Comrade Melanie, the Verwoerd who toyi-toyied.

Author:Boateng, Osei
Position:Feature: South Africa - Melanie Verwoerd - Biography

In the 20 years of black majority rule in South Africa, the exploits of black anti-apartheid fighters have justifiably been celebrated, but not so much the feats of white people who sacrificed all to help the blacks defeat the system. One such white person is Melanie Verwoerd (pictured, right). Her story, as told in her autobiography published in 2013, The Verwoerd Who Toyi-Toyied, is a gripping tale of audacity and heroism that deserves to be feted. Osei Boateng reports.

For readers who are not sure of what the name Verwoerd is all about, it is part of the name of the South African prime minister Hendrik Verwoerd, who led the National Party government to officially institute the heinous apartheid system in the country, thus earning him the moniker "the father of apartheid". Toyi-toyi, on the other hand, is the black South African dance which became synonymous with the anti-apartheid struggle. Dancing the toyi-toyi was therefore a taboo for the Verwoerd family. But not for Melanie, the wife of Verwoerd's grandson, Wilhelm. She had a mind of her own.

Her activist streak (some would call it rebellion against injustice), started very early in her life. No wonder she rose to become an ANC member of parliament when she was just 27 years old, and later ambassador to Ireland when she was 34. She is a special woman.

She explains why her life took the route it did: "Since my earliest memories," she writes in the book, "my head and my heart seem to have been in a tension-filled dialogue. My intellect, filled with the writings of Shakespeare, the history of colonial powers, and arts, music, and religion from worlds far away, is most comfortable in the thinking patterns of Europe. Of course, my white skin and the language I speak, make that even more evident. But something deep inside me has always rebelled against this European identity.

"Since I was very young, I have known that there is something else, something much deeper. Something that was formed by the red soil of Africa, the thunderstorms, the air, the harshness of the landscape, and the vast diversity of the continent's people. With time, I have come to understand and accept that I stand with my feet in two worlds: in the Europe of my head and in the Africa of my heart."

Born on 18 April 1967 in Pretoria, not many months after the assassination of Prime Minister Hendrik Verwoerd in parliament, Melanie remembers her family as being poor. Her grandparents, like most Afrikaners at the time, were extremely poor. Their house was basic, without running water or electricity.

"I was already at school [in the late 1970s] when they finally got running water and no longer had to collect it from the river every day. Even better, they had a water-borne sewage system installed, which meant that the long walk to the pit toilet and night pots under the beds were at last things of the past. It took many more years (until the late 1980s) before they got electricity."

What makes Melanie special is that her roots should not have made her the progressive woman she became. "Like father, like son" is a natural order of things, but not in Melanie's case. Her grandparents were racists, and Melanie remembers that they had a "complex relationship" with their farm workers.

"It was a racism born out of a sense of superiority on the one hand, and fear on the other. Yet at the same time, there was a close and almost loving relationship born out of Christian values shared with their workers," Melanie writes.

"As it was a small farm, they only had one domestic worker, called Johanna. She and my grandmother would work side by side, talking like friends for hours. Yet at night, Johanna would go home to a little shack on the farm. I was upset and had an argument with my grandparents, telling them how I would change everything one day when I inherited the farm. They laughed at me, which drove me to angry tears, made worse by my being forbidden to go near Johanna's house again.

"Yet ironically, it was my grandparents who laid the foundation that would lead me to enter liberation politics later on. Through my relationship with them, I learnt early on that education, wealth, and status told you little about a person." However, years later, when she entered active politics and became a member of the ANC, her grandparents were disgusted with her political beliefs. As a girl growing up in Stellenbosch, the bastion of Afrikanerdom and by extension apartheid, Melanie was insulated from the other South Africa outside the white areas. Going into the "Coloured areas" was like a different world to her, even though, as she would discover years later, conditions in the Coloured areas were generally better than in the "African townships". Her mother, Helena, also called Lenie, was always upset with the conditions in the Coloured and African townships and would talk endlessly about how wrong this was. It made a deep impression on Melanie.

The capital of Afrikanerdom

But Stellenbosch would not change. Class-conscious, snobbish and largely Afrikaans, the university town in the rolling mountains of the Western Cape, near Cape Town, was politically and ideologically strongly nationalist. With the help of the university, Stellenbosch would provide an intellectual justification for apartheid, and thus became the bastion of Afrikaner nationalism. To this day, at official events, Afrikaner speakers insist speaking Afrikaans first, before translation into English.

This is the environment that shaped the young Melanie, who, as a young girl focused on academia, ballet and Christianity.

Being in an all-white school, ballet group and neighbourhood...

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