Grandson Up Front about Family Connections: Joining ANC Meant Losing Father's Approval

By Harris, David | Anglican Journal, February 2000 | Go to article overview
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Grandson Up Front about Family Connections: Joining ANC Meant Losing Father's Approval


Harris, David, Anglican Journal


Cape Town

As shouts of Viva Verwoerd! Viva ANC! drowned out his past, Wilhelm Verwoerd thrust his fist into the air in an ANC salute, acknowledging his new political family.

His Afrikaner father had responded a year before to his joining the African National Congress: "You are a traitor to the Afrikaner people."

That was 1992 and Wilhelm, who turns 36 this month, is still unwelcome in his family home in Stellenbosch, a small university town in the southwestern corner of South Africa.

Now a professor of philosophy and ethics at the University of Stellenbosch, Wilhelm is trying to find ways for his fellow Afrikaners to come to terms with the county's racist past - a past in which his grandfather played a key role.

Hendrik Verwoerd, known as the "architect of apartheid," died a martyr in white South African society, assassinated in 1966 while he was prime minister.

Although apartheid ended in 1990 and the ANC came to power in 1994, South Africa is still burdened by its past. The majority of people have inadequate housing and water; violence and murder are common and an uneasy tension exists between whites and non-whites.

The Truth and Reconciliation Commission, chaired by the former Anglican archbishop of Cape Town Desmond Tutu, was a painful experience for whites and blacks alike.

Prof. Verwoerd, who worked as a researcher for the commission for two years, says the country is still digesting the horrifying revelations.

Prof. Verwoerd said because many whites in South Africa did not directly participate in criminal racist acts, they avoid dealing with or taking responsibility for the issue.

"The moment you start discussing these issues, they say they aren't involved," he said in an interview following his presentation at the Parliament of the World's Religions in December.

The conservative side in the white Afrikaner community responded negatively to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, Prof. Verwoerd said. They said, "`you are making this sort of moral judgment; all we did is suddenly regarded as bad and we are resisting,' so they make themselves victims," he said.

Prof. Verwoerd understands how people can shift the blame and see themselves as victims instead of seeing who the real victims are.

"I was brought up to see myself as related to the people that died in British concentration camps at the end of the Boer War and that we are threatened by the Communists and the blacks," he said. "To some extent there's some truth in that," but "the bottom line is that today, the main moral challenge is really to face your association with evil, with perpetrators."

Part of the problem Prof. Verwoerd thinks is the language used to flame the discussion of past wrongs.

"The legal discourse of crime and guilt and punishment and responsibility; that's the dominant discourse," he said. "So as soon as one engages with crime and responsibility and connection with evil, people see it in criminal terms and then it's true for them to say that they didn't do those things, therefore, they aren't responsible."

Prof. Verwoerd teaches the children and grandchildren of people involved in apartheid in his university classes.

"The challenge becomes ... how do you convey to them their connection with this evil in such a way that you are not saying they were the torturers, they were the assassins, the people who raped ... or who sexually abused those kids," he said.

The irony, he said, is once there is acknowledgement of the wrong done and who really suffered, "you become liberated."

"Then it's not this heavy burden of guilt and shame" that results in the all too common liberal "destructive sense of responsibility -- a white man's burden, which comes across as patronizing, which comes across as insincere.

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