When Melanie Verwoerd (46) met Nelson Mandela for the first time back in 1990, she was 23. Madiba’s eyes lit up when he heard her surname — that surname. She was with her husband Wilhelm at a cocktail party in Stellenbosch and they were trying to keep a low profile. Wilhelm is the grandson of the architect of apartheid, former prime minister Hendrik Verwoerd, and that name is a heavy burden.
But, as she writes in her recently published book, The Verwoerd Who Toyi-Toyied, Mandela had a different take on the surname most people associate with the man who introduced a truly brutal political system, which sent Madiba to 27 years in prison during his time as prime minister: “ ‘Ah, I am so honoured to meet you,’ Mandela said in a sincere, warm voice. My heart was racing. I had no doubt that we were in the presence of greatness.”
Wilhelm tried to apologise for his family’s role in Mandela’s personal suffering but he was having none of that. “No,” he said, “you only need to remember that with the surname you both carry, you have a voice. People will listen to you. So you have to think carefully what to do with that power.”
It is 23 years later and we’re sitting in a sunny spot at the home of Melanie’s sister, an advocate in Johannesburg, discussing her book.
Unlike some leftist Afrikaners, she did not have a “conversion” on the road to Damascus; it was a gradual “reddening”.
Stellenbosch political philosopher Professor Willie Esterhuyse once wrote in a reference for Melanie that “she has a strong, perhaps overdeveloped sense of justice …” She laughs: “I never knew if it was a good thing … I think that was always there.”
Her first awareness of injustice came at the age of seven on her grandparents’ farm outside Fochville, now in the North West. “I walked with one of their workers for the first time back home and I realised that she was living in a shack and marched back to the house — there were lots of people there — and I announced that one day when I inherited the farm, as if though I would ever inherit it … that I would change everything.
“They all laughed at me and I was furious and I remember sitting outside and I was crying … and I can actually remember the red soil and my tears dripping on it, and I decided that’s it, nobody would ever laugh at me again.
“I don’t know where it came from, maybe it was just there and that kind of grew throughout my life. My parents were more left-wing than, say, Wilhelm’s parents, not that it was difficult! They would have voted National Party, but my mom always gave a sense that all wasn’t right.”
Falling in love with Wilhelm at Stellenbosch where they were both students — she studying theology, he philosophy — was easy but, as Melanie would find out, becoming part of his family was not.
“When I married Wilhelm, I was 20 — I knew who the family was. We already had a drama at the wedding, his father saying he wouldn’t come if we didn’t change the minister. The minister was from Ida’s Valley [Stellenbosch’s coloured township].”
The young couple relented so that Wilhelm’s mom could attend the wedding — luckily for them the dominee, “a lovely man”, said he understood and stood back.
“I don’t think I ever understood what I was letting myself in for. I come from a family where family ties are more important than political ideals. I assumed everybody lived like that and that ultimately family trumps everything.”
When the story leaked in the media that the young Verwoerds had joined the ANC, they were summoned to Wilhelm’s parents’ house.
“Wilhelm’s father was furious,” she writes. “He called us traitors to the Afrikaner nation and a shame on the family name. Wilhelm tried to reason with him but he would not listen. Wilhelm’s father was the patriarch — not only of his own family, but also, as the eldest son, he was the guardian of the Verwoerd legacy.”
He told Wilhelm that he no longer regarded him as his son, disinherited him and said that the young couple had no right to the surname.
But for Melanie another father figure entered her life at the same time: Madiba.
“So, I joined the ANC; the next thing was, Allan Boesak asks: ‘Will you speak at a rally with Madiba in Cape Town?’ I had never spoken on a stage before and suddenly you are speaking” — she giggles — “with the ultimate person in the world to share a stage with, and there’s 4 000 people in Cape Town’s Civic Centre … and suddenly, at that juncture, things change.”
Next she became an ANC MP. “The ANC used it aggressively, and I kind of thought, why not, if this is the way we can do some payback — that was great. I was very conscious that it was an issue in the ’94 election.”
She still gushes when she speaks about Mandela. “I was really privileged that I spent a lot of time with him; I had days with him. There was never a crack anywhere, it’s not like he puts it on. But then, he never pretended to be God. That wicked sense of humour — he’s just so lovely in that sense. He doesn’t take himself too seriously.”
In 1996 president Mandela hosted representatives of 30 Afrikaner women’s organisations for tea in Pretoria. He asked Melanie to join him. She was with them before Madiba arrived and heard how they were going to make a point and only speak Afrikaans to the president.
“I went out quietly to warn him and he said to me, ‘Don’t worry, it will be fine, just stay close to me.’
“The first woman he met, he says in Afrikaans, ‘Goeiemôre, dis so ’n groot eer om u te ontmoet [Good morning, it is such a big honour to meet you]’, and, of course, she melts, starts crying and speaks to him in English.
“By the time he got to the third woman, she was speaking Zulu to him. And here they were, trying to make some point about Afrikaans, and later he just smiled at me and winked.”
Melanie pauses: “We’re going to miss him …”
We already do, I say to her. “Yes.”
She remained an MP when Thabo Mbeki took over as president.
“I still loved politics and there was nothing wrong with the ANC, but the Aids thing was troubling me … I really liked Mbeki, he was such an incredible intellect. There were one or two occasions when I’d talk to him and he would show a softer side.”
In March 2001, Mbeki appointed her as ambassador to Ireland. “There was one night when I was back here and I was having dinner at somebody’s house in Cape Town. It was 11 o’clock and their house phone rang, and she came back and said ‘The president is on the phone for you.’
“And I went ‘Really? How does he even know I am here?’ And I went to the phone and it was him: ‘Melanie’, and I said, ‘President.’ And do you know what he was looking for? He was looking for a very specific recording of an actor in Ireland reading a Yeats poem and he wanted to know if I could find that.
“He enjoys listening to this guy late at night. We know he likes poetry, but that he would make the effort of getting whoever to track me down at a private dinner — it wasn’t on my schedule or anything — to get me to get that recording for him?”
Are you still a member?
“I can’t remember when last I renewed my membership, but certainly I’ll still vote ANC.”
What do you think of the ANC as it is at the moment?
“I’m not here enough to say … I don’t follow it close enough. Obviously it is still a very broad movement with a lot of diverse people in there. It is a bit hard to say the ANC because it is always hard to define the ANC. There are lots of challenges, and I’ll stick with that.”
You’re such a diplomat!
Melanie just laughs.
Keeping the name
In Ireland she and Wilhelm drifted further apart and finally got divorced.
Why didn’t you revert to your maiden name, Fourie?
“I was 20 when I got the surname. Once I had the children — I had Wilme in 1990 — it was the family unit and I didn’t really consider changing it. I’ve been Verwoerd longer than anything else, even though it is a married surname and I am divorced. It’s been part of my life.”
When she talks about the second part of her life, her stay in Ireland and her relationship with “the man who I loved more than anything”, one of Ireland’s best-known people, the broadcaster Gerry Ryan, she talks faster. It is as if she wants to deal with this devastating part of her life very quickly.
Ryan died suddenly on April 30 2010 and she is still struggling to cope. “There were times when I had to promise myself that I had to keep on breathing and that was truly painful. It is better now; I think I am coming through it now. But the first two, two-and-a-half years were absolute hell.”
The inquest into his death triggered a huge scandal in Ireland because minute traces of cocaine were found in his blood.
Melanie wrote the book in three months. The night before the book was published in Ireland last year the person Ryan was with the night before he died got an interim interdict, saying Melanie had slandered him in the book. “I agreed [in a clarification at the back of the book] to say he was a good friend.”
The rest stands? “Completely. There were a lot of lawyers involved.”
She laughs wryly: “It sold very well — it was number one for a while. It even outsold Fifty Shades of Grey for a while.”
So what is your identity now? Are you an Afrikaner, South African, Irish woman?
“I’ll say I’m a South African who lives in Ireland … and I speak Afrikaans. That is my home language. It’s that complex layering of identity you keep adding to.”
And do you still speak Afrikaans to your children at home?
And they reply in English?
“No, no. Noooo! Can you imagine Verwoerd great-grandchildren who cannot speak Afrikaans?”
The Verwoerd Who Toyi-Toyied is published by Tafelberg