Meeting Wilhelm Verwoerd: Grandson of Prime Minister Hendrik Verwoerd, Architect of Apartheid

To think that I had to move many thousand miles away from South Africa to learn all about this man who is so inextricably linked with its history: Hendrik Verwoerd.

Any South African will immediately know his name, but as an expat you may not be as familiar with it. Other names loom larger*. But did you know that Hendrik Verwoerd, more so than anyone else, was responsible for devising the series of laws that became known as Apartheid?

The Injustice of Apartheid

It’s not like the racial segregation of the Apartheid era was set in stone overnight. It evolved by way of laws introduced by the new nationalist Afrikaner government beginning in 1948, increasingly restricting the freedom to own property and move around for any non-White persons. And the mastermind behind these laws was minister for native affairs and later prime minister Hendrik Verwoerd**. Even though he is on record to have called Apartheid a “policy of good neighborliness,” it was nothing of the sort. It was designed to uphold white Afrikaner domination and keep Blacks, Coloureds, Indians, and any other non-White citizens in their place – quite literally in terms of where they were allowed to live, but in all other areas of life as well.

entrance to the apartheid museum in johannesburg
There is no better place to understand what a life under Apartheid meant than the Apartheid Museum

Like I said, it’s a bit ironic that of all places it was here in Nashville, Tennessee, that I got to meet Hendrik Verwoerd’s grandson Wilhelm Verwoerd. He had been invited to speak at a local boy’s private school, Montgomery Bell Academy, after meeting its headmaster at a conference in Cape Town. (I was immediately reminded why I miss Dainfern College so much when I stepped onto the lawns surrounding MBA: Same beautiful grounds, same distinguished architecture, same soaring speeches by its teachers that make me already shudder in anticipation of the droning and utterly boring speeches I will be subjected to during my kids’ next awards assembly at their public school.)

After being introduced, Wilhelm immediately captivated us with a short video: The names of the countless South Africans killed in police custody between 1962 and 1989 scrolling steadily down the screen, accompanied by the beautiful notes of N’kosi Sikelel’ iAfrika, the protesters’ freedom song that has since been incorporated into the national anthem. The spate of arrests of anti-apartheid activists had skyrocketed after the so-called sabotage act was introduced in 1962, allowing the government to detain such protesters indefinitely. Many of them mysteriously died in police custody, with the government claiming the most ludicrous reasons for their deaths. Steve Biko was the most famous of these victims. If you don’t know his name, you’ll absolutely have to watch the movie Cry Freedom with Kevin Kline and Denzel Washington:

What makes Wilhelm, the grandson’s, story so compelling is that he broke with his family over the politics of Apartheid. Not only that, he joined the ANC in the early 1990s, shook the hand of Nelson Mandela, and campaigned for his election with a raised fist.

An Old Afrikaner Family

To  understand what an utter shock that must have been to his family, you have to understand where he came from. Born in 1964, he spent his youth in Stellenbosch, home of one of the most prestigious Afrikaans universities (it will be 150 years old next year, Wilhelm pointed out). His was an old Afrikaner family, much like all the other white families around them. All the boys played rugby, and their education was quite militarized. Every Wednesday they wore military uniforms. Speakers from the army frequently gave presentations at his school, warning of the “total onslaught” and calling all to “fight the communists.” With the benefit of hindsight, it’s easy to dismiss such fear-mongering as overblown, but during those days, the fear of communism spreading down the African continent was great, as I’ve touched on in my writings about Ian Smith, the last leader of Rhodesia.

Wilhelm’s family was also deeply religious and active in the Dutch Reformed Church. Throughout the 70s and 80s people would come up and tell him what a great man his grandfather had been – a leader who finally brought freedom to the Afrikaners. At the root of this, says Wilhelm, was the Boer War, even though by then it was over 70 years in the past. There was a strong need to avenge the humiliation of the Boers’ loss and their suffering in British concentration camps.

When Hector Pieterson was killed during the Soweto uprising in 1976, that was thought to be the start of the revolution. While Whites around the country mobilized in the early 1980s and his brothers were drafted into the South African army and deployed to fight communism, Wilhelm was sent away to study in Holland.This is where things changed for him, mainly by virtue of living together with South African Blacks in one single house. He felt as if he was bombarded with information – about living conditions, about brutality, about lack of opportunity – and gradually became deeply troubled about the role his own family had played to perpetuate such blatant inequality.

The great tragedy, he says with today’s hindsight, was that his grandfather, Hendrik, did not understand what the system of Apartheid was doing to his fellow Christians. Had he only ever met with black South Africans who could have challenged his belief that separate development was best for everyone, perhaps his eyes could have been opened.

I have my doubts, but that’s easy for me. He wasn’t my grandfather#.

This concludes Part One of this two-part series. Stay tuned for Part Two: Wilhelm Verwoerd, Nelson Mandela, and a Family Torn Apart


*The great Nelson Mandela of course, who I’ve written about here and herePaul Kruger even, the republic’s first president who is immortalized in the park bearing his name, which is one of the most iconic wildlife parks in the world. You may have heard about the Rivonia Trial and the prisoners taken during the raid on Liliesleaf Farm. If you’ve read Michener’s The Covenant, you may also be familiar with the infamous King Shaka, and after him, King Dingane, who fought against the Voortrekkers at the Battle of Blood River.

**Interestingly, Verwoerd was South Africa’s only prime minister not born in South Africa but rather in the Netherlands – there is no shortage of historical figures who were most adamant about preserving their “tribe’s” heritage even though they weren’t an original member of said tribe.

#Hendrik Verwoerd was born in 1901, making him exactly the same age as my late grandmother. I find it fascinating to think that Wilhelm sat around the Sunday table hearing stories told in much the same fashion as what was talked about at our Sunday dinners, discussions that occasionally veered into the “forbidden” territory of the Second World War, which my grandfather had fought in and about the outcome of which he was understandably bitter. In this our families have similarities, but only to a point. My grandfather wasn’t assassinated. 

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