Verwoerd: My Journey Through Family Betrayals by Wilhelm Verwoerd, published by Tafelberg, is available now. This excerpt is published by permission.
I was well prepared for my first foray on foreign soil. Apart from the clothes to cope with the unfamiliar European weather, I had sports drink sachets, my preferred breakfast cereal, home-baked rusks, biltong, and medicines for every kind of ache and pain. I had Afrikaans books and safe Dutch Reformed theology books. I also had a day pack, with water, snacks and a Bible. It was July 1986, more than three decades ago, and I can still feel those two bulky suitcases weighing heavily in my hands, and the overladen backpack pulling down on my shoulders.
In the early 1980s, as an undergraduate Theology, Philosophy and Psychology student at the lily-white University of Stellenbosch, it was fashionable to be against apartheid. The majority of students and faculty, including myself, supported the governing National Party’s superficial reforms of Verwoerdian separate development. This breeze of change within Afrikaner circles was strong enough to blow my parents and most of my Verwoerd family into the new, pro-Verwoerd Conservative Party. They staunchly held on to apartheid as the only long-term policy to “guarantee the (white) Afrikaners’ survival”. But I went with the white mainstream’s reluctant acceptance that this full policy was no longer realistic; I agreed that separate development was not working in practice.
The bags I took to the Netherlands wasn’t the only baggage I was carrying. The invisible baggage of my childhood and schooling as a white, Christian Nationalist Afrikaner, a Stellenbosch Verwoerd, is clearly revealed in a diary entry of that period:
28 December 1984, 10:15 pm
Well, finally, after much weighing of the pros and cons, I came to pen my feelings, thoughts and memories. The conditions are very favourable to do so: Dvořák’s “New World” Symphony in the background, mixed with the peaceful, familiar hissing of the gas lamps, with Ouma Betsie sitting next to me at the table, reading. In my heart there is a nice, warm feeling because she and I had such a meaningful conversation this evening. For a long time I have wanted to chat with her about all the turmoil in our politics currently and how she sees the future. Particularly I want to know more about her past with Oupa and the origin of the policy of separate development – seen from a personal point of view.
It was particularly heartening to see she was trying to understand my situation and also the complexity of the current situation in our country. It is striking that she speaks from a fear of the dominant numbers of blacks that threaten our small group of whites’ right to self-determination. She strongly believes the only solution is to provide every people – Black, White, Coloured and Indian – with an area in which they can govern themselves. It is the only way for a people to maintain their own nationality (culture) and to preserve it for their descendants. She also strongly emphasises things would have looked differently today had Oupa not been taken away from us when his policy was only beginning to be implemented.
I can disagree with her about many of the things we chatted about, but what I highly appreciate about her is a feeling of self-respect, respect for your own people and for your country that radiates from her – a feeling of pride and being anchored, which I sense such a little of in Stellenbosch. I admit that this pride can be taken too far, but particularly among the young people of today more often the lack of pride in being an Afrikaner is taken too far. Then I get this feeling of being spineless, anchorless, directionless.
It is nice for a change to say, to write, to feel and even to believe such patriotic things. After all, one should have self-respect, from where you can have understanding and respect for other people and peoples.
Eighteen months after this entry, I arrived in Utrecht. With all my baggage. I planned to spend my first overseas summer doing some research for a master’s thesis in philosophy. It was supposed to be a quiet, acclimatising detour before starting, as a Rhodes Scholar, a three-year degree in theology and philosophy at the University of Oxford. The idea was to return to Stellenbosch afterwards to complete my theological training. I had a strong vocation to become a minister within the Dutch Reformed Church.
I cringe now at my narrow piety and feel ashamed of my ethnic politics of that time. I am sorely tempted to censor some of the language, but I am also grateful for these naked, confused scribblings because they shine a strong, if uncomfortable, light on my delayed awakening, and provide a reliable record of my hard landing, near Wilhelmina Park.
Beside this beautiful park stood my digs, where I would live with several fellow South Africans. My first impression of my living situation was idyllic – but this was soon disrupted. Over the next few months the “pure”, combative faith of my youth was fundamentally questioned by especially my digs mates Amor and Rudolf.
However, to appreciate the profound impact of their insider critique – as white, Afrikaans speaking, former Dutch Reformed Church South Africans – I must first return briefly to my schooling in seductively beautiful, lily-white Stellenbosch.
As a primary school child in Stellenbosch I joined my neatly dressed parents and brothers every Sunday morning at church, where we sat in the hard wooden pews of the large Dutch Reformed Student Church next to other white Afrikaners.
In this Uniepark church building, literally around the corner from my parental home, I became a born-again Christian at the age of thirteen. Five friends and I formed a small Christian group and decided to baptise ourselves “Warriors for Jesus”. Through most of my high school years we regularly studied the Bible, earnestly prayed together, and enthusiastically offered Sunday school classes for coloured children on nearby farms.
Within my ardent Dutch Reformed, nationalist Christianity I did not question official racial classification between “Europeans” and “non-Europeans”, between “whites”, “coloureds”, “Indians” and “Africans”. My consciousness was strongly shaped by the DRC’s puritanical culture. As a dedicated Warrior for Jesus I didn’t smoke or drink alcohol. My anti-dance and anti-rock music sentiments were so pure that I had taken the lead in arranging an alternative to the matric year-end dance: a bus to Cape Town for high tea at the Mount Nelson Hotel.
My (white) Afrikaans family, my (white) Afrikaans suburb, my (white) Afrikaans school, my (white) Afrikaans church, my (white) Afrikaans friends and my (white) Voortrekkership became an ox-wagon circle around my group identity. This laager turned my political relationships with South Africans of colour into a zero-sum battle between white Afrikaner nationalism and domestic black nationalism.
Little wonder that a few months later Maurits Street’s people had to shake so hard to wake me up properly.