The Verwoerd who crossed the Rubicon

11 July 2013 - 02:39 By Jonathan Jansen
A statue of former prime minister Hendrik Verwoerd above the 'Afrikaanertuiste' town of Orania. He is known as 'the architect of apartheid' but his grandson joined the ANC to fight for a free South Africa
A statue of former prime minister Hendrik Verwoerd above the 'Afrikaanertuiste' town of Orania. He is known as 'the architect of apartheid' but his grandson joined the ANC to fight for a free South Africa

No two surnames in the history of South Africa place a greater burden on the children than Mandela and Verwoerd.

It would be easy to lampoon what appears to be the mindless pursuit of fame and funds by the Mandela children and grandchildren while the great man holds on to his life by a thread.

On reflection, I feel sorry for the heirs to that great name. Imagine being children who grew up without a father for the greater part of three decades.

Imagine the burden of knowing your beloved father is in prison while your friends lovingly hang out with their fathers over weekends and you can only watch.

His descendants are almost required to live up to the impossible standards represented in the father and grandfather.

Then imagine living under the constant glare of the local and international media; one wrong step and you are linked not to yourself but to the name Mandela.

I am surprised that the offspring of Nelson Mandela have not gone completely off the rails.

The Verwoerd children went the other way - they threw themselves into the struggle at great costs that included a broken marriage and severed ties with family members.

This you glean from a fascinating book whose selling point is in the title: The Verwoerd that Toyi-Toyied. The first half of the book makes for riveting reading as you learn something new about the early ANC, the real-time reaction of Afrikaners to change, and the gradual demise of the moral authority of the long-exiled liberation movement.

When Wilhelm Verwoerd - grandson of the assassinated prime minister - and his wife Melanie joined the ANC all hell broke loose in the conservative Stellenbosch community. Threatening phone calls, family estrangement and being spat on in public became part of their daily routine.

Wilhelm's father comes across in these pages as a stoic defender of apartheid and a domineering patriarch whose main concern is protecting the family name (Verwoerd).

He spits anger when he discovers that his son has "sold out to the terrorists".

The crafty ANC is alert to the powerful symbolism carried in the Verwoerd name and the young couple become overnight celebrities, acknowledged for their courageous stand and tiring work in townships such Kayamandi on the other side of the railway track to pristine Stellenbosch.

The Verwoerds accompany Mandela on some of his political visits and become regular speakers at pre-election rallies. One of the most moving stories from this time is the proposal by Ronnie Kasrils, the ANC veteran, that Melanie Verwoerd formally nominate in parliament Nelson Mandela for the presidency.

That a Verwoerd would nominate the first black president of a democratic South Africa in the chambers where the so-called architect of apartheid, Hendrik Frensch Verwoerd, ruled with arrogance and died in disgrace, would have moved many to tears.

Sensing her discomfort, Gill Marcus successfully proposes another good choice, Albertinah Sisulu, to do the nomination.

After a stint in parliament and following a request by Melanie to then president Thabo Mbeki, the Verwoerds are posted to Ireland where the wife serves as ambassador.

Now they begin to see another side to the ANC, the liberation movement that now leads the government of the country.

The slog of bureaucracy and the density of administration displace the people-centred spontaneity of the struggle years.

The Verwoerd name loses its sparkle as the new bosses in government seem to treat all their underlings with disrespect and disdain; it is hard to know at this stage the difference between the black nationalists in power and the white nationalists they displaced.

The nasty interactions in Ireland between Kader Asmal and ambassador Verwoerd will not surprise those who knew the high-minded former education minister.

It is, however, their encounters with Mandela that are precious. He makes an immediate impact on the still-undecided Verwoerd pair: "You have a voice," he tells them in reference to the famous surname, "use it."

Mandela's response is at once a mark of strategic thinking as it is a gesture of political inclusion. That invitation haunts them and the couple are drawn into the most important social commitment of their lives.

This country owes the two Verwoerd s a debt of gratitude.

For the loss of a father and grandfather in prison, and in public life, we owe the Mandela children too.