Grandson up front about family connections

Published February 1, 2000

Professor of Ethics and Philosophy Wilhelm Verwoerd talks to seminar participants at the Parliament of the World’s Religions.

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 frame 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.”

To avoid the pitfalls of narrow legal definitions of responsibility he is working on trying to find “the language to describe the more extended versions of responsibility ? because my grandfather did those things, I didn’t do them.”

One of the words he uses is “connected.”

He uses the example of how people react when a family member or an athlete representing one’s country wins a prize or competition. “You feel connected,” he said. The problem is when a person in the same position does something wrong, then people disassociate themselves from the wrongdoer as quickly as possible.

Once the connection is acknowledged, Prof. Verwoerd said, it also becomes possible to acknowledge the hurt and harm caused by one’s own society.

Then, “when you do something constructive, to acknowledge the harm, like I’ve been doing in a number of situations, it’s remarkable to see the positive response.”

Speaking from his experience with the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, he said the importance of apologies and acknowledgement of past wrongs is evident by the fact victims are moved by institutional apologies ? or demanding them.

It’s a matter of “valuing the moral acknowledgement of their suffering, not just the monetary payments, which can add insult to the injury; but there’s a moral injury deep down in people’s psyches which has to be acknowledged.”

He said the situation for Canadians regarding the wrongs committed at residential schools is similar. He said perpetrators may not even be in the church anymore, but the church is connected, “so someone representing the church has a special potential, has a special power ? to acknowledge the harm, to say, ‘I’m deeply sorry for what happened, I want to take responsibility, to make things right again.’ But that doesn’t mean one is taking direct responsibility for intentionally causing harm.”

The biggest challenge for Canadians, he said, is how they will face up to this past, since most non-Natives aren’t forced to deal with Natives on a daily basis, the way whites, blacks and coloureds have to in South Africa.

Prof. Verwoerd doesn’t pretend learning to open one’s heart to the suffering of the real victims is easy. He went through a long journey, becoming aware of all his personal baggage: the Dutch Reformed Church, being white, the family name Verwoerd.

“I really had to be exposed to the experiences of individual black South Africans to see not only with my head but with my existential eye ? really sensing and feeling what people went through,” he said.

“It took a seven- to 10-year process of facing those ghosts,” he said. He had to work through the “extremely positive” image he grew up with about his grandfather and the struggle against the British and the “extremely negative” image of blacks and liberal whites.

Part of his journey was coming to the point where people outside his community, such as those in the ANC, said, “we’re not expecting you to become somebody else.”

Today he can say, “I’m a member of this family, this group. I managed to recover my faith, which I lost. The challenge is what can you do creatively, constructively with this in the current South African scene?”

He said white South Africans need to be “looking for different ways of trying to be quite open about who they are, but not seeing it as a burden and negative baggage.”

To this end, his grandfather’s famous phrase and the family motto seems apt for all South Africans: “Create your own future.”


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