/ 19 July 2019

A usefully awkward encounter with Verwoerd

(John McCann/M&G)
(John McCann/M&G)



I got up to shake my guest’s hand at the end of the interview. I then asked my producer to take a photo of us. My producer obliged. He took several photos and it felt like a long time. Long enough, certainly, for me to think several thoughts as he was snapping away.

“Should I smile? Or will a smile be lampooned by some? Do I put my arm around him? Or is that too much familiarity with someone coming from his family? Should I not have erred on the side of not taking any photos rather? Why not just be sincere and don’t fret about the range of responses you can never control for anyway when it comes to public life and journalism, writing and broadcasting?”

By now, the photos were taken, hands shaken, my guest was out of the building and it was time for me to continue with the rest of my radio broadcast for the morning.

This guest was Wilhelm Verwoerd. His grandfather was Hendrik Verwoerd, apartheid’s architect. The interview was based on Wilhelm’s book, Verwoerd: My Journey through Family Betrayals, in which he tells the stories of his own journey from uncritically accepting the racist political ideology of his grandfather, and eventually — and still to this day, in fact — choosing instead to commit to social justice. This also included, along the way, becoming a member of the ANC, campaigning for the party in 1994, working for the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, and spending a large part of his adult life doing reconciliation work across the globe, including here in South Africa and in Ireland.

He was ostracised by most of his family who viewed his change in political conviction as a deep betrayal of Hendrik Verwoerd’s legacy, even though that legacy is one of evil. At one stage, Wilhelm and his father did not speak to each other for 10 painful years. His father struggled to accept that the integrity of his son’s political journey is more important than perfect ideological alignment between dad, son and Oupa Verwoerd.

There is much in this book that is worth lifting to the surface, describing generously and thinking about critically. I am not here, however, interested in a book review. I am more interested in my own, and others’, response to the name “Verwoerd”, revealed so viscerally even in my reaction to taking a photo with a member of the Verwoerd family. I am very lucky, both as a writer and as a broadcaster, to have many generous readers of books who are in turn also fascinated by the books I read, and the authors I interview on my show.

This title, Verwoerd: My Journey through Family Betrayals, made many of my listeners, and social media followers, instantly uncomfortable on account of the memory of Hendrik Verwoerd.

The discomfort is, of course, easily explained. Verwoerd is synonymous with apartheid. Several people said they have no intention of buying or reading this book. They might listen to the radio interview with the author but won’t do more than that. In other words, inferences were drawn about the subject matter of the book and its purpose, just on account of the surname “Verwoerd”. The fear, and prediction, was that the book is probably an attempt to rationalise the naked racism of Hendrik Verwoerd.

I also had these fears, and so I read the book with scepticism. I persisted only because some of the people who recommended the book are South Africans I have enormous respect for and whose deep commitment to rooting out white supremacy I do not doubt. I also knew they would not recommend a book to me, knowing my own politics and reading interests, that I would find a waste of my limited time. I persisted with the book, and I am glad I did.

The book is anything but an apology for the evil of Hendrik Verwoerd. It is, in fact, at its core about being seen as a traitor by your own family precisely because you refuse to love your grandfather uncritically. Wilhelm doesn’t want to be praised for this. He thinks all people should be wary of their capacity for evil and think about ways in which we contribute to systems that are evil.

Given the authenticity of Verwoerd’s grandson that I felt both when reading the book and in my radio interview with him, why then might I have had the thoughts that popped into my head when we took a photo afterwards? This is, I think, because of the complex psychological relationship we have with the past. And that is a complexity, as Wilhelm rightly said, that we must lean into. 

The obvious response, if one wanted to be waspishly critical of my thought bubble, is that Wilhelm isn’t Hendrik. They are, quite literally, two distinct human beings: one who was evil and is now dead; the other someone who is alive and, through no choices exercised on his part, is genetically related to the evil one.

I could easily escape this criticism by keeping my feelings private about the awkward photo moment. But that which we feel most deeply should be excavated and reflected on if we are to go beyond platitudes in public discourse on questions of race and reconciliation. I felt as if I were connecting with Hendrik Verwoerd through his grandson even if that is, morally speaking, unfair on the grandson. And so hugging him, shaking his hand and smiling with him while looking at the camera, felt a bit like being in Gansbaai during Wilhelm’s childhood, being with ouma and oupa, oblivious to the effects of oupa’s racism on the other side of Gansbaai.

This is also what goes on in the responses to his book from people who have not and will not read it. Most of those who listened actively to Wilhelm on 702 with me last Friday, remarked on his authenticity, and his grappling.

But not everyone did. One person accused me of showing inappropriate generosity towards Wilhelm. Another quipped that while he was, halfway through the interview, enjoying the interview, he wanted me to now nail him (whatever that means).

What do these latter responses to the grandson of Verwoerd possibly reveal? It shows that one burden Wilhelm has been bequeathed by history is that he cannot avoid being seen by some as, in fact, being Hendrik Verwoerd. I was humanising Wilhelm. I wasn’t humanising Hendrik. For one or two of my listeners, that distinction makes no sense, and any kindness shown Wilhelm is interpreted as exculpating Hendrik’s sins. If you think I should have “nailed” Wilhelm, for example, then I would imagine you think or know Wilhelm to be guilty of something, right? What is that something? Or is the operating assumption here simply that we inherit the sins of our grandfathers?

Again, I could easily point out what is conceptually wrong with this conflation of grandfather and grandson. But that is to miss the point of the complex relationship we have with the name “Verwoerd”. I get why the conflation comes naturally to some of us. And, frankly speaking, Wilhelm also benefits from being a Verwoerd even if he is not morally responsible for what Hendrik did.

By his own admission there is privilege attached to being the grandson of Hendrik Verwoerd. He can, for example, pick up the phone and almost any publisher would publish his work because the curiosity of his surname will result in both commercial and discursive impact. A member of the Verwoerd family wanting to spend time at your institution that focuses on reconciliation is also an attractive proposition. You will have audiences waiting to hear what a blood relative of Verwoerd thinks.

The pain of being estranged from his father, therefore, juxtaposes awkwardly for Wilhelm with the unearned benefits of coming from this prominent apartheid family. Like a lot of burdens in life, being a member of the Verwoerd family is double-edged.

That burden, though, is so heavily felt by Wilhelm that, despite his politics that marked him out as a family traitor, he does not agree with me that Hendrik Verwoerd was evil. He focuses on describing the evil system that existed, and how it was propped up by the actions and silences of ordinary people, that allowed for his grandfather, who did evil, to be in political office for so long.

He views this analysis as even bleaker than singling out one person as a uniquely evil character. I disagree. I think systems could be evil but systems are populated by human beings and those human beings can be assessed as being evil or not evil as individuals. Hendrik Verwoerd, to my mind, was an undeniably evil person, and it is also true that many ordinary white South Africans have degrees of moral culpability for propping up the evil system.

Wilhelm doesn’t know how to accept simultaneously the historical knowledge of the crime against humanity committed by his evil grandfather and hold on to personal memory of his grandfather as also a remarkably ordinary, and even loving “oupa”. Our past remains an ethical minefield.