Joburg Expat: Wilhelm Verwoerd, Nelson Mandela, and a Family Torn Apart

October 8, 2015

Wilhelm Verwoerd, Nelson Mandela, and a Family Torn Apart

In Part One of this series I talked about Wilhelm Verwoerd and the legacy of his grandfather Hendrik. I left it off with Wilhelm leaving for Europe in the 1980s, where by virtue of being exposed to a more liberal worldview he became increasingly disillusioned with that legacy. 

Meeting Nelson Mandela


The human encounter with Africans of all stripes helped Wilhelm develop his political sensibilities and made him realize he didn't want to go back to South Africa. He no longer wanted to live within his family, nor its cultural group. Ironically, it was his new black friends who helped him bridge this divide: "In our culture we respect our ancestors," they told him, and so should he. It was an unsettling time for sure: the fall of the Berlin Wall, the release of Madiba, as Wilhelm lovingly calls Nelson Mandela, the feeling that something had to be done.

Wilhelm met Mandela in the 90s upon his own return to South Africa when he was still not sure how he could get involved, and his family, aware of his mounting alienation, was begging him to not take action. Their meeting took place at a house in Stellenbosch. He had written Mandela a letter after his release from prison, expressing sorrow and commitment to the cause, but had never heard back. When he now stood opposite him at last, he started speaking, wanting to express all his admiration. But Mandela stopped him. "Can I ask you something?" he said. "How is your grandmother?" Mind you, she was 96 at the time, but this was the surviving widow of Hendrik Verwoerd, who had been assassinated in 1966. Would Wilhelm be so kind as to convey his greetings, Mandela said, and then refused to talk about the past but started to discuss the future, what they could all do together to make a home for all in South Africa. That grace, says Wilhelm, was the straw that broke camel's back, and henceforth his support for Nelson Mandela was unconditional.

When Mandela became president, one of his first acts was to invite all the widows of former prime ministers. Wilhelm's grandmother wrote back and declined but invited him, Mandela, to tea, should he ever pass through Orania, where she was living by this time. To understand what this request meant, you have to know about Orania: It's an Afrikaner-only town in the Karoo, complete with its own radio station and currency and aspirations of complete self-determination to preserve Afrikaner culture. It's tiny, to be sure, but the vision of its founders was big: to create a separate state, or volkstaat, where white Afrikaners could live and govern themselves outside of black majority rule.

Despite all this, Mandela did indeed go to Orania in 1995 as part of his conciliatory outreach to all South Africans. Betsie, Verwoerd's widow, decided to deliver a speech to Mandela to publicly plead for the protection of Afrikaners in the new South Africa, and Mandela, seeing she was too frail to hold up her notes, stood next to her and held the paper for her while she spoke. This genuine human response - very common among black South Africans, he says - is indelibly etched into Wilhelm's memory of Nelson Mandela, and it confirmed why he admired him so much. It felt greatly liberating, a confirmation that he was part of a broader movement, that he was finally coming alive. But it came with a cost: His father cast him out of the family for "selling out to the terrorists," and for 10 years he embarked on a most difficult journey, with his "poor mother, a pious woman, caught in the middle."

Can we live together peacefully?


Wilhelm's life work has been to battle dehumanizing inequality, first as a researcher at South Africa's Truth and Reconciliation Commission, later in Ireland, where his wife was posted as ambassador and where he helped survivors and former combatants of the Northern Ireland conflict reconcile with each other, and now back in South Africa through his brain child Beyond Walls, a conflict resolution consultancy. He doesn't sound entirely optimistic about the future. He feels that things are getting worse, that Mandela's legacy is at risk.

"You arrive at the airport in Cape Town and you drive by long stretches of road with nothing but shacks. Then suddenly it's beautiful, with fancy restaurants. That's South Africa," he says. He now lives in a mixed settlement, a rare breed in a country where housing is still mostly segregated along color lines. "There are issues," he admits, but he likes to think it's possible. It has to be. Typically, observes Wilhelm, when there is conflict along racial lines, "we retreat into our tactical and class corners. But if we live together, we have to work it out because we literally share common ground."

While Wilhelm Verwoerd's speaks passionately about finding ways for everyone to live together peacefully - whether it is in South Africa, Northern Ireland, or Israel and Palestine - the rift within his own family is far from healed. His cousin is today's leader of the aforementioned Orania settlement - a position that could not be farther from his own. When he found the diaries his grandmother had kept, he came to understand his grandfather better. The personal story humanized him somehow. After that Wilhelm started to interview the older generation. What kind of a person was Hendrik? How could he not see the impact of his policies? Through these talks Wilhelm came to view paternalism as a root cause for how generations of Blacks were treated. The idea that they couldn't look out for themselves and needed to be taken care of. Among the police, he says, there was crude racism. But even worse was the zeal borne out of church teachings among "refined" and educated people. To a man they were very indignant to be called racists.

Police brutality in Apartheid-era South Africa. Source: Apartheid Museum in Johannesburg.


When you newly arrive in South Africa, you might get a glimpse of this idea of paternalism that is still alive and well today. I say glimpse, because no matter how immune you consider yourself to be to the vagaries of prejudice and racism, it's all too easy to adapt and perhaps adopt some of those same behaviors, whether you want to or not. I remember how shocked I was when I first overheard a white contractor tell his black employee what he should do. It was as if he was talking to a child. Some of this is well-meaning, and some of it is steeped in centuries of history that cannot be undone in a mere decade or two.

What's needed to achieve harmony and integration, according to Wilhelm Verwoerd, is acquiring "practical wisdom" that allows us all to become peacemakers. If we can only unleash "the power of carefully facilitated storytelling."

As a storyteller, that is a vision I can work with.