Stephanie Urdang was born in Cape Town, Cape Province (now Western Cape), to a family staunchly opposed to apartheid. Her father, a lawyer, worked in the Coloured township of Athlone on the Cape Flats, Cape Town. Although the apartheid system offered her full social, political and economic privilege on the basis of her skin colour, Urdang grew more and more abhorrent of the regime. She became increasingly aware of the inequality that was the result of apartheid and with that, she began to feel as if she did not have a place in then-South Africa.

At the age of 23, Urdang and her then-fiancé decided to leave the country and start a new life in New York City, United States of America (USA), where he would study physics. Despite her hate for the regime, this was not easy for Urdang, who felt torn about her decision as she still yearned to stay in her home country. However, after the banning of the South African branch of the International Defence and Aid Fund (IDAF) in 1966, where she worked in support of political detainees as well as their families, Urdang felt that the only choice she could make was to leave the country, join the movement abroad, and return some time in the future to a post-apartheid South Africa. Thus, she left the country in 1967. 

After two years living in the USA, Urdang’s craving to continue the fight against apartheid led her to join the Southern Africa Committee based in New York at the offices of the non-governmental organisation (NGO), the American Committee on Africa (ACOA), which was an activist organisation that spearheaded the successful anti-apartheid divestment campaign in the USA in the 1980s (of which Urdang was a part). There, she became the editor of the important Southern Africa magazine and frequently travelled to Africa – Guinea-Bissau, Mozambique, Ethiopia and Egypt. Through her travels, she began to expand her horizon beyond the struggle in South Africa to include the struggle for independence in other African countries. Furthermore, Urdang’s friendships with the women she met along the way had a profound impact on her life, work and politics.

In early 1972, Urdang along with four other women (two South Africans and two Americans), which included her lifelong friend Jennifer Davis, started a woman’s group. All members were involved in the anti-apartheid and solidarity movements.

In 1979, Urdang started working as a consultant for the United Nations (UN) when she became a member of staff for the Mid-Decade United Nations World Conference on Women. Amongst her other responsibilities, she wrote papers on the effects that apartheid had on women in Southern Africa. These were published in the book, Oppression and Resistance: The Struggle of Women in Southern Africa (1982), which she co-authored.

She put together and ran workshops on gender and development for the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP). Besides the UNDP, Urdang also worked as a consultant for United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA), United Nations Development Fund for Women (UNIFEM), Pan American Health Organisation (PAHO), the International Labour Organisation (ILO), as well as the United Nations Centre Against Apartheid. In addition, she worked as a Research Director for ACOA and The Africa Fund.

During her time at UNIFEM, the UN’s women’s organisation, from 1999 to 2005, Urdang was the senior advisor on gender and HIV/AIDS where she led global projects that highlighted the impact of the AIDS epidemic on women. In 2005, she co-founded Rwanda Gift for Life (RGFL), an NGO which supported women who had been raped during the 1994 Rwandan genocide and were, as a result, living with AIDS.

Her journey from a young wife-to-be in the leafy suburbs of Cape Town to the activist and journalist who during the most difficult and exhilarating period in the struggle for liberation throughout the African continent fought alongside some of the most notable figures is recorded in her memoir – Mapping My Way Home – Activism, Nostalgia and the Downfall of Apartheid South Africa (2017). In 2018, she was awarded a bronze medal from the Independent Publisher Book Awards for her autobiography.

Besides this, she has written other books which include Fighting Two Colonialisms: Women in Guinea-Bissau (1979) and, And Still They Dance: Women, War, and the Struggle for Change in Mozambique (1989), which was the result of her frequent visits to the country throughout the 1980s after she was awarded a grant from The Ford Foundation in 1980 to embark on research on women in post-independent Mozambique. She has also published several articles in academic journals and the media.

Stephanie Urdang lives in Montclair, New Jersey, and regularly visits South Africa.


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