Dr Verwoerd’s Founders’ Day Address: Video & Transcript

On September 3rd, 2014, posted in: Alumni, Archive, News, Recent Highlights, Students by

View Dr Wilhelm Verwoerd’s full address here.

Unedited transcript of the speech, courtesy Ann Coltham, as follows:

Good morning everybody.

Thank you very much for that introduction. It’s been humbling.

Especially after Tumi’s speech, I feel I’m not sure if I have much more to say. I just want to say ‘Amen’.

It’s quite special for me to be in a place like this. I wasn’t quite expecting to see people with poppies and to have such a strong emphasis on remembrance.

Part of me finds it quite difficult because I’ve just been working in Ireland, Northern Ireland – and many of the people I worked with came from backgrounds where they opposed the British approach to remembrance and the British remembrance of the day. And I realise how controversial remembrance can be. How people who come from opposing sides find it difficult to come together and actually jointly remember the sacrifices and the human cost of war and conflict.

And that’s really what my work has been about for the last many, many years.

Trying to find ways where we as South Africans but also in places like Ireland, Northern Ireland, Israel, Palestine, so many places of deep conflict where we can find ways to actually live together as human beings without going to war, without becoming destructive in the way we deal with difference.

So I just want to offer you a few thoughts on that. I might draw on some of my professional work but I sometimes find in spaces like this, especially where there are younger people who might not have the sense of history that some of the older people here might have – that it’s sometimes useful just to talk a bit about personal experience. In a sense, to tell a story of change and transformation as one of our speakers also said.

So I’m not going to be too academic and too philosophical about it. I want it to be routed in a real life journey, and hopefully, through that, you might be able to relate to it just as ordinary human beings, struggling also in South Africa today to deal with issues of division and difference, and finding a way to adhere to the vision of the school to have space where we can be without prejudice towards people irrespective of their creed, or their colour or their culture or their [word not audible].

So where shall I start.

I think I’ll start with an image that I think you might be able to relate to in terms of your own lives as well. It’s an image that was given to me by Archbishop Odama – not Obama – Odama from Northern Uganda. I was privileged to meet him a few years ago just as I came to the end of my time in Northern Ireland. We were in Belfast and he came on a visit and he was telling people about what was going on in Northern Uganda. I don’t know how much of you have followed over the years the horrible, horrible wars that took place with the Lord’s Resistance Army and with Kofie, I think, was a very prominent internet campaign as well, to expose the brutality of that war that took place in that part of Africa.

He as a church leader was willing to go into those places – literally go and meet with kofie – go into the bushes and try and find ways to bring people out of that violent conflict to a point where we can actually negotiate and live together in Uganda at the time and he lost his own wife. I think she was killed by the ??, so he came with a deep personal crisis. And he was just talking about his commitment, not to allow that pain and that bitterness to imprison him, and to find ways to translate it into peace.

And he said how, on a weekly basis, he would spend some time, he would take a day off or half a day and just pray for the rest of the world, for places where there’s conflict. And he used an image of his two hands – now we’re all familiar with this as a prayer gesture – but he was sitting there, we were just sitting around a table, a few of us, and he held his hands like that. And he said, “When I am praying, and I’m going into the space where I’m thinking of all these places of conflict, and I look at my two hands, what these hands represent for me would be in the first place – if I look at my five fingers they represent the five continents of the world.”

You know, we can debate on whether there’s five or six or seven, but if you think of it as, you know, Eurasia, America, Africa, Australia and Antarctica as sort of the five big continental masses. And he was saying that these five fingers for him represented – as it were – the world.

And then he went on and he said, “When I look at my left hand, it represents all the men in the world. When I look at my right hand, it represents all the women in the world.”

And he had, you know, quite a dark brown skin, but on the inside [of his hand], he had a lighter skin and he was saying, “When I look on the inside of my hands, I think of all the people with lighter skins and when I look at the outside of my hands, I think of all the people with darker skins. And when I bring these two hands together, that’s the vision that I take with me, not only into my prayers but into my life.”

And I was just really moved by somebody with that vision and he reminded me of Archbishop Tutu who I was privileged to get to know during the TRC and after that, and he had that same kind of generosity of vision and spirit. I said to him, “I’m so grateful for what you shared with us, Archbishop Odama.” But I also found myself as I was speaking to him, I said “I was feeling very sad when I listened to your vision because when I think of my own community, and I think of the way that I grew up in South Africa and I found myself without thinking about it – I found myself forming a fist in my hand.” And I said, “When I think of my background and I think of my community, instead of having two hands like this [prayer gesture] – instead of an open ended vision of inclusivity, I grew up with a closed fist.”

That was the way I would represent, as it were, the way I grew up. And I said to him, it’s so sad for me that we find it so difficult to move from this space [one closed fist], or possibly this space [two closed fists] when you think of people in conflict… to move from this [two closed fists] to this [both hands held together in a prayer gesture].

And I thought in a nutshell, in an image, that’s really what the journey has been for me. That’s what my professional work has been about. Trying to find creative ways for us not to do the instinctive thing when we’re afraid, when we’re angry, when you could feel it in your stomach, like the set of things becoming cramped, becoming closed, and how we tend to do that when we go into conflict and when we have difficult differences. How do we find ways to move from that [two closed fists] to this [both hands held together in a prayer gesture], to open our hands and actually be willing to take the risk, to be vulnerable, to be honest, to be real with each other so that we can actually shake hands and move into the future together.

So let me just say something about why that journey has been so difficult for me and there were some references to it in the introduction. But I must just try and give a bit of a sense – those of you who are younger – I don’t know whether you’ve been to Stellenbosch recently? I was tempted to start my introductions by saying something about Paul Roos and I thought, no, let me be sensitive to Wynberg and your history and not complicate it with my old school’s history, but I very much grew up in Stellenbosch. And Stellenbosch during the seventies – sixties, seventies – was a very different place to the South Africa we have today, and a very different place to what most of you have experienced so far. Exclusively white, Afrikaans speaking – the school, the community, the neighbourhood where I grew up in – exclusively white, Afrikaans speaking. The church that I went to was exclusively white, Afrikaans speaking.

And of course, during that time, I wasn’t only part of the community, I wasn’t only part of the school, I was also part of a family. And you’ve seen a reference to, and you’ve heard a reference to my grandfather, HF Verwoerd. And many of you, especially the older people here would probably not have very positive memories and connotations attached with that person.

But when I was a young person – and this might be difficult for you to hear – especially for the black South Africans here – he was somebody who was seen within my own community and within my own family as a hero. And I was told by teachers at school, by the ministers in church, by the people in our community, to be proud of this great leader within our own community. And why was he a great leader? Because he brought us – us, as is the white Afrikaner community – he brought us our freedom from English domination in South Africa. And that, ironically, was the conflict and we grew up with also.  Not just fear of the majority of black South Africans, but animosity towards English speaking white South Africans because in our history and in our school and in the way we operated, we remembered history and we didn’t remember the first world war, we remembered the Anglo-Boer war, as it was called at the time.

And so even sixty years later, as a young person, I was still growing up with that animosity, and that’s why my grandfather was seen as a hero within the Afrikaner community. And I can remember the detail of how people would come to me and talk about the day that he was assassinated in parliament – it was a very dramatic, sort of political assassination. And hundreds and thousands of people lined the streets of Pretoria for the State funeral, and people were crying, and people would come to me as a young person and talk about the day that he was assassinated within the Afrikaner community and how sad they were for the loss of this great leader. His name was all over the place. Even today if you were to visit my parents, as you walk through the front door, there is a huge painting of him.

So that was really where I came from.

Now you think, how do you get to the point where you actually get to hear the experience of the wider South Africa, and start to hear what the name, Verwoerd, represented and still represents for the majority of people in this country. In my case, I was lucky to get a scholarship from Rhodes – you know, using English imperialist money to go to Oxford – and my father wasn’t happy because he was worried that I would be influenced by all these liberals who would corrupt me. And that’s what happened, of course. I got a chance to study in Holland first, and actually during that time I can remember arriving in Holland in 1986 with two huge suitcases because that was my first time to go overseas. Not only two big suitcases, a big backpack and in the backpack, I not only had clothes, I had books – Afrikaans books, because I had to prepare myself against these English liberals – and I had food – I had beskuit and biltong, things that I sort of could use to sort of survive as a little Afrikaner, you know, white nationalist in this foreign world – and I arrived with all this baggage. And when I look back, that for me was very symbolic because what had to happen during the next couple of years when I was studying in Holland and England was that I had to start to get rid of that baggage. Because I arrived with all these ways of thinking and believing and feeling and conditioning and looking at South African history from the point of view of the Afrikaner community and from the point of view of the Verwoerd family.

And I was fortunate, during that time, to meet South Africans with different [recollections] – especially black South Africans – and they were able to give me a sense of what really was going on in South Africa.  At that time, my brothers were fighting on the border – my one brother was a parabat, deeply involved in Angola. Here I was meeting people who were members of the ANC and a part of me felt like I was betraying my own brother. I was betraying my own church and my own family. But at the same time, I was hearing stories of what really was going on in South Africa and what it meant to be a black South African, a person of colour under the apartheid system, and people were not arguing with me politically; they were telling me stories. They were telling me just their life journeys and I couldn’t walk away from that. It was a kind of truth that once you hear it, it goes from your head and it touches you in your heart, in your gut, in a way that you cannot walk away from it and still look yourself in the mirror. So I had to go on a journey of beginning to question, to investigate, what is really the truth.

And I can remember one of the guys, I think it was Thembisu Mashinini who was a brother of one of the leaders of the ’76 uprising in Soweto, saying to me what they did on the day that my grandfather was assassinated – and he said they walked into the streets, they ran into the streets and they took off their shirts and they started dancing because for them it was a day of liberation. So those stories started to creep through – to break through – these defences that I had built up around myself and I had to find a way to come to terms with what the real truth was. And there was a time when it was tempting to say I don’t know what it means to be a white Afrikaner Verwoerd South African. I wanted to run away from my own background and again, it was black South Africans who helped me to say in our culture we respect our ancestors; we’re not asking you to reject your own grandfather; what we’re asking is what can we do together to make a difference. And I came to a point where I realised you cannot run away from the colour of your skin. You cannot run away from your background, middle class – whatever that might be. You cannot run away from your culture. You cannot run away from your religious background.  And you cannot run away from your own family. The question is what are you going to do with those sources of your own identity? How do I find a way to do something constructively with my life? And again, I have many, many people who have helped me along on that journey and it is actually sometimes a source of shame for me that it took so long to get to the point of actual political involvement.

But I just mention one more story because time is limited and you’ve been listening to many things.

But there was a moment and many of us have Madiba moments, but I’ll just share with you the moment that actually was the straw that broke the camel’s back of my fear of actually becoming involved politically.

A few of us in Stellenbosch in the early ’90’s were thinking about joining the ANC. Madiba had just been released. He came to visit us in a home setting, and I was very keen to meet him because when I was a student in Oxford, I already started to change my political views and I wrote a letter to him to try and express my sense of sorry for what my community and my family did to him. It basically was my grandfather who put him in prison for 27 years. I sent the letter, but I never got a reply so this was going to be my opportunity to share this letter with him. It got to the point where it was just a few of us standing and he came in and we greeted each other and I just wanted to jump straight in and I started to tell him what I really felt was heavy on my heart. And as I started to speak, he said basically, “Just wait a minute, can I ask you something first?” And I said, “Of course.”  And he said, “How is your grandmother?”

Now, my grandmother was still alive at the time, living in Oranje, middle of nowhere, 95-96.  This is the wife of the person who basically put him in prison for 27 years. That was his question. And then he went on and said, “If she wouldn’t mind, would you please convey my greetings to her.” And for me, that was just one of those moments of real humanity that I couldn’t resist. And then I got the opportunity to speak to him a little bit about the history and my grandfather and my own responsibilities and my commitment to reconciliation. And again, he didn’t want to speak much about the past, he said, “Yes, we need to deal with it, but let’s find ways to work together.” And that was the find invitation, that brought me to a space to say I am tired of being afraid. I am tired of living in a small, little, white Afrikaner, middle class, Stellenbosch cocoon. I want to be part of this bigger South Africa where everybody, irrespective of their colour and creed and culture, can be at home. And then I became a part of that movement and I can tell you many stories about that but I don’t want to go too much into detail because that’s not the point.

The point that I want to get back to is that through that journey of being willing to be honest, to hear the truths from different perspectives, to meet people at the very human level and not get too stuck in my head, to become vulnerable and be honest also with myself – to go on that kind of journey, I think was the key to get me to the point where this fist that I still had within me, and sometimes it comes back, it doesn’t disappear overnight when I’m in a difficult situation.  That kind of journey of committing to be real to myself and to be real to my fellow South Africans, to be human in the first place – that kind of journey, often involving dialogue, storytelling, spending time with people that you might find difficult to spend time with, going through that kind of process – has helped me to gradually start to open that fist. And because of the help from other people, including people like Madiba, I was able to get to a point where these hands would actually come together. And the bottom line is – yes, it was difficult, there were times where I was not proud anymore, there were times where I had to deal with difficult emotions like shame, guilt and those things… but the bottom line of it has been that by doing that, I became more alive as a human being and that’s the exciting challenge that I think we all face in South Africa. We’ve got huge problems; many things have been referred to especially in the last speaker’s points about how much more we still have to do. But the vision that I hope that you can also share – that I’ve always tried to share with my own children – is that in South Africa, we have an opportunity to really do something meaningful with our lives that is not only going to be significant for South Africa; it is significant for the rest of the world. The many years I’ve spent overseas, in places like Ireland, Northern Ireland, Israel, Palestine, Rwanda, many other places, people look at South Africa as a source of hope. And it is my generation, but it is also your generation that I think has this huge opportunity and responsibility to really show people in the rest of the world that we can live together, even though we are very different in many ways, that we can have a humane society of respect for each other. Where we can deal with the poverty that is continuing to dehumanise so many of our fellow South Africans, and we can do it, not only for our own sakes, but for the sake of the rest of the world.

And I just want to leave you with that vision, that we can come back to those hands of Archbishop Odama, and the reason why we do what we do with our own lives is to contribute to that vision of all the continents, all the genders, all the races, all the cultures. That’s what we’re really are part of with our own lives.

So thank you for this opportunity and I wish you all the best for the way you are going to engage with this journey.

Thank you.