Marius Weyers: 'It's very hard because it is about my people, my family'

Veteran South African actor Marius Weyers on playing the infamous 'architect of apartheid'
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The Independent Culture

Antony Sher has written a play called I.D. Premiering at London's Almeida Theatre this week, it's about Demetrios Tsafendas, who in 1966 stabbed to death the then Prime Minister of South Africa, Hendrik F Verwoerd. It's a portrait of the PM and his killer, both searching for the same thing - identity - and about the strange, compelling circumstances that brought them together that fatal day.

I'm playing Verwoerd, and it brings back memories...

We were listening to the news on the radio, the evening of 9 April, 1960. My parents, my younger brother and I were having dinner in the kitchen of our house on a farm about 20 miles from Pretoria. (My father had rented a building from the owner of the farm and ran a General Dealer Store from it.) The news came that Prime Minister Hendrik F Verwoerd had been shot that afternoon as he opened the Rand Agricultural Show in Johannesburg. He was seriously injured and it wasn't certain whether he would survive (though this time around, he did).

I was 15 years old at the time. We were stunned, in total shock, the same feeling of disbelief that I would have in 1963 when President Kennedy was shot. When I went to bed that night, I experienced an enormous feeling of impending doom, that "Black Africa" was going to invade us and all the Whites would be killed. Looking back now one realises to what extent we were brainwashed into believing that that was the alternative if apartheid should crumble. And yet, such atrocities were committed later on in the Congo and Mozambique: a friend of mine grew up an orphan, his parents killed in Mozambique.

That's why it has never been simple living in South Africa. We grew up together yet lived apart, physically and mentally. I used to play with my great black friend Douw on the farm - we'd be out all day herding the cattle and sheep, we'd share the sandwiches my Mom had packed and the mealies (corn) his Mom had sent him with. Yet at the end of the day he couldn't stay over at my house the way I sometimes did with my white friends. It just wasn't done. Difficult for a young child to understand.

Still, we were taught to be very respectful of the older black people in our employ. We had to call them Oupa and Ouma (Grandpa and Grandma). I vividly remember a hiding I once got when I swore at the black woman who worked in the kitchen. Later, when we had the shop, 90 per cent of the clientele were black. That's where I learned to appreciate black music - we sold 78rpm records of the latest trend, like the Pennywhistle Kwela. We grew up in a cocoon of limited exposure to the outside world. It was decided through a Publications Control Board what books we could read and what films were deemed proper for our viewing. Television was withheld until 1976.

Dr HF Verwoerd became Prime Minister in 1958. He immediately set about making the apartheid policy a reality. Universities were separated, black people were forced out of their homes in areas earmarked for whites, and they moved to their "own" areas outside the cities. A political commentator said of him: "Dr Verwoerd's driving force, his fearlessness of employing power, gave new dimensions to our highest executive position. It was an awesome spectacle for those who experienced it at close quarters." And Verwoerd made it all sound so reasonable: the black people weren't ready to govern themselves; they needed time to develop under his parentage, and once they were able, they could do so in their own parts of the country, the Bantustans or Homelands. One of the justifications for that view was always: look at what's happening in the rest of Africa! And I'm afraid some of the dictators in Africa didn't help to dispel it.

It was only when I started to work in theatre at the age of 19 - I couldn't afford to go to university - that I came into contact with people who were questioning and actually criticising the apartheid policies. My first participation in anything vaguely political was signing a petition for Athol Fugard's passport to be returned to him.

It was early in 1969, when I first came to Europe on a starvation-budget-tour, that my eyes were really opened to the viciousness of the laws against black people in my country. Up till then, though realising apartheid created hell for the majority of the people, it was entrenched in one to look for justification: "The rest of the world were against us, they just couldn't comprehend the enormity of our problems. And, of course, we were fighting against Communism as well."

All nonsense? But then in the Seventies, hundreds of our young men were killed in Angola in a war that included many Cubans among the enemy. You see, never simple. But returning after my first overseas trip I knew the terrible truth - there can never be an excuse for apartheid. I then took part in anti-apartheid plays, but it wasn't always easy. I envied my English-speaking colleagues who could hate the Afrikaner leaders. I found it very difficult: whatever they had done, they were still Afrikaners - family in a sense. I felt I wanted to and had to criticise, blame, attack and yes, even try to hate, but it was difficult. And it still is.

Doing a play about my country over here, exposing the wrongs, not only of one man but of many of us - we were there, we grew up with it, we lived with it - is very hard because it is about my people, my family. The only thing that makes it bearable is that I can now look at my country with pride. We have achieved miracles in the last nine years and there are people of every colour, my people, out there creating miracles every day. It's still not a simple thing living over there, but now it belongs to all of us, and all of us, together, will make it work.

And a most telling thing is, perhaps, that Dr HF Verwoerd was assassinated on 6 September, 1966 - and I can't remember it, not like the first time.

'I.D.': Almeida, London N1 (020 7359 4404), Thur to 18 Oct