Hendrik Verwoerd - revered by his family but a monster to most South Africans
This extract from Wilhelm's memoir examines the complex emotions the grandson has to live with, having Verwoerd blood in his veins
Ouma Betsie spent the last years of her long life in her birth region, the Great Karoo. Her house, on a far-off, southern bank of the Orange River, was simple: a small living room and kitchen, a dining room, bathroom and a few bedrooms. This building, in the white Afrikaner settlement of Orania, is now the home of the Dr HF Verwoerd Memorial Collection. One room is filled with gifts from traditional "Bantu" leaders to Oupa Hendrik during his term as minister of so-called native affairs (1950-1958). Display cupboards in the corridors and other rooms are filled with other types of gifts and memorabilia.
I was walking through these rooms, past walls hung with photos and paintings, with Pumla Gobodo-Madikizela, a professor in psychology, who specialises in historical political trauma. Some of the things there brought up childhood memories I shared with her, but mostly we were silent.
Then we found ourselves in front of a display cupboard with the clothes my grandfather had been wearing on the day of his murder.
Alongside the old-fashioned, formal work outfit, there were familiar pictures of him as prime minister. There were a few walking sticks in the left corner and, at the bottom, his watch, his wallet, a few writing utensils and a copy of the official programme of his state funeral. His shoes had been placed next to his neatly folded trousers. The jacket was marked with four red flags where the knife had struck. The white shirt didn't need any pointers. The blood stains were diluted, but clearly visible.
In the right corner was a line from a speech he had given on the Day of the Covenant in 1958, the year he'd taken up the highest political office:
"We are not fighting for money or possessions, we are fighting for the life of a nation." There was a newspaper clipping between the jacket and the shirt, including an extract from the official postmortem.
"On 6th September 1966 at 14:14 the dagger of the assassin, Demitrios Tsafendas, stabbed Dr Verwoerd in his parliamentary bench. The blade was 9cm long. The first stab was in the chest, just left of centre and a bit beneath the throat. The stab was aimed at the heart and reached its target."
A CHILDHOOD MYSTERY
I was caught off guard by the naked facts. Pictures of the knife and the face of Tsafendas illustrated the article. I was unable to look into the murderer's eyes, so I looked at the bloodstained shirt again, and shuddered.
I had been aware of a famous grandfather's premature, violent death from a young age. Even now, Afrikaners from older generations tend to respond to my surname with stories of where they were and how horrified and overwhelmed by grief they were when they heard the news over the radio in the early afternoon on September 6 1966. I can't remember that the details of what happened that afternoon in parliament were ever discussed in our family. I would've been too hesitant to ask.
In my early teens, I discovered a book one afternoon in my dad's large collection of books about his father: The Assassination of Dr Verwoerd.
I remember my heart beating faster as I impatiently turned the pages to get to the chapter describing the actual assassination. My imaginings of Oupa Hendrik's bloodstained final moments were formed, then, by a witness report and the memories of his fervent supporters."Having found a firm footing, Tsafendas stabbed the prime minster three more times - one in the left shoulder, one in the upper right arm and another in the left side of his chest, where he had inflicted the first stab-wound on Dr Verwoerd. One penetrated the left ventricle of the heart, others the lungs. There was also a cut in the colon. The wounds were inflicted so quickly that it was difficult to distinguish between one stab and the next," the report in the cabinet reads.My parents kept the dark suit and white shirt for many years, I recently discovered. The thought made me very uncomfortable. Why? An ingrained, human aversion to spilt blood? Did I inherit my mother's blood phobia?THE STORY OF THE SUITStanding together in front of that display cupboard, I recalled to Pumla a conversation I'd recently had with my mother. I'd asked her what had happened to the clothes my grandfather had worn on the day of his murder. My mother had been sitting at my parents' dining table, with an unobstructed view of Stellenbosch Mountain."Well, Oupa was buried on the 10th of September, a Saturday. On Tuesday, the 13th, two policemen arrived at our front door with a suitcase. They said they'd brought something for Pa which they expected would be important to him. One of them opened the suitcase. It contained a crinkled suit, covered in bloodstains. I turned away immediately - I couldn't face it .".My mother, in her late 80s, glanced with a heavy sigh at her beloved mountain and shook her head.Everything was in the suitcase, even the underwear and shoes he'd worn. But what was to be done with the bloodstained clothes? The advice from Kotie Roodt, then head of the Pretoria Museum for Cultural History, was to use cold water, no soap, immediately, to get rid of the blood. This would keep fish moths at bay."Cold water, cold water, cold water . until you're sure there's no more blood in the fibres of the suit. Pa asked me to do the washing, because he was not up to it. I had no choice."I gave you three boys your bath and put you to bed, then I filled the bath, pushed the clothes under the water and left them to soak overnight. The next morning, when everyone was off to work and school . though only Hendrik was at school at that time .""So, Dirk and I were there? I was in the house?""Well, you were only two years old, so of course you weren't aware of anything. Neither was Dirk. I stuck my hands in the water, pulled out the plug, and filled the bath again . pressed and pressed and pressed . no rubbing, only pressing was allowed."A FAMILY SECRETThe water continued to turn red, no matter how often she repeated the process. She was only satisfied after a few days and many more cold-water baths."I called your father to come and make sure the clothes were actually clean. He checked and said, 'Yes, it looks like you managed to get rid of all the blood.'"The clothes had to be hung out to dry, dripping wet, in the shade of a tree ("the advice was no sun") and straightened by hand. My father's help was needed to carry the heavy basin outside. Once dry, they were carefully folded and, protected against fish moths, stored in a suitcase in their bedroom cupboard. Every few years, they would open the suitcase to make sure the clothes were alright, and to replace the poison.My mother told me it was a terrible job. "That smell of blood. I will never forget it."I suspect I received my fear of blood through my mother's milk. As a parent, I even struggled to handle my children's bloody cuts and bruises."And your hands . your hands ." my mother said. "Soap and soap and soap and soap and more soap ."."But the smell remained?""Yes, it lingered. Working all that time with the bloody water, the smell soaked into my skin."My parents never told anyone - not my father's siblings, or his mother - about the clothes.When I told Pumla this story, she said: "I feel for your mother."I could taste the sincerity of her compassion. I was profoundly moved by her ubuntu, on this cold winter's afternoon in Orania, in the Verwoerd Memorial House. The warm, unearned empathy of this black South African woman towards a member of my family felt like big drops of cool water on hidden, parched bits of my soul.Pumla's compassion, coupled with my mother's vivid memories, lit a humanising candle in my deep self. The two of them became midwives of a more thorough acceptance that "the man of granite", as he was known, had also been a real human being - a fragile person with skin, lungs, a colon and a heart, a mere mortal with vulnerable flesh and lots of blood.
A few years after visiting Orania together, I asked Pumla what she'd felt standing in front of the display cabinet."I was deeply affected by the story of your mother . even now, in fact, I am holding back tears. What she had to go through. What struck me the most was the repetition - the clothes had to be washed again and again. And at the same time she had to hide it from you and your brothers as young children."As we reflected on our Orania visit, she remembered something from her 1960s childhood in Langa, outside Cape Town. It gave me an unsettling glimpse of just how far apart we had grown up."It was right after the assassination. As I remember, we were 10 or 11 years old, young girls with short dresses, singing and dancing in the street. I only remember the joyful, taunting way we sang the refrain . 'ndisuka tsafenda, nduke tsafende. ndisuka tsafenda, nduke tsafende'. and you make an action," she demonstrated with a moving arm, "like you are stabbing with a knife. It means: 'I will stab you like Tsafendas'."I will "tsafendas" you.It's a striking image. It's difficult to hear. I struggle to articulate how it makes me feel.It's the second time I've heard that "tsafendas" became a verb for my fellow South Africans.Dudley Adolph grew up in a mixed township on the East Rand of Johannesburg, far from Pumla's Langa. He'd told me: "Verwoerd . in our township was like a . like a swear word. We would refer to him as a 'dog' . 'because of Verwoerd, look at these conditions, because of Verwoerd .' But you didn't dare say anything against him because you were fearful of the security police. Everybody knew who had killed him. I remember when he was stabbed, it was like a big party. From then on, 'tsafenda' [or 'tsafendas'] became slang for stabbing someone."For many, many South Africans, September 6 1966 was a day to dance and celebrate.REMEMBER WHERE YOU CAME FROMOupa Hendrik could not be escaped in my family home. At the entrance to the large living-and-dining room, a large portrait painting of Prime Minister Verwoerd is still on prominent display. The Verwoerd family crest, carefully designed by my father, hangs around the corner.The motto is my grandfather's well-known political slogan: "Create your own future." In my father's spacious study, every available book about Dr HF Verwoerd is shelved next to the large wooden, writing desk, at which his father used to work until the early hours of the morning during his eight years in office from 1958 to 1966.My father is a scientist, a retired geology professor. He is a man of few words and he shows little emotion, as is the case with most Afrikaner men from his generation. As far back as I can remember, however, I was quite aware of his deep admiration for his father as political leader. He is now in his late 80s and still has a resolute determination to defend his father against critics. He still has most of his hair, turned white-grey like his father's, and many older people have remarked to me how much his face reminds them of Dr Verwoerd's.Since my childhood, we only gathered as an extended Verwoerd family for Ouma Betsie's significant birthdays. I vaguely recall such a gathering at Stokkiesdraai (my grandparents' house near Vereeniging, on the bank of the Vaal River). It must have been in 1976, because it was Ouma's 75th birthday. I was 12 years old.We all sat together and watched a few black-and-white 35mm films of key moments in Oupa Hendrik's political career. The tens of thousands of people at Jan Smuts Airport (in Johannesburg), enthusiastically welcoming the prime minister and his wife back from London in 1960 after SA had withdrawn from the British Commonwealth, left a strong impression. Ouma and his seven children also shared some warm memories - about his principled, fully devoted life as a statesman, his love for his family and especially grandchildren, and his concern about the wellbeing of those who worked for him.Ouma Betsie always gave her grandchildren Afrikaans storybooks as birthday presents. When professor GD Scholtz published his two-volume Afrikaner nationalist biography of Dr Verwoerd, every grandchild received a copy.On the front page of volume one, Ouma wrote, next to each offspring's name: "Look to the rock from which you were hewn." (Isaiah 51:1)Criticising the rock from which one is hewn feels like a fundamental betrayal.