How do you face the world when your grandfather was Verwoerd?

Review: Vivien Horler

Verwoerd – my journey through family betrayals, by Wilhelm Verwoerd (Tafelberg)

verwoerdMost whites with a modicum of sense will acknowledge that almost 30 years after apartheid began to be dismantled, they are still advantaged.

And so are their children, even children born today. It’s what the often tiresome trade unionist and former city councillor Tony Ehrenreich correctly refers to as the apartheid generational advantage.

But what is a white person to do? How do you acknowledge the harm that has been done in your name and that of fellow whites, and move on? Is it possible to move on?

If you’ve ever grappled with this, spare a thought for Wilhelm Verwoerd, grandson of the man often referred to as the architect of apartheid, Hendrik Frensch Verwoerd.

He has found himself torn by his rejection of his grandfather’s beliefs and actions, and his love for his family; despite the subtitle of this painful memoir, it is dedicated to “my family”. How do you reconcile these polar opposites?

The answer is: with extreme difficulty. A deeply thoughtful and reflective man, Wilhelm has spent his life since the mid-1980s trying to come to terms with his grandfather’s legacy, and one suspects he feels he still has a long way to go.

However, I think if most of us could cover a quarter of the distance Wilhelm has covered, we and South Africa would be in a better space.

Wilhelm grew up in Stellenbosch, went to Paul Roos Gimnasium and studied theology, philosophy and psychology at the university, intending to become a dominee. In mid-1986 he spent a summer in the Netherlands before going to Oxford as a Rhodes scholar.

He had already moved on a little from his family – his parents had joined the pro-Verwoerd Conservative Party, while Wilhelm had come to accept that “separate development” was not working in practice.

He was however, naïve and extremely conservative in his beliefs – no drinking, no dancing and certainly no sex before marriage. Instead of attending his matric dance he organised a tea outing at the Mount Nelson. His thinking was to be shaken up by South Africans with whom he shared a house in Utrecht.

Everything was strange, and to make sense of the ideas being flung his way he wrote long painful letters to his girlfriend Melanie (who later became his wife and an ANC MP, and from whom he is now divorced).

The letters serve as a kind of journal as he grapples with challenges being thrown at him in Europe.  In this searingly honest book he writes of those letters: “I cringe now at my narrow piety and feel ashamed of my ethnic politics of that time. I am sorely tempted to censor some of the language…” But he doesn’t.

His new housemates enlighten him as to what is really going on in South Africa and he writes to Melanie: “It is such a strange feeling, as if everything cannot be true. Still, some parts are surely true: the doctors who examined Biko were found guilty after all…This South Africa I’m learning about is just so different to the one I know.”

Within three months he is writing to his parents: “It is becoming clearer to me that we must move away from a political policy (and thinking) which is based on people’s skin colour.”  He adds: “All these things made me think I should philosophise less and become involved more practically…”

His political awakening continues at Oxford, so that when he goes home for the December holidays he is thrown into turmoil, and his relationship with his father, particularly, begins to deteriorate. Eventually his father calls him a traitor, while his mother weeps.

In some ways he agrees with his father. In 1988 he goes to Lusaka to meet ANC leaders, and shakes hands with “arch enemy” Joe Slovo, writing: “I felt like a traitor.”

Much is made of blood in this book: apartheid blood on Verwoerd’s hands, the Verwoerd blood that is coursing through Wilhelm’s own veins, and the blood on his grandfather’s suit that is preserved in a glass case in Orania. His own mother was charged with trying to wash the blood out of the suit and shirt his grandfather died in, so that the fabric would not rot.

Wilhelm was just two and a half when his grandfather was stabbed to death in Parliament, so doesn’t remember him, but he had a close relationship with his grandmother Betsie. He gains more insights when he sits at his grandfather’s desk at the family beach house in Bettie’s Bay and reads the old woman’s diaries. He wishes his grandfather had left something similar.

As he struggles with his personal legacy and the legacy of apartheid, he has meaningful talks with “non-white” South Africans to understand their experiences. One tells him of the “two faces” many black people needed for survival – the friendly submissive face at work and the true face of anger and humiliation.

In a letter to his grandfather he writes: “…I want to renew my promise of a life committed to reconciliation, also as a Verwoerd. This reconciliation has to include you. Even if only because I am trying to obey Jesus’s commandment to love my enemies.”

Wilhelm attends a meeting of peacemakers from Northern Ireland, Israel/Palestine and South Africa, and asks the question all we white South Africans should be asking: “What would be enough? What can I do that would really be meaningful restitution?”

An Irishman, who has had his own struggles, answers: “Nothing will ever be enough… It’s not about un-doing, it’s not about making right what can’t be made right. It’s about what I can do with my life now, for the rest of my life, that might make a difference…. Because the question ‘what is enough’ points to the danger of putting some kind of value on people’s suffering. There is the risk of wanting to find out ‘what’s enough so I don’t have to do it any more; ‘what’s enough so I can forget and let go?’

“Maybe we’re never meant to forget, or to let go. But it does mean that the way you live the rest of your life is about making that small difference.”


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