Wilhelm Verwoerd and his calling to ‘transform apartheid’.
His biggest calling these days is to work towards bringing about “deep reconciliation” and “transforming apartheid” in South Africa, but there was a time when Wilhelm Verwoerd’s ambition was to become an elite solider in the South African Defence Force and to then go on to become a minister in the Dutch Reformed Church.
“My older brother Dirk was a parabat. It was such an elite thing to do. I wanted to be there too. There was no questioning of the system, no question about going to the army.”
Now 55, the grandson of apartheid architect Hendrik Verwoerd, has taken it upon himself, following an epiphany as a student, to atone for his grandfather’s legacy and to dedicate his life to doing what he calls “white work” with a view to achieving “deep reconciliation” among South Africans.
Wilhelm’s recently released memoir Verwoerd – My Journey through Family Betrayals tells the story.
The mission of this third-generation Verwoerd has led to a virtual estrangement from his father – also Wilhelm, a retired geologist and the eldest of Hendrik Verwoerd’s seven children – who has accused him of being a traitor to the Afrikaner people and to his grandfather.
Other renowned family members include his cousin, Dr Wynand Boshoff, son of Orania founder Professor Carel Boshoff, who has just become an MP for the Freedom Front Plus.
|Wilhelm Verwoerd speaks at a University of Stellenbosch ceremony|
Interviewed in the Green Café at Stellenbosch University’s Sustainability Institute, Wilhelm Verwoerd opened up to Noseweek about how he tried to make sense of his grand-father’s legacy; how he re-educated himself about South Africa’s history and how he is now determined to do what he can to reconcile black and white South Africans.
White work, he said, means doing the sort of work that his role models, fellow Afrikaners Beyers Naudé and Bram Fischer did.
“It involves cultivating a humble, self-critical historical awareness which can then lead to restitutional responsibility without the expectation of gratitude. It changes the way you engage.”
One move he’s made is to choose to live in a diverse neighbourhood.
Verwoerd and his Australian wife Sharon live in the diverse Lynedoch Eco Village attached to the Sustainability Institute and their neighbours are the black Mabeba family – with whom he has a close friendship and who he interviewed for his book.
“The village works together to reduce our ecological footprint by recycling water, using solar energy and less intensive building materials; we have regular social gatherings, trustees’ meetings and working groups to handle security, communication and conflicts.
“We’re trying to really live a different kind of vision to apartheid.”
The Sustainability Institute, in partnership with the School of Public Leadership, offers renowned master’s and doctorate programmes in Sustainable Development.
The community incorporates a primary school and youth programmes.
As we sat talking in the Green Café, children could be heard playing in the playground, while sustainability students chatted over their lattes.
Verwoed, an intense, softly-spoken man – one journalist described him as tortured – spoke about his feelings of deep loneliness within his broader family. He said his mother, torn between him and his father, has been exceptionally supportive.
He spoke about his fascination with Jung, neuroscience, quantum physics, astronomy and “the fathomless inner world” of humans – as well as his interest in spirituality, particularly the classic texts of the Desert Fathers and the Desert Mothers of the fourth Century – early Christian hermits, ascetics and monks – and the writings of people like Thomas Merton – American Trappist monk, writer, theologian, mystic, poet, social activist, and scholar of comparative religion.
A Rhodes scholar, Verwoerd described how, as an athletic student, he wanted to go to the army like all good Afrikaans boys.
“My brothers and friends were going. I believed we were fighting the communists, that it was a total onslaught, a holy war. There was no questioning of it.
“I would have gone to the army if I could. I get very competitive and I would have been full-on involved. But, looking back, I know it would have damaged me deeply as I’m a very sensitive person.
“I most probably would have ended up with severe post-traumatic stress syndrome. If you have a basic moral sensitivity and get involved in violence or war, it messes you up …it’s like a soul death.”
Nevertheless, in the eighties, the young Verwoerd was still cheering for the South African Defence Force attacks on ANC bases.
“In 1985, when I was at Stellenbosch University and about 21 years old, I remember hearing the news about one of the Botswana attacks on the ANC. There must have been 200 men in the Wilgenhof Men’s residence …standing and cheering together over the news that these ‘terrorist’ bases had been successfully attacked.”
Fate intervened and, because of a back injury, Verwoerd did not become a parabat nor even join the army.
“I would have ended up in administration … so I decided to get postponement and study.”
After graduating from Stellenbosch at the end of 1985, Verwoerd took up the opportunity to study in the Netherlands for three months on his way to Oxford as a Rhodes Scholar. It was while living in a digs in Holland, that he had his “watershed” moment.
“I landed up in this house in Utrecht, where I met a group of white Afrikaans-speaking ex-Dutch Reformed Church people who had already travelled the journey away from all that …who challenged me to my core. Through talking to them, day in and day out, I had an intense confrontation with where I came from.”
In Holland he started reading Steve Biko for the first time… and decided he wanted to meet people from the then-banned ANC.
“My path had been clearly laid when I left Stellenbosch. I was going to study philosophy and theology and return to South Africa to be a Dutch Reformed Church minister.”
Verwoerd’s soul-searching experience in Holland led to his switching studies. “I thought, ‘what’s the point?’ I was angry and disillusioned with the church and switched to a Politics, Philosophy and Economics degree. I also chose political sociology as a subject. I immersed myself in studying South African history and development economics and basically understanding the South African dynamics.”
Verwoerd married his university sweetheart Melanie Fourie in 1987 and the pair returned to South Africa. Not long afterwards, he met the banned ANC in Zambia in 1988. He and his wife met Nelson Mandela in 1990. In 1992, the couple joined the ANC – “the enemy” of his volk. In 1994 Melanie became an MP for the ANC and was posted to Ireland as South African Ambassador.
The couple have since divorced and Wilhelm is married to an Australian, Sharon, who teaches maths at a high school in Mitchells Plain.
He has two children with Melanie: their daughter Wilmé, who is based in Cape Town and works for Airbnb and son Wian, who lives in Dublin and works for LinkedIn.
Verwoerd worked as a researcher for the Truth and Reconciliation Commission and went on to do reconciliation work among warring factions in Ireland and in other countries.
A few months ago he started work as a senior researcher and facilitator with the Historical Trauma and Transformation Unit at Stellenbosch University under the leadership of Professor Pumla Gobodo-Madikizela. Her work focuses on reconciliation, forgiveness and apology and she has written numerous articles on the subject.
“I’m surrounded by a beautifully diverse, challenging group of young master’s, doctoral and post-doctoral South African students, as well as some from Tanzania, Rwanda, Congo and other countries.
“It’s such a different experience of Stellenbosch University too in terms of what you associate with Stellenbosch.”
Verwoerd took about two years of unpaid leave to write his “emotionally demanding” memoir, which came out in May. The book was written partly at home in the eco village and partly in Betty’s Bay where his grandfather had a holiday home.
Recently, Verwoerd has been spending time with younger people, including doing “white work” with younger ministers from the Dutch Reformed Church, who are trying to deepen their reconciliation work.
“Yesterday I was speaking to a group of Voortrekker leaders (the Afrikaner equivalent of Boy Scouts) at the Wemmershoek campsite outside Franschhoek. They were an all-white Afrikaans-speaking group of about 50 grade 12s. The theme that came through most strongly was their struggle to make sense of their role in South Africa today. They are frustrated with the legacies they have to deal with and are not sure if there’s a place for them here.
“I told them we have to deal with these things. Even though these youngsters weren’t part of the system, they still have opportunities and should use these in a way so as not to run away from what it means to be white.”
Born into a loving family of four brothers, Verwoerd was “a conscientious, religious young person and a bit of a nerd”.
“I was, fortunately, also good at sport. I was passionate about cross-country and long-distance running. I would run in the Stellenbosch mountains before school. I was competitive on a provincial level and wanted to be a Springbok athlete.”
He was also very involved in the Voortrekkers. “On weekends we’d go camping, like a little gang, and climb mountains. It was idyllic. Sundays were spent at church and doing mission work like distribution of Bibles.”
His father, a “stereotypical scientist”, was “hard working, intellectual and introverted”. He travelled the world as a geologist and was a respected scientist in his field.
“He had very strong political views but didn’t force them on us. Our grandfather and his culture were all around us and on the walls of our home… but it wasn’t part of family culture to have long political discussions.
“If people criticised my grandfather he’d react, and when I started to ask questions, he gave his strong point of view. He was very big on Afrikaner culture.”
Wilhelm’s eldest brother Hendrik is a well-known motorsports commentator and professional translator. Next in line is Dirk, a vet in Heidelburg, near Johannesburg. Wilhelm was born three years after Dirk and their youngest brother, Gideon, who was born five years after Wilhelm, now works as a fertility specialist in China.
“My older brothers weren’t as religious as I was. They listened to rock music, had their own bands, and played rugby – while I was probably studying. They were far more typically Afrikaans boys than I was.”
Despite competing at Western Province level in the 3,000 metres distance while at high school, he picked up injuries in his final year at school and could not run competitively anymore. The injuries were also the reason he didn’t go to the army.
Verwoerd matriculated from Paul Roos Gimnasium, Stellenbosch, and then completed a BA in Philosophy, Psychology and Theology (cum laude) at the University of Stellenbosch in 1984, followed by Honours in Philosophy (cum laude) in 1985 and an MA in Philosophy (cum laude) from Stellenbosch in 1989. He completed his Master’s in Philosophy, Politics and Economics at Oxford in 1990 and gained a doctorate in Philosophy from the University of Johannesburg in 2003.
Besides having worked as a lecturer in philosophy at Stellenbosch University, Verwoerd was a TRC researcher from 1996 to 1998.
From 2002 until 2012, he facilitated programmes aimed at reconciliation among former combatants in Ireland and he facilitated dialogue among people from Israel and Palestine.
He lectures a module on Conflict Transformation Practice within the M.Phil on Conflict Resolution and Reconciliation, at Trinity College in Dublin.
Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu once told the young Wilhelm Verwoerd not to “run away from who you are” and “rather use the power of your surname for good”. But Tutu also warned him not to carry an unbearable burden on his shoulders.
Interviewing Verwoerd, one had the sense he has, indeed, taken a lot on his shoulders.
“I call myself ‘a reflective facilitator of deep reconciliation’ or ‘trying to transform apartheid’… By apartheid, I don’t only mean the political system but also the consciousness, the values, the spirituality, the psychology… I ask many questions, including: Is it practically possible to really change some of these pervasive – almost geographical things – like separate neighbourhoods and unequal schooling systems? As a white South African is it possible to live more simply, more consistently with the vision of transforming apartheid – and with ecological awareness too?
“Is it possible to encourage relational transformation that includes the relationship with myself, my community, people from different communities, with the environment and with God… because the very ethnocentric white god I grew up with was so destructive in terms of what really is needed?”
In a context of the Zuma years and rampant corruption and ANC mismanagement, I asked him if his idealism was not flagging.
“I prefer the language of hope. There’s a kind of a realistic hopefulness that inspires me. When I look at the many other places in the world where I have worked, South Africa has actually made a lot of progress against the odds.
“If you go to places like Northern Ireland, and see the segregated communities and see the almost intergenerational cycles of violence intensifying in places like Israel/Palestine – and when you think back to what people predicted for South Africa in the late eighties, then I do think the glass is half full and that there’s a lot we should be grateful for. Having said that, I’m grateful we have new political leadership. I shared in the deep disillusionment at how the ANC grew into a very different kind of organisation to the one I joined.
“When you listen to the news, see the dysfunction of our education system and drive through places like Khayelitsha, it’s difficult not to be overwhelmed.”
Verwoerd said his committed daily spiritual practice – based on mindfulness, meditation, yoga and contemplative Christian prayer – are an indispensable practice to centre himself and keep him hopeful.
“Also, I work with people at community level, I live in a local community and when you’re in these spaces and see how it’s possible for people from different backgrounds to engage, to talk about difficult issues, to develop relationships, it does give me some hope.”
Since Verwoerd joined the ANC, his relationship with his family, particularly with his father, has been fractious.
“The worst was in the early ’90s shortly after Melanie and I joined the ANC. We were dropping off the children with my mother, who was helping to look after them because we were busy with the campaign. My father got very unhappy about us dropping the kids there while we went to do ANC work. We had a shouting match, to the point where I lost my voice for two or three days afterwards. That was the worst
Verwoerd’s parents still live in their Stellenbosch home. “My mother, Elise, turned 90 a few weeks ago and my father turns 90 soon. They are still relatively mobile, and my dad still mows the lawn and climbs on the roof to fix it.”
Although Wilhelm’s relationship with his father thawed for a few years, the recent publication of his book has led to “another phase of distancing”.
“The shutters have come down again. He really doesn’t want to be seen in public with me again. Really, we simply can’t engage. He feels I have again said outrageous things about his father. He cannot make sense of this strong criticism of his father and the evil of the system. For him, when I say apartheid was evil, I am saying that his father was evil and he cannot accept that. I think he is just too old and too loyal to his father. I have empathy for that – but at the same time I need to be true to my sense of vocation.”
When he frames his work as “faith work” or as part of his vocation as a Christian committed to reconciliation, then his mother is proud of him.
“She as well as my brother Hendrik who helped me a great deal with translating the book into English, have supported me in this work.
“My Mom is just a wonderful, warm human being. Obviously she’s politically quite limited in terms of her conservative political views but at a human level, she has encouraged me with the book and prayed for it to be blessed. On a spiritual level she’s very supportive… even though she’s caught between my father and me.”
Does he think he ever pleased his father? “He’s not a very expressive person, but I do think he was proud of my academic, cultural and sport achievements at school.”
His brother Hendrik “is open-minded, but his focus is on sport and he avoids politics”. His two other brothers went through the army and became very politically conservative. “They would still disagree with my political commitment and would be on the right end of the Afrikaner political spectrum so we can’t talk politics. So, it’s lonely, except for my mom and Hendrik.
My mother and I can’t talk at a political level but she understands my spiritual journey and this commitment to reconciliation.
“Having said that, when I meet my cousins from Orania, we get along on a human level – even when we have political conversations…”
Western Cape’s head of detectives and former activist Major General Jeremy Vearey describes Verwoerd’s book as: “A virtuosic odyssey into one man’s purgatory for redemption from the political sins of his grandfather.”
Asked whether he feels angry that he’s the only Verwoerd doing “white work”, Wilhelm responded: “Yes, I do get angry. I want to say, ‘can’t you see, can’t you realise what happened in this country and what this name of ours still means to people?’
“Writing the book has deepened my understanding that reconciliation is an inherently very uncomfortable process… It’s almost like coming to terms with things that cannot be reconciled; like sitting in that tension between trying to love my family and in a sense being open to them, accepting of them, acknowledging that this is where I come from – and at the same time to take a counter public position. I do struggle with it sometimes.”
Does he resent having to do all the redemption work on behalf of the family?
“I don’t have that storyline in my head because I’ve had so many liberating experiences of engagement across the racial divide. It’s been deeply healing for me to have my hunger for connection satisfied at a deep-soul level. It’s a sense of becoming whole, coming home, coming alive.
“When I speak to younger white people or my contemporaries, I try not to get angry with them. I say we’re missing out on an opportunity to really come home in our skin, culture, country and humanity. We have to do this work… we cannot avoid it.”
To what extent does he believe “the sins of the fathers will be visited on the son”? “It’s something I’ve started to embrace. The young Afrikaners I spoke to recently asked ‘why should we struggle with affirmative action because of a system we had nothing to do with?’.
“You can very quickly believe that storyline and become resentful. My work internationally has shown that somebody has to step into that space and break the cycle – and not just repeat that storyline. If you take that storyline, you just add to the alienation, anger and intergenerational tensions. We need to break these intergenerational cycles of violence.
“There’s something about being willing to step into the space. It’s liberating and helps to break the cycle.”
Verwoerd’s two children are supportive of his work – “even though they’re not always comfortable with attention being drawn to their surname”.
When he’s not working, Verwoerd loves spending time in nature – swimming, walking, mountain biking and camping or watching cricket and rugby. “Sharon and I can’t watch the Proteas play the Australians in cricket or the Springboks play the Wallabies as I become too upset when South Africa loses (again)!”
Does he believe there is a long-term future for white Afrikaners in South Africa?
“If we’re willing to really become involved in restitutional processes of sharing our resources, getting involved, not withdrawing into our laagers – like living in our separate neighbourhoods –and preparing to leave the country. If we get involved across some of those boundaries and share who we are, I think we do have a place. I don’t think we have a long-term future if we stay in our separate worlds. It’s very seductive to stay in your comfort zone, but it is not sustainable at a human level.”
What does Wilhelm think his grandfather would have made of his yoga-loving, Jung-following grandson living in an eco village?
“Good question! I often wish we could get a chance to have a serious conversation or three. I suspect it would be quite a struggle for him to understand me, though apparently he did have a sense of humour!”
Copyright © 2019 www.noseweek.co.za