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Sunday Times STLive By Chris Barron, 2011-03-13

Franz Kemp: Journalist who lived for the next story

NEWSHOUND: Franz Kemp landed many big scoops Picture: NARDUS NEL
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Franz Kemp, who broke the story of Sandra Laing, a black girl born to white Afrikaner parents, has died in Johannesburg at the age of 72.

Kemp was a journalist on the then Afrikaans Sunday newspaper Die Beeld when he was sent to cover a court case in Piet Retief in 1966.

When he got there, he found the case had been cancelled, so he repaired to the nearest pub and asked the barman if there were any local scandals he could tell him about.

The barman told him about a black girl born in the town 11 years before to white parents and recently reclassified "coloured". Kemp rushed off to find and interview them, and his story was one of the most sensational of the apartheid era.

Kemp was born on November 10 1938 on a farm in the Humansdorp district and attended Hoërskool Andrew Rabie in Port Elizabeth.

After school, he joined the local weather bureau, hoping this might get him to Marion Island.

When that didn't look like happening any time soon, he answered an ad for cadet reporters for the SABC. After six months there, he joined the Port Elizabeth daily, Oosterlig.

In the early 1970s, he was sent to London by the Sunday newspaper Rapport. He was there when Lebanese-born Fred Kamil hijacked an SAA Boeing in Blantyre, Malawi. Kemp was told to find Kamil's wife. He flew to Lebanon, where he quickly discovered that Kamil was as common a name as Van der Merwe in South Africa.

Leaving the SA embassy, where he was told he was wasting his time, he saw a woman arriving and had a hunch it was her. It was. She said she was too busy to talk, but would come back. As she drove off, he cursed himself for a fool, certain he'd never see her again. But she did, indeed, return and his interview with her was a major scoop.

In 1979, he was sent to Washington, just in time to cover the kidnapping and murder later that year of South Africa's ambassador in El Salvador, Eddie Dunn.

Quoting poet Robert Frost, Kemp liked to say that for him writing was "a condition, not a profession".

He lived for his next story. And when he sniffed one, he never let go.

After Chris Barnard performed the world's first heart transplant, he made it clear he would not grant any interviews. Kemp camped on his doorstep until an exasperated Barnard told him to come in. His was the first post-transplant interview with the man who was, at the time, the most famous person in the world.

When SA's Miss World, Anneline Kriel, was playing hard to get, Kemp contrived to wind up in a seat next to her on a plane.

He wrote the first story about an unknown young Benoni woman's efforts to crack Hollywood. Her name was Charlize Theron and, as with many people he wrote about, they became friends.

Having just retired as the northern group editor of Huisgenoot, You and Drum magazines, he accepted a friend's invitation to help set up a TV news station in South Sudan. He thought she'd said Saudi Arabia and was a bit nonplussed to find himself in South Sudan's capital city, Juba, "die gatkant van die wêreld" (the backside of the world). After two months, the project collapsed, but Kemp wrote a wry account in a book called Sestig Dae in Suid-Soedan.

In 2003, Kemp's 35-year-old daughter, Inge, jumped to her death from Van Staden's Bridge in the Eastern Cape. His response to this devastating tragedy was a project to install a hi-tech CCTV system at the bridge to help prevent further suicides. Numerous suicides have been prevented because of the system.

Kemp, who was diagnosed with leukaemia on his birthday two years ago, is survived by his son, Ewald, and second wife, Reinet.