Melanie Verwoerd: It’s alarmingly good to be home

2014-05-25 15:00

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Absence may make the heart grow fonder, but it also makes you forget how to use a burglar alarm.

When MelanieVerwoerd moved back to South Africa last year after 12 years ?abroad, she accidentally tripped the alarm “more than 10 times” while staying with family in Cape Town over the December holidays.

One night, home alone, the alarm went off in the early hours. “Of course, two minutes later, a burly man arrived, armed to the teeth, saying ‘can I come in?’ I was thinking, ‘I don’t even know you’, but I invited him in to inspect the property and we ended up talking about Madiba’s death over coffee and rusks.”

In 1994, at the age of 26, MelanieVerwoerd became the youngest MP in Parliament’s history. Her surname alone was always going to grab headlines. She got the name by marriage to her now ex-husband, Wilhelm, the grandson of apartheid’s architect, Hendrik Verwoerd.

Wilhelm was disowned by his furious father when his and Melanie’s ANC membership made headlines in the early 1990s when the organisation was newly unbanned. After the divorce, Melanie decided to keep the surname – because of a difficult relationship with her father. She had already changed her birth surname (Van Niekerk) in her late teens and so, she reasons, she has now been a Verwoerd longer than she’s been anything else.

At 47, she’s older and a little wiser. Her shoulder-length hair, once strawberry blonde, is dyed dark and her freckles are less pronounced, but there is still a lot left of the Melanie I knew from Stellenbosch – familiar, friendly and brave almost to the point of naivety.

Now, as she settles into her new life in her old city, she sees South Africa “like a new person again, like someone seeing it from the outside”.

The R5 dips in the LongStreet Baths with black, coloured and white bathers, walks along Sea Point promenade and the availability of good decaf coffee are some of the things that have her hooked on Cape Town all over again.

Verwoerd’s move to Ireland in 2001 as a South African ambassador kept her squarely in the spotlight.

When her diplomatic term ended in 2006, she landed the prestigious job of executive director of Unicef in Ireland. But this ended badly in 2011 when she was dismissed because of media headlines that followed the death of Irish celebrity broadcaster GerryRyan, whom she became involved with after her divorce from Wilhelm.

Ryan, whom Verwoerd describes as “the love of my life”, died suddenly in 2010 – Verwoerd found his body. An inquest called it “death by misadventure”, a heart attack brought on by cocaine, small traces of which were found in his blood.

The Irish tabloids went to town on the story and Verwoerd’s name was once again in the headlines. She subsequently sued Unicef for unfair dismissal and the case was settled out of court last year, with the organisation issuing a statement clearing her name.

Devastated by Ryan’s death and jobless in Dublin, Verwoerd wrote a book about her life, The Verwoerd who Toyi-Toyied. During a publicity tour to South Africa, she made up her mind to come home, leaving her two grown-up children in Ireland to finish their studies.

For now she lives in her sister’s apartment on the slopes of Table Mountain with views of the city and the sea. We chat on her homely, cat-battered sofa, shipped back with her other furniture from Dublin.

Verwoerd is still connected to her old comrades. Finance Minister PravinGordhan invited her to his budget speech in February.She says she may return to politics.

In April, she became executive director of an American charity, Tremendous Hearts, which places high-skilled volunteers like medical professionals and teachers in community projects in South Africa.

Her next book, titled Our Madiba, about the stories of ordinary people’s meetings with Nelson Mandela, will be on the shelves in July.

“I seem to bump into former colleagues from Parliament all the time,” she says. “We hug, joke and then commiserate about how old we have become, usually when we compare photographs of our ‘babies’, who are now adults.”

Several months after her return to South Africa, Verwoerd says she’s happy for the first time in four years.

“The longing to be back home became too big. The ache just grew and grew and grew,” she says. “I always said South Africa is the country of my heart. Europe might be the place for my head, but my heart will always be here.”

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