Author interview: The Verwoerd who Toyi-Toyied

2013-05-26 14:00

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Carien du Plessis speaks to a Verwoerd who is still swimming upstream.

Melanie Verwoerd was an ANC activist in the early 1990s, and it is this period in her life that gave birth to some of the more hilarious bits in her new book.

In The Verwoerd who Toyi-Toyied, out this week, she tells of the occasion when a life-size bust of Hendrik Verwoerd – a loving gift from a Northern Cape community during a campaign – had to travel on the backseat of her little Golf back home, perched somewhat uncomfortably between two of her comrades.

And when she was an MP, one of her Stellenbosch constituents came to her for advice.

He said the ANC had promised a better life for all but he couldn’t, well, get it up – so the ANC had to help him out, and he was serious about it.

Melanie’s career is a far cry from her girlhood dream of becoming a ballerina.

Aged 27, she became the youngest MP at the time, in 1994.

Then she served a term as South Africa’s ambassador to Ireland, after which she was appointed to the prestigious position of head of the UN Children’s Fund (Unicef) in the same country.

But the event that eventually pushed her to write her story was when, three years ago, she found the love of her life, celebrity Irish radio broadcaster Gerry Ryan, dead.

There was huge controversy, with headlines speculating that he was using drugs.

When I knew her and her sisters in Stellenbosch in the 1990s, Melanie was a feisty political and feminist activist – a small but level-headed and courageous woman whose strawberry red hair, freckles and glasses made her look somewhat nerdy.

She was married to former apartheid prime minister HF Verwoerd’s grandson, Wilhelm, and they had two children in their early 20s.

Even though their home life was, on the surface, conventional, their political beliefs strained their relations with the family.

Meeting her again for the first time in many years, in the study of the Joburg home of her sister (a successful advocate), she is still the same down-to-earth Melanie.

“How is your mum? And your dad?” she wants to know. She mentioned both in her book because politics brought them close in the 1990s.

Now 46, Melanie still looks young, but her hair is dark and long, the freckles less pronounced, her eyes wiser.

She is still also very much an activist, although the storm that her personal, and eventually professional, life has been in the past three years, brought this activism closer to home.

This is because she had promised Ryan she would tell his side of the story, and she set out to do so after the media vilified him.

The inquest found there were minute traces of cocaine in his blood, but Melanie insists there was no way he was a drug addict.

She says: “This book came from a promise I made to Gerry two weeks before he died. He asked me I must promise I will talk about him after he dies.

“I thought it would be an easy promise, because we would be together for another 20 or 30 years.”

Even though Ryan was separated from his wife, he could, under Irish law, only get a divorce after four years.

This meant he was married for the almost three years they were together. Melanie was divorced from Wilhelm by then, but the Irish tabloids were unforgiving.

Melanie became famous for reasons she, as an intensely private woman, would perhaps not have wanted.

As a feminist, I have two questions. First, how is it that she kept her married surname, Verwoerd, after her divorce? Some have suggested it’s for easy publicity.

Melanie was born Van Niekerk, but in her late teens asked to be adopted by her mother’s second husband (whose surname was Fourie) because she didn’t get on with her biological dad. She married Wilhelm two years later.

“So I have been Verwoerd for 26 years – much longer than any other surname. Of course, the symbolism played a role during the 1994 elections.

But after that I don’t think it had any effect,” she says.

“The surname has no impact abroad except that people can’t spell or pronounce it. In Ireland, the book had a different title: When We Dance, but here the publishers insisted on the current title. It wasn’t my choice,” she says.

My second question is how a feminist like her could write a book in which more than a third focuses on a man she loves.

Her reasons for writing the book were deeply personal, partly because of the promise, but also to get the press off her back, she says.

“I was not going to write a kiss-and-tell book. I wanted to tell my whole story and how Gerry fitted into my life. It would have been weird to have written the details without Gerry. I suggested to the publishers that I shorten the Gerry bit of my life for the South African edition, but they felt it was an important part of the story. It was about the derailing of my life.”

She says the book also addresses wider issues, like the media’s impact on people’s private lives and “the struggle” she had with trying to keep her “balance as a second partner in a very strict Catholic country, and how to go through pain like that when in mourning”.

The book got a positive reception in Ireland, but some celebrities tried to discourage people from reading it.

“They merely said I didn’t have the right to write the book. Having grown up under apartheid and censorship, I

felt unhappy that some people said I didn’t have the right to tell my story.”

Melanie wrote the book after she was fired by Unicef (in the book she explains it was because of the controversy around Gerry’s death, but a recent settlement with her former employer means she can’t talk about it any more).

At the end of this book, it’s clear her grief is still pretty raw – wasn’t it too soon?

“If I waited much longer, the lies about Gerry would become more ingrained,” she said. “I was conscious that I was still raw.”

Melanie is guarded when it comes to expressing her opinions on South African politics, and especially about the ANC after Nelson Mandela (whom she was privileged to have worked with and met numerous times).

“It is hard to comment on South African politics when you are so far away. We only get the headlines (which have been really negative of late), but I know from travelling a lot that the problems we deal with here are not unique,” she says.

“I’m positive about South Africa’s future, I really am.”

Melanie is still considering her next career move.

Will she ever come back?

“My heart and soul is in Africa. As I say in the book, I stand with my feet in both worlds. I can talk on behalf of Africa and the developing world, and if I can’t do that, I will come back. It’s not whether I will come back, but when.”

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