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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 John BattersbyStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / January 5, 1993


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?

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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.

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.