Reconciliation comes to Ireland, SA-style

By Maureen Isaacson Time of article published Jul 6, 2003

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Amid the softly lit hills in Wicklow County, outside Dublin, an intense reconciliation process is unfolding with astonishing irony, South African-style.

Wilhelm Verwoerd, 39, the grandson of Hendrik Frensch Verwoerd, "HF". is doing hands-on "peace work" at the Glencree reconciliation centre. Previously a military barracks, the stone building, flanked by a defunct reformatory, denotes the possibilities of transformation.

While Wilhelm's wife, Melanie Verwoerd, 36, South Africa's ambassador to Ireland, is hard at work promoting the interests of her country, he steers a programme to "help humanise interactions" between Northern Ireland's "ex-combatants" or paramilitaries.

Under Melanie Verwoerd's ambassadorship to Ireland during the past two years, tourism from Ireland to South Africa has increased 43 percent. At a breakfast held in honour of Kader Asmal, the minister of education, property developers said they believed the recent rush for development in the Cape to be directly related to the awareness Verwoerd had engendered.

Melanie was Wilhelm's student at Stellenbosch university. Both were intent on obtaining ordination in the Dutch Reformed Church. That was before Wilhelm took up a Rhodes scholarship at Oxford. His political views were turned around by anti-apartheid activist housemates. Wilhelm changed course from philosophy and theology to philosophy, politics and economics and is working towards creating a new vocabulary of understanding.

In light of Ireland's lack of resolution and the suggestion by Hugh Orde, the Irish police commissioner, that the country should consider a truth commission, Verwoerd's contribution is well received. An academic, he feels fortunate to be able "to translate intellectual concept to action".

The third of four sons of a Stellenbosch geologist, he was two years old when "Oupa Hendrik" was killed. As a symbol of the South African transition and the ability of people to change and to forgive, he has paid a debt - he has taken responsibility. Betsy Verwoerd, HF's widow and Wilhelm's grandmother, slid easily into the role of reconciliation's symbol.

When former president Nelson Mandela suggested drinking tea together in 1995, she could afford to be gracious. She lived in Orania, an all-white Afrikaner enclave in the Free State until her death in 2000. When Wilhelm confessed that he had joined the ANC for "Christian principles", Betsy Verwoerd alone in the family accepted this. But she did not budge from her politics.

Wilhelm Verwoerd believes deeply in justice and he does not attempt to suppress his loyalty to the man whose image dominated his home. He is comforted by the ANC's stress on the importance of origins and he refuses to deny his ancestors.

There was a tense moment last weekend when Asmal commented on the symbolism of the work of the grandson of "apartheid's architect" at Glencree.

In a mini-thesis written in the 1980s, Hendrik Verwoerd: Principled pragmatist? written for Christ's Church College in Oxford, he attempted to rescue his grandfather from "demonisation". Although he says now his thesis was too defensive the defence continues: "although HF was committed to a set of ideals, he was also a clever politician and was prepared to adjust when things did not work out". HF held principal positions during apartheid's heyday.

During his time, the worst of the dehumanisation took place in areas of migration and education. He was minister of native affairs and he was prime minister from 1962 until his assassination.

According to Wilhelm, Nelson Mandela and Walter Sisulu have said that individuals are to be examined in context. The context Wilhelm paints is underlined by fear: post-South African War (1899-1902) victimhood mentality, the decolonisation of Africa and the Cold War. There had been a migration of poor Afrikaners to cities in the thirties and forties.

According to Wilhelm his grandfather was a spokesperson for the party. Apartheid was defended by the churches and by a growing number of voters in English communities. Also, many intellectuals at Stellenbosch University felt that separate development had a strong moral basis. When HF died, Betsy, his widow, called for a moratorium on mourning at the funeral.

Wilhelm believes the resulting unresolved emotions to be partially responsible for his family's extreme reaction to his political sea change.

Despite wavering signs of reconciliation from his father following an illness, Wilhelm still feels his expulsion acutely. There is in Wilhelm Verwoerd's commitment to transformation and tolerance a seriousness, an energetic intelligence.

"At this time as an Afrikaner I cannot speak about my language and my identity and my rights or a counter-demonisation of HF, until I have shown with my actions that I am prepared to give my life to South Africa as a home for all."

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