Volume 12 Number 4
The Verwoerds and the Anc
01 August 1999

Verwoerd is one of the names most associated with apartheid. William Smook discovers that Wilhelm and Melanie Verwoerd break all the stereotypes.

Reconciliation between South Africans can't be achieved until they learn to relate to each other on the basis of being fellow citizens, with shared problems and aspirations, and a common destiny.

That's the view of two outstanding white South Africans, both in their thirties, who've broken many of the national stereotypes to find their place in building a new, unified nation. Wilhelm and Melanie Verwoerd are exceptional for many reasons--not least that he's the grandson of Hendrik Verwoerd, widely regarded as the architect of apartheid, and she's the country's youngest female member of parliament.

In person, Wilhelm and Melanie are bright and forthright, but with a humility that comes from having your preconceptions trimmed by blunt reality. There's no arrogant assumption that their view is the only one. Yet they speak with a quiet conviction that being part of the solution, rather than part of the problem, is the only way forward.

Both said there was a point in their lives when they realized that, in Wilhelm's words, 'Unless we did something practical there would always be this feeling of us and them.' He grew up in a staunchly nationalist family where his grandfather was regarded as a hero. As Prime Minister, Hendrik Verwoerd instituted some of apartheid's most draconian legislation. It was he who said of the African: 'There is no place for him in the European community above certain forms of labour.' And: 'What is the use of teaching a Bantu child mathematics when it cannot use it in practice? Education must train and teach people in accordance with their opportunities in life.'

Both Wilhelm and Melanie grew up in the idyllic university town of Stellenbosch. Wilhelm recalls a childhood 'cocooned from the realities under which most South Africans lived', where he was 'put through the usual cultural conditioning that white children went through'. Both studied theology, she as the only woman in a class of 48. Both went through a process of disillusionment with the Dutch Reformed Church because of its support for apartheid as a keystone of its doctrine. Wilhelm's enlightenment took place as a postgraduate in the Netherlands and a Rhodes scholar in Oxford.

For both, an integral part of this process was the testimony of individuals deeply affected by apartheid. The personal accounts of suffering by political exiles and others stripped away any residual veneer of naivety or denial. And they say that individual stories remain a vital component in ramming home to people not merely the moral bankruptcy and long-term political unsustainability of apartheid but also the personal toll it took.

Wilhelm says that white South Africans need to acknowledge their complicity, tangible or tacit, in enforcing 40 years of oppression. He's seen this admission of culpability trigger a catharsis among blacks that can be the start of healing. 'I think people have a need to have the pain acknowledged by those perceived to have been part of those who inflicted the pain.

'The reaction can be disproportionate to what you say. There's a need for their memories and their hurt to be healed. When they see somebody who's prepared to go outside their stereotypical white, insensitive, middle-class denial, or their paternalistic arrogance, then it somehow carries a symbolic message beyond its actual content.'

Melanie adds: 'Many people don't or won't realize that reconciliation demands sacrifice. It's a natural but flawed human tendency to want to ignore one's complicity in a wrong. But there needs to be some sacrifice and acknowledgement of culpability, then there can be reconciliation. It's a hard, long process, which won't come overnight.'

Both have laboured to effect that reconciliation. Melanie worked for a group that helped ease the plight of domestic workers, before becoming an African National Congress (ANC) MP in 1994. She was re-elected this year. (During all this she completed a master's degree in feminist theology.) Wilhelm conducted research for the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC), which aired some of apartheid's dirtiest laundry. He's left active politics--'Two politicians in one family would be bad for the children,' he says with a smile (they have two). He now teaches applied ethics and political philosophy at the University of Stellenbosch.

For Wilhelm in particular, their stand has not been without personal cost. Going public with support for the ANC unleashed shockwaves in his family, leaving a chasm that remains largely unbridged. He's regarded as something of a prodigal son, whose folly will become apparent with age and time. But he felt he had little choice. While in the UK they'd both felt a strong sense of wanting to return to South Africa and commit to 'making a difference'.

In 1990, shortly after Mandela's release from prison, Wilhelm wrote to him. 'I said Melanie and I wanted to commit our lives to rebuild these relationships, to contribute to reconciliation.' He sees what they do now as a continuation of that commitment.

The Verwoerds' experiences have left them with 'a deep suspicion of institutionalized religion'. They regard themselves as spiritual, rather than religious. 'The intolerance irks,' says Melanie. 'We need to be very, very cautious about politics and religion getting mixed.'

Apartheid is a potent legacy of the dangers of religion in politics, she adds. 'Ethical transformation must be driven not only by socio-economic needs but by certain values. There must be something more than the usual political power games. We need to build a human rights culture.

'What is sustaining in this process is that it's not just an intellectual commitment but that we interact with people,' she goes on. 'The positive fruits give a real sense that we're making a contribution. That's a source of continual inspiration. We both have a strong awareness that it's going to take a long time to rebuild relationships across the racial divide.'

Life in South Africa generally perpetuates the inequalities and lack of tangible cross-cultural joining of hands so effectively imposed by apartheid, the Verwoerds maintain. And Melanie says that their efforts to aid reconciliation constantly run up against 'a continuing legacy of a very successful process of social engineering' which separated communities and had 'a huge impact on human relationships'.

That, along with fears and denial, has resulted in many--whites in particular--becoming ever more reclusive. Melanie adds: 'Those previously privileged have tended to privatize their citizenship more and more, withdrawing from social responsibility and social conscience, and not contributing at all to society.'

The final step in this process is to emigrate, which many do. 'It's not only bad for the country, it's bad for those who withdraw, because you start living in a perpetual cycle of fear and antagonism and negativism, where "everything's wrong". The way to break this cycle is to promote real interaction.' Currently most interaction is limited to the workplace. It needs to go much further than that, she says.

'We need to find common ground, and to share our concerns about the problems affecting the country,' she adds. 'At school, the kids meet, but the mothers don't. There's still very little social interaction.'

Ironically it's crime and the perils facing the country's children that can help unite disparate groups of parents, she says. Helping to reintegrate a generation of marginalized black youths will be less easy.

Progress in bridging the racial gap has been made. There have been significant initiatives in business, sport, churches, youth leadership programmes and non-government organizations. This was a major factor in two largely peaceful general elections, they say.

Wilhelm says that it took many years for him to deal with his own legacy of apartheid and 'to see myself primarily as a member of the broader community'.

Wilhelm and Melanie have made that leap. Most South Africans have yet to do so. This young couple is acting to make sure they do.


My last name is verwoerd to!!! maybe i'm related to you
. Verwoerd, 08 April 2007

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