Afrikaner rejects his family legacy Apartheid to ANC in two generations

June 03, 1993|By Michael Hill | Michael Hill,Johannesburg Bureau

STELLENBOSCH, South Africa -- Wilhelm Verwoerd looks more like the philosophy professor he is than the symbol of the anti-apartheid movement he has become, which is shocking in some quarters.

In a country where change has become the only constant, it is not unthinkable that a thin, intense, friendly 29-year-old Afrikaner academic would join the African National Congress (ANC). But Wilhelm Verwoerd is the grandson of Hendrik Verwoerd, and Hendrik Verwoerd was the architect of apartheid.

As South Africa's minister of native affairs from 1950 to 1958 and then prime minister until a deranged attendant stabbed him to death on the floor of Parliament in 1966, Hendrik Verwoerd turned the political slogan of apartheid -- Afrikaans for "apartness" -- into the reality of a brutal, complex series of laws guaranteeing the supremacy of whites.

Wilhelm Verwoerd, who teaches at the University of Stellenbosch, where his grandfather was once a professor of psychology, approached his break with the family legacy with the same kind of comprehensive intellect his grandfather used in devising the apartheid system.

"There was not a transcendental moment that led to this," he says on in this idyllic town where spectacular mountains tower over the country's oldest Afrikaner university.

"A lot of things combined to make the decision sort of irresistible. I got to the point where on a gut level I had this feeling that it was the right thing to do. That feeling would not go away," he says of joining the ANC.

"The family stuff was a big problem. Obviously, the name was part of the interest. I had to decide to what extent I had a right to allow that since it would involve other family members. So it took a long time before I actually signed my little application," he says.

"I'm actually glad it took a long time for me to work through it, that it wasn't an impulsive, opportunistic decision, because that is helping me answer the questions I face now."

Mr. Verwoerd's embrace of the ANC has made him something of a great white hope in the dominant black organization's attempt to change its image among Afrikaners, the descendants of white settlers also known as Boers, most of them from the Netherlands, who fought the British and the blacks. When the Afrikaners gained political control in 1948, they set up apartheid to ensure that they would retain it.

The ANC campaign is being waged as the right wing is beating the ancient Boer drums, calling on Afrikaners to rally behind the idea of a Volkstadt, a separate state or territory in the new South Africa where Afrikaners would be in the majority and, as the slogans go, would "control our own destiny."

The ANC is using Mr. Verwoerd and others to show that the ANC is not a tribe-based black organization but a political party open to all sorts of people who share its beliefs.

"Realistically, I don't think we can expect to get more than 2 percent, at most 5 percent, of the Afrikaner vote," says Willie Hofmeyer, another Afrikaner who is an ANC official in Cape Town. "What I think people like Wilhelm do is help un-demonize us among Afrikaners so they won't be so terrified about our taking over."

The word on the political shift in the Verwoerd family first leaked out last year when Mr. Verwoerd's wife became active in the local ANC. Mr. Verwoerd first attracted some attention when he joined in April of last year. But it was not until he addressed an ANC rally two weeks ago that the spotlight really shone.

Deeper than politics

"My family reacted very negatively, to put it mildly," Mr. Verwoerd says. "They see it just as politics. I try to talk to them and explain that it goes much deeper than that. And then to see pictures of me up on stage with ANC leaders like Tony Yegeni and Alan Boesak, standing with my fist in the air, well, it didn't go down very well."

His father has essentially disowned him, describing him as a "hensopper," the same Afrikaans word that was used for those who aided the British during the Boer War. The word literally translates as "hands-upper," as in surrender.

Two of Mr. Verwoerd's uncles are involved in kibbutz-like, back-to-the-farm, semi-survivalist attempts to form independent Afrikaner communities. The Verwoerd family recently gathered, without Wilhelm Verwoerd, at one of those to celebrate his grandmother's 92nd birthday.

"There was a big newspaper report about that, and I was pleased to see that my grandmother said that, though she disagreed with me, she respected my rights to have those views," he says. "So there's some hope for reconciliation there.

"But not with my father right now. He's 63. It's a difficult age for him to change. And I think he's involved with some unhealthy, almost worship of his father."

Image and reality

Mr. Verwoerd says that he, too, has difficulty reconciling the personal image and political reality of his grandfather.

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