South African Elections: ANC's Verwoerds defy family history

Click to follow
The Independent Online
'MY comrades use me to help them deal with the white bureaucracy. My accent, skin colour and surname reassure officials,' said Melanie Verwoerd.

Her accent is impeccably Afrikaans, her skin pale and freckled, and her surname is that of the high priest of apartheid, Hendrik Verwoerd. She is married to his grandson, Wilhelm. Any white official would be disarmed, unless he happened to realise that this is the Verwoerd who caused a sensation among whites when it emerged last year that she and her husband had joined the ANC. Wilhelm's father still refuses to speak to them.

Most news reports at the time focused on Wilhelm's conversion. He was the direct descendant, after all, and a lecturer in political philosophy at Stellenbosch University, Afrikanerdom's Oxford. But Melanie, 27, made the leap first; she is the one standing for election on the ANC ticket. If the party wins 45 per cent of the vote, as it almost certainly will, there will once more be a Verwoerd in parliament.

Although Mrs Verwoerd's views could not be more opposed to those of the former prime minister, who was assassinated the year she was born, she could still be taken for a Dutch Reformed Church pastor's wife. With her earnest air, metal-rimmed spectacles and sensible cardigan, there was something of the missionary about her as she took the ANC message to Coloured (mixed- race) voters, who are in the majority in the Western Cape.

Campaigning in leafy Stellenbosch, with its Cape Dutch architecture and backdrop of mountains and vineyards, might seem no hardship. But the ANC is struggling to win over Coloureds, who fear that they would simply be voting to replace white domination with black. Most are expected to support the National Party.

The first meeting of the day was on the Braak, a grassy expanse in the town centre, surrounded by historic buildings. A noisy rock band played, but few shoppers troubled to come closer. A man lay face-down inches from the amplifiers, sleeping off a bender.

No political meeting in the Western Cape is complete without a helpless drunk, evidence of alcoholism's toll among the Coloureds. In an iniquitous system known as 'the dop', many wine growers used to pay their labourers partly in kind. This has now been outlawed, but some farmers simply deduct the cost of the drink their workers consume before paying them. 'Labourers can be left with 30 cents (about 6p) a week after they have paid the farm shop,' said Mrs Verwoerd. 'They are so drunk at the weekend that it is useless canvassing them.'

Then it was on to Kylemore, a relatively prosperous Coloured township under the Simonsberg mountains. Mrs Verwoerd's loudspeaker van blasted out the ANC theme tune, 'Sekunjalo' (Now is the Time), and a vulgar ditty in Cape dialect aimed at the party's opponents, the title of which translated roughly as 'Kick their Arses Numb'. People were reserved. Some shouted that they were voting Nationalist. 'You like to suffer?' she shouted back.

She expanded on the theme to a small knot of listeners. 'I am a whitey myself. My husband's grandfather was Hendrik Verwoerd, and I know the National Party will give you nothing. They think whites are good, Coloureds are a little bit bad and blacks very bad.' Her campaign manager, Faghrie Patel, who wears a pistol in a shoulder holster, put it more bluntly: 'They say blacks are kaffirs, Coloureds are hotnots (another racial insult) and whites are baase (the bosses).' Mrs Verwoerd, however, was encouraged: 'The last time we came here it was nothing but abuse,' she said.

Back home, just outside Stellenbosch, she talked about how whites react to her: 'People aren't rude to our faces, but we still get occasional threatening letters and phone calls. I am sometimes contacted now by people who want to get a few black faces on their committees, or who ask me to resolve a dispute with their servant, thinking that because I am in the ANC I must know about these things. I tell them to go away.'

Wilhelm said: 'Apartheid has gone in a legal sense, but not from people's minds and hearts.' His wife agreed: 'That's something we can do. We can mediate between whites and the ANC.'