Desert, while their fathers devoted their energies to bolstering the war effort.
Steenkamp’s parliamentary career was effectively destroyed, as he had expected, and he did not stand again in the 1943 election. He deeply regretted this enforced rustication at the height of his powers and ability, but not the decision that had led to it.
There followed three years in the political wilderness, a time of frustration and sometimes actual financial hardship, because he had never used his political career to feather his own nest. Nevertheless he did not sit still; among other things he wrote a slim but powerful treatise entitled “Is the South West African Herero committing race suicide?” which dealt with the alarming numerical decline of the Herero tribe in what was then South West Africa, partly the long-term result of a brutal war against the Germans at the beginning of the 19th Century (they survived).
Both his son and Beukes’s had returned safely from active service after some hair-raising adventures, but his daughter Vivia was a widow. Her husband, Eric Endler, a bomber pilot in the Air Force, crashed on the way back from a well-nigh suicidal mission to Warsaw in 1944 to drop supplies to Bor-Komorowski’s beleaguered Polish liberation army; Endler had managed to hold his battered B-24 Liberator in the air just long enough for his crew to jump to safety, and now lay buried in a war cemetery in Belgrade. Perhaps Steenkamp knew of Napoleon’s remark that “the boundaries of a nation’s greatness are marked by the graves of her soldiers.”
In 1946 there was a short return to politics when Steenkamp was nominated as a United Party senator, although only after a bitter wrangle within the party between his supporters and those who remembered his rebellious ways. The following year he wrote “I Conclude”, a combination of autobiography and philosophical exposition, which swiftly became a best-seller. His publisher pressed for a second edition; to his chagrin Steenkamp was not interested. He had made his point, he said.
He remained a senator till 1948. Then his political career was over after 19 stormy but satisfying years. He remained as active as ever, corresponding with a variety of thinkers at home and abroad, visiting his beloved heartland in the North-West, riding daily along the slopes of Table Mountain, visiting his patients and completing his final life’s work, a detailed, closely argued book entitled “The instinct of animals and evolution”.
In between he wrote many articles, among them stories about the family history. One was a plea for the Bushmen, for whom he had always had great affection – he had a rare understanding of their ancient ways and never forgot that during the 18th and 19th Centuries the little hunter-gatherers had three times saved the lives of members of his family, including his own.
Death came to him with dramatic suddenness. One mid-year Friday morning in 1976 he went riding along the mountain, as always; the next day he suffered an intestinal blockage, underwent a successful operation on the Sunday but then on the Monday died suddenly. It was a staggering blow to his family and many friends, because somehow he had seemed as ruggedly immortal as his native mountains
His ashes lie buried on Oorlogsfontein, the small farm he bought near Vanrhynsdorp in his years of political exile. With him sleep his infant daughter Immanuela, his son Willem and daughter-in-law Huibrecht, child of his boon companion Tobias Beukes and mother of two of his grandchildren
Above the farm is the Kobeeberg, the magnificently craggy western edge of the limitless plains where he had been born and shaped, and from which, in his heart, he had never departed. The cemetery is a wonderfully peaceful place, shaded by a tall bluegum tree and situated at a summit of a low kopje from which the view stretches for many kilometres, almost to the sea more than forty kilometres away.
If the above is not as objective as it might have been, I ask the reader’s pardon. You see, in my childhood I did not know him as “Dokter” or “Oudokter”, or any of the other names by which he was called. To me he had only one name: “Oupa”.
Author: Willem Petrus Steenkamp