Hendrik Verwoerd’s widow, Betsy, with a painting of her husband. A book by Verwoerd’s grandson interrogates what it means to be part of the renowned family. Picture: SUNDAY TIMES
Hendrik Verwoerd’s widow, Betsy, with a painting of her husband. A book by Verwoerd’s grandson interrogates what it means to be part of the renowned family. Picture: SUNDAY TIMES

When you are born in SA with the surname Verwoerd, you could try to lead a normal life, but chances are you will always be judged to be a pale imitation of Dr Hendrik Verwoerd, the architect of apartheid.

You might consider changing your name. Or you can choose to live a life best described by the Afrikaans word wroeging — attempting to make sense of what it really means to carry such a legacy.

"Wroeging" is roughly translated as "struggle". It can also be contrition, remorse or self-reproach. In Dutch it is called a knagende schuldgevoel — an ongoing feeling of guilt.

Hendrik’s grandson Wilhelm Verwoerd has lived a life of wroeging. He was born in 1964, two years before his grandfather was assassinated in parliament. While some members of his family have become noted right-wingers — like the Boshoffs who created Orania — this Verwoerd joined the ANC in 1992.

He sketches his life in the singular in his book, which has up to now been published only in Afrikaans.


Being in the contrition business is no longer as outlandish as it was in Albert Speer’s days, when he was known as the only Nazi who said sorry.

It would be logical to expect a contrite person to write a book to warn future generations and to prevent a repeat of the actions of his forefathers. But more often than not, this does not happen.

Verwoerd’s powerful book is therefore exceptional. It is all there: being born into a loving and caring family; the expectation to be loyal; the admonishment not to be led astray by foreign influences; and discovering that your grandfather is a reviled figure and struggling to reconcile the two narratives.

There is the ubiquitous outreach to people who have been victimised. There is the attempt to research similar conflict situations in other parts of the world — in Verwoerd’s case, Northern Ireland. There is habitual discourse with parents and other relatives who, more often than not, never question the actions of their forefather.

Verwoerd’s loving upbringing stands out as a coarse testament compared to the family experiences of millions of South Africans who suffered under apartheid. He compares his upbringing with testimonies from people he has met who were victimised under the pass laws, or whose houses were bulldozed under the Group Areas Act.

Much of the reminiscences take place at the family holiday home at Betty’s Bay in the Western Cape, where Wilhelm uncovers a painfully personal diary of his grandmother. He attempts to answer some questions. How is it possible to be Christian and yet support apartheid? And are there any merits to the views held by the proponents of apartheid? Was the policy necessary to ensure that whites would not be swamped by the numerically stronger black population?

All of these questions remain unresolved. Verwoerd’s message is that contrition remains an ongoing process. He has to continue asking for forgiveness and remain grateful for the mercy shown.

This book could have benefited from a greater historical perspective. How does the Verwoerd family fit into the broader South African story?

And what motivated Hendrik to devise the policy of apartheid, and to stick with it when almost everyone else knew it could never work?

Wilhelm touches on this a bit, saying that Hendrik was motivated by idealism. But little is said about the Verwoerd family, which occupies a somewhat ambivalent presence within the Afrikaner community. Hendrik was born in the Netherlands, and was of Dutch origin.

When apartheid was implemented in 1948, Afrikaners had been living in SA for 300 years, building up an extensive range of experiences — negative and some positive — with locals.

It is not too far-fetched to speculate that Hendrik grew up in an environment so fearful and so far removed from other Afrikaners that he dragged them, and the rest of the country, down with him? This question was whispered in Afrikaner circles in the past, but Verwoerd does not consider it.

Archbishop Desmond Tutu offers kind words to the troubled Verwoerd as he wrestles with his heritage: "Be careful not to carry an unbearable burden on your shoulders."