INTERVIEW / Young Verwoerd is wrestling with sins of the grandfather: The grandson of apartheid's architect has joined the ANC. John Carlin talks to him
Sunday 04 April 1993
A serene university town, its gabled colonial homes lovingly preserved, Mediterranean climate, gentle streams, willows, bougainvillaeas, vineyards . . . Stellenbosch, you would never guess, is 15 minutes' drive from the teeming squalor of the shantytowns that stretch along the sand flats to the north of Cape Town.
Most Stellenbosch residents do not dwell on this thought. One man agonises. Wilhelm Verwoerd sits in his home in the suburb of Paradise Valley, weighed down by the sins of his grandfather, Hendrik Verwoerd, South Africa's minister of native affairs from 1950 to 1958 and prime minister from 1958 to 1966.
Stabbed through the heart by a messenger in parliament on 6 September 1966, Verwoerd is remembered today as the architect of apartheid, 'the man of granite', under whose rule South Africa undertook a social engineering project which, at the height of the Cold War, provoked the unanimous condemnation of the world.
'Our motto,' he declared, 'is to maintain white supremacy for all time to come over our own people and our own country, by force if necessary.'
Force, indeed, he used, banning the African National Congress, jailing Nelson Mandela and, after the Sharpeville massacre of 1960, fixing South Africa's international reputation as a brutal police state. His genius lay in his capacity to persuade white South Africans, baffled by the world's indignation, that apartheid was politically, morally and even divinely justifiable.
Verwoerd's grandson believes that if South Africa today remains haunted by his forebear's ghost, it is in large measure 'because of the success with which he sold the idea to the Afrikaner that apartheid was the right thing to do'; and that it deserved to be defended at all costs. 'To fight against apartheid's enemy, to jail Mandela, was to engage in a religious war. The logic was simple. The ANC was allied to the communists and the communists were atheists.'
Mr Verwoerd, 29, is a lecturer in political philosophy at Stellenbosch University, where his grandfather studied applied psychology in the Twenties, and where the Afrikaner elite still sends its children. Earnest, deeply Christian, possessed of a rigorously rational habit of mind, Mr Verwoerd wrestles with his family's past and its consequences. He rejects the caricature portrait of his grandfather as a satanic messiah, but cannot deny the monumental evil of his legacy. 'The constant tension in my life lies in the urge to explain but not to justify.'
Mr Verwoerd's personal crisis reached a head on 11 February 1990, when he watched Mr Mandela's release on television in the house of a friend in Oxford. Then in his final year of a politics and economics degree at the university, he was struggling to write a thesis, whose thrust was that his grandfather had been, on his own terms, 'a principled pragmatist'.
'And then I saw Mandela there on the television, so generous, so lacking in bitterness, and I was struck powerfully by a great sense of tragedy, by a sense of how disastrously unnecessary his incarceration had been.'
Eighteen months later, at Stellenbosch, Mr Verwoerd briefly met the ANC president. 'The first thing he did was to ask after the health of my grandmother, who is 92. It was a genuine concern, not a political gesture. I was deeply moved, as were the people around me. I only wanted to say one thing to him. Which I did: 'I'm sorry. I'm damn sorry for what has happened.' He was so gracious. He just said, 'Let's not talk about the past. Let's talk about the future.' He told me I should not underestimate the power of being a Verwoerd, by which he meant I could use my name as a positive symbol to heal the scars of a deeply wounded society.'
In April last year Mr Verwoerd joined the ANC. 'I had been thinking about doing it when I was in England, and before then in Holland in 1986 on my first trip away from home, when I was exposed, mind-bogglingly, to the horrors perpetrated in apartheid's name. But when the time came it was not easy. Both my parents have stuck with the old ideas. They're (South African) Conservative Party and I've caused them a lot of pain. Almost out of principle, they've cast me out now. They see me as a traitor, a sell-out to the enemy.
'By joining the ANC I was exposing myself generally, too, in a very violent society. But I knew that if I didn't do this I wouldn't be living according to my convictions. I had to make the leap. Beyond logic, I had to respond to the feeling in my gut that it was the right thing to do. It was the natural consequence of a process whereby I was forced to rebuild my emotional, intellectual and historical universe.'
In a perverse sort of way, Mr Verwoerd believes his grandfather, who professed to attach the highest value to principled action, would have had to approve. But, beyond exorcising - as he put it - his personal ghost, what contribution did he think he could make as an ANC member?
'I joined the ANC because symbolically it was an explicit public act, to show commitment to the underlying principles of non-racialism and democracy. The Verwoerd ghost is very much with us, and it retains a tremendous destructive capacity. Apartheid is away from the books but it's still in people's minds, and we have an obligation to take extraordinary steps to break down this abnormal culture. We should take the African bit in the Afrikaner identity much more seriously. We should be committed to all the people in this country. I mean, what we have is not black-on- black violence. It's our violence, South African violence. It would have been a missed opportunity if I had not used the powerful symbol of my name to help to get away from this racialised sense of identity, this 'us and them'.'
Mr Verwoerd does not believe that F W de Klerk and his new, refurbished National Party have yet experienced this necessary change of heart. 'I have a big problem with these guys. They've made no real, sincere apology. De Klerk's position is that apartheid was well-intentioned but it didn't work. But with the knowledge we have now, as Christians, why can't we say, 'I'm damn, damn sorry'?'
At present Mr Verwoerd is working on a national project called Education for Democracy, the objective of which is to prepare the population for the country's first all-race elections. It is a worthwhile venture in which, he humbly acknowledges, he is merely one of many. 'In the end I am just an individual trying to make a contribution to a society in transition. It's a drop in the bucket, I know, but a drop I can take responsibility for. At a human level I can help try to reconstruct a society dehumanised and broken in the name of good intentions.'
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