Afrikaner Heir Sheds Family's Apartheid Past

Willem Verwoerd, grandson of the architect of South Africa's racial segregation, talks about why he joined the African National Congress

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

WILLEM VERWOERD, grandson of the architect of apartheid and the man who outlawed the African National Congress (ANC) 32 years ago, will be able to face his grandchildren when they ask him: How could it have happened?

Willem's two-year-old daughter, Wilme, is already a natural dancer of the toyi-toyi - the black African protest dance that has become a symbol of opposition to the apartheid system.

She already has taken part with her mother, Melanie, in several black protest marches in this picturesque and historic university town in the heart of the Cape's lush winelands.

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Both Willem and Melanie count among South Africa's Dutch-descended Afrikaner minority, which has ruled the country for 44 years. But in September 1991 they joined the ANC following a long period of agonizing sparked by a meeting with ANC President Nelson Mandela on the university campus.

"We were both amazed that he [Mr. Mandela] was so free from bitterness," Willem says."He was warm and friendly despite what he has gone through and despite meeting someone with a direct link to the person responsible for putting him in prison."

Willem is the first descendant of the late Hendrik Frensch Verwoerd to join the ANC. His grandfather gave segregation a respectability in Afrikaner intellectual circles by constructing a grand plan of territorial apartheid based on the promise of separate-but-equal rights in politically independent tribal homelands.

The younger Verwoerd, a lecturer and post-graduate student in philosophy at the University of Stellenbosch, is featured in an article in a recent issue of the ANC's monthly journal, Mayibuye. The cover refers to him as "Comrade Verwoerd," a greeting normally reserved for ANC insiders.

Willem, an earnest young man with an acute sense of history, was only two years old when his grandfather was murdered by a messenger as he sat in his front-bench seat in South Africa's whites-only Parliament in Cape Town in 1966.

A Dutch immigrant, the late Dr. Verwoerd readily took up the Afrikaner cause - first as a theologian, then as a journalist, and finally as a politician.

"He was a committed Christian and had a conservative lifestyle," Willem says. "He decided that the only way to justify apartheid was to be serious about both separation and equality."

In the end, the Verwoerdian vision broke down when the ideology clashed with economic reality. It became the focus of mounting international protest, prompting a tightening net of embargoes against South Africa.

"But the 1950s and 1960s were the golden age for South Africa economically and saw a growth rate of some 8 percent," Willem says with a wry smile. "There were strong material incentives for believing in the morality of apartheid.

"Verwoerd's vision was the only one that was convincing.... There were no clear alternatives and there was a lot of uncertainty and fear," he says.

Dr. Verwoerd had tremendous authority and stature among the Afrikaners of his day. The Verwoerd name still adorns airports and government buildings nationwide. Today, Verwoerd's policy is totally discredited, but no senior nationalist leader has dared to denounce him publicly.

"It was through a combination of force of personality and intellectual gravitas that Verwoerd prolonged the life of apartheid - possibly by several decades," says Stanley Uys, a veteran South African journalist and commentator now based in London.

Willem grew up in his grandfather's shadow. "He was revered in the family and throughout Afrikaner society.... Wherever I went people would tell me what a great man he was."

Willem excelled at his high school and was chosen for a coveted scholarship at Oxford University in Britain. He has spent much of his adult and intellectual life trying to reconcile his past with his strengthening commitment to a nonracial and democratic future for South Africa.

By his final year in high school, Willem, like many other Afrikaners, was questioning the morality of apartheid and its disastrous impact on the lives of black South Africans.

His initial response on leaving school was to stay out of politics and to study theology with a view to becoming a minister of religion. "Since I was from a Verwoerd background I regarded politics as dirty and I wanted to be involved in church activities," he says. "I wanted to go into theology and become a minister."

The turning-point came during a short study visit to Holland, where he came into contact with exiled South Africans and members of the ANC for the first time.

"I was on my very own for the first time, away from my support system and exposed to different views, which enabled me to become more criticial of apartheid," he says. "We would sit up late at night arguing and debating for hours and hours."

Willem says that the isolation of Afrikaners through the selective media coverage and the elaborate intellectual arguments surrounding apartheid made it difficult to see things objectively from within the fold.

"In that sense apartheid, was very successful: It sheltered one from the realities of what was happening. It was tragically effective. It was exposure to the views of ordinary black people that forced me to come to terms with the reality of apartheid," he says.

After he returned from Britain in 1988, Willem had another formative experience when he visited the ANC's headquarters in Zambia and met exiled ANC leaders for the first time.

He says the decision to join the ANC was a difficult one. "I joined so that I could be critical from within," he says, conceding that he did not agree with all aspects of ANC policy.

Melanie, Willem's wife, says it took a year of agonizing before joining the ANC. "It is still difficult and painful with the family," she says, adding that she is from a less-conservative Afrikaner family than her husband's.

Melanie is an executive member of the ANC's Stellenbosch branch and works in the ANC's community projects in the Khayamandi township.

"We hope that our work in the ANC will, in some small way, make up for the hurt caused to so many people by Dr. Verwoerd ... and the policy of apartheid he personified."

Willem expresses concern about the motives of South Africa's white rulers and is not entirely convinced by President Frederik de Klerk's apology this fall for apartheid and his qualified admission that it was a sin.

"I am not convinced that there has been a deep understanding amongst whites of how wrong things were," he says. He is also unhappy with Mr. De Klerk's idea of a general amnesty for members of the security forces, which does not involve full disclosure of their past crimes in defense of apartheid. "If there is to be true reconciliation, we need to get to the bottom of what has happened," Willem says.

But he says he has been encouraged by De Klerk's latest moves to purge elements of the military establishment seen to be working against democratic reforms: "Let's hope it continues."

Willem's father, a professor of geology at Stellenbosch and a member of the right-wing Conservative Party - which still speaks of Verwoerd in hallowed tones - has not been able to accept his son's political choice.

His grandmother Betsie, Dr. Verwoerd's widow, is a pioneer settler of Orania - a whites-only settlement in a remote area of Orange Free State, which has been earmarked as the capital of a future Afrikaner homeland.

But Willem and Melanie are at peace with their decision to join the ANC. "We think it was the right thing to do and that has taken away a lot of the fear and misunderstanding," Willem says. "Before we joined we were on the outside of the black problem. Now it is our problem and we are working together as South Africans to solve it," he says.

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