Verwoerd: My Journey through Family Betrayals
by Maria HASSAN for Shared Future News
16 October 2019
The Ulster University’s Belfast campus was a fitting location for the launch event of Wilhelm Verwoerd’s memoir, given his relationship with the people and the politics of Northern Ireland and his work with the university’s Transitional Justice Institute. Wilhelm was met warmly by an audience that contained many old colleagues and friends; he was quick to thank those who had impacted on his life and work here. Despite Wilhelm Verwoerd’s influential role in the peace process in Northern Ireland, it became clear to him that in order to find peace within himself he needed to return to South Africa to fully confront his own inner conflict and uncover his truth.
Wilhelm’s book, My Journey through Family Betrayals, published as Bloedbande or Bonds of Blood in Afrikaans, explores his irrefutable sanguine connection to the Verwoerd name, a name which as a result of his grandfather H.F. Verwoerd’s role as the architect of apartheid, carries huge weight in South Africa. Despite being very introspective, the Verwoerd name on the cover means that this book is more than a physical incarnation of one man’s deep personal journey; it is also inherently political. Wilhelm spoke of his motivation for writing his memoir and publishing it in Afrikaans. He hopes that by retelling his family history and sharing his journey he will reveal what needs to be unlearned and reach those members of the Dutch Reformed, nationalist community into which he was born, who are yet to engage meaningfully with the peace process.
In conversation with friend, colleague and fellow South African Brandon Hamber, the author discussed the complexities of dealing with his grandfather’s legacy. During what was a very honest discussion, the writer opened up the branches of his family tree, traversing his relationship with both his father and grandfather as well as their relationship with one another. H.F. Verwoerd was described by his grandson as a figure much respected and revered by his own people and particularly by his son, Wilhelm’s father. After publicly denouncing his grandfather’s abhorrent racist policies, Wilhelm was branded a traitor and was said to have brought shame upon his family. However, the author recognised that in order to live authentically, he could not turn away from his family’s history entirely; instead he needed to engage with it empathically. The book is comprised not only of Wilhelm’s own experiences as part of the Verwoerd family, but also the intimate diaries of his grandmother, Betsie. By reading the diaries, Wilhelm gained insight into her tender feelings towards his grandfather and her subsequent pain and grief following his assassination.
Wilhelm explained how when he returned home to South Africa after assisting in the Northern Ireland peace process, he lived in a shared community. When he entered into the lives of black South Africans and listened to their experiences, he began to truly understand the full, far reaching effects of his grandfather’s actions. Tension arose between his tender feelings towards his grandmother in her grief and the knowledge of the trauma that same loving husband had inflicted on his new extended family and community. Throughout the discussion and indeed the book, Wilhelm’s openness was striking. He shared his pain surrounding the suffering that his grandfather had wrought alongside his experience of familial grief and rejection. This was in stark contrast with the culture that he was brought up with, of repressing emotional displays of emotion. Wilhelm praised and elevated his black South African friends, neighbours and colleagues who encouraged him to confront his family history and write directly to his grandfather — a process which ultimately allowed him to uncover and explore his uncomfortable truth without being overwhelmed by it.
Wilhelm recognises that he cannot take on his grandfather’s responsibility in the South African peace process, only his own personal reconciliation. He spoke of the inequalities that still exist and the need for more facilitation to bridge the gap between legislation and reality. He is an advocate for single community work as well as cross-community work. Wilhelm leads by example, actively listening to the experiences of others and helping them to explore, understand and accept their own often uncomfortable truths, which provides a sound framework for reconciliation efforts in South Africa and beyond. He stressed that his work was not burdensome, describing it as “life giving and relational”. Wilhelm’s journey granted him a remarkable ability to navigate huge issues of both personal and political importance with nuance and grace. The life-giving connections that had come about as a result of Wilhelm’s writing and his work were evident not only in his words spoken tonight, but also in the high level of respect for him in the room.
Images source: https://twitter.com/BrandonHamber/status/1184823730385670146