Book review: Verwoerd: My journey through family betrayals by Wilhelm Verwoerd

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Title: Verwoerd: My journey through family betrayals
Writer: Wilhelm Verwoerd
Tafelberg: Cape Town, 2019|
ISBN 978-0-624-08818-9

In some recent comments on the best ingredients for an interesting political memoir, British journalist Simon Heffer remarked that while “fame or high status does not necessarily count for anything, notoriety is always very helpful”. It was certainly enormously helpful to Svetlana Alliluyeva. The only daughter and youngest child of Joseph Stalin, in 1967 she published Twenty letters to a friend, a deeply personal political memoir which became a worldwide sensation. It was a rather rosy recollection of family life with the notorious Soviet dictator which, as critics pointed out, skipped over the mass crimes of Stalinism. Or, as one of them concluded, it “whitewashed the sins” of her pitiless father. Whatever he was, Dr Hendrik Verwoerd was obviously no Joseph Stalin, a totalitarian leader who lived by the sword but died naturally, unlike South Africa’s apartheid era prime minister, who lived by the costly pursuit of a racist vision, but died by the sword. Interestingly, part one of Verwoerd: My journey through family betrayals flashes sobering Biblical quotations from the books of Isaiah and Matthew.

Hendrik Verwoerd, the totemic high priest of apartheid South Africa, may, in the eyes of many, be forever associated politically with sinfulness. Indeed, in one of the book’s several heart-on-your-sleeve endorsements, the former ANC operative and controversial police commander, Major-General Jeremy Vearey, declares Verwoerd to be an “odyssey into one man’s purgatory for redemption from the political sins of his grandfather”. While this is laying it on pretty thick, it is fair to say that this inwardly brooding, often relentless intensity is what gives this book its distinctive complexion.

Whether you nod or sigh at the extravagant use of metaphysical notions of political evil and political sin, the author of this rather meandering family memoir certainly cannot be accused of whitewashing the life of a grandfather who distinguished himself in the job of applying the National Party’s revolting brand of whitewash. As the cover of Wilhelm Verwoerd’s memoir proclaims, this is a book which charts “the complexities of having Verwoerd blood in your veins in the full knowledge that HF Verwoerd had blood on his hands”. In one sense, its emotional fibre makes Verwoerd a story of genetic mutation, if not complete transcendence. In another, its wandering, all-over-the-place framework makes it feel like something from the Tolkien school of storytelling – absolutely everything is a never-ending journey and a moral saga.

Although the full-blown confessional flavour of Wilhelm Verwoerd’s memoir may not be everyone’s cup of tea, there is much to contemplate in the series of stories he tells of his personal voyage from conditioned acceptance of what he terms his “ardent Dutch Reformed, nationalist Christianity” as a “young Boer” in “lily-white Stellenbosch”, to embracing a life lived through “a humanising openness” and a commitment to equality and social justice. Along the way, there is also a lot going on to draw you in. Episodes dripping with high emotion include accounts of university studies as a Rhodes Scholar in Oxford, a gradual Damascus road turn against apartheid and its racist ideology, getting into bed with the ANC, campaigning for the movement as one of its “comrades” in the country’s first common election, working for the TRC, and prolonged international engagement with political reconciliation and peace-building, involving Ireland, Israel and Palestine, as well as South Africa.Depicted through a patchwork of diary meditations, letters and accounts of a range of intense experiences across time, Wilhelm Verwoerd’s reflections are compassionate and insightful. And, as an uncommon personal anti-apartheid story, they also provide an agonisingly Verwoerdian experience of around half a century of life, up to the present South Africa’s Dylan decades, in which, as young Bob once sang, “the times they are a-changin’”. Thankfully, it is not all heavy going. Some of the best bits of Verwoerd are not about blood and pedigree, but are those dealing with mundane domestic matters with wit and affection, as when the author discloses that “the smell of boerewors had been my downfall as a vegetarian in Ireland”.

As it is there in the title, it will not be spoiling this book for readers to stress that its core consists of a family saga told mostly through clenched teeth – it is,after all, the memory of Oupa Hendrik which haunts these pages. Not exactly of like mind with his father, in particular, Wilhelm’s journey is punctuated with painful bouts of political alienation, ostracism, and what he, at one point, summarises candidly as “muddy feelings”.

Ultimately, it is about coming to terms with being the grandson of Hendrik Verwoerd. And with acknowledging the very human muddle of being a post-apartheid Verwoerd, burdened by the weight “of all my grandfather’s actions”, while, at the same time, accepting the inescapable “bond of blood” with Oupa Hendrik and Ouma Betsie. In a way, it brings to mind that famous line from Philip Larkin’s 1956 poem,  An Arundel tomb, “what will survive of us is love”. Or, in the delicate way that the author of Verwoerd puts it, “grieving love”.

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