Love and politics

2013-06-24 00:00

THERE are not many authors who can claim to have outsold Fifty Shades of Grey in a week, but former ANC MP, and South African ambassador to Ireland, Melanie Verwoerd, did precisely that.

“I joke with my friends. I say: ‘Isn’t that a huge step for womankind?’,” Verwoerd quipped in an interview to discuss her book, The Verwoerd who Toyi-Toyied.

Verwoerd, who now lives in Dublin with her two children, was in South Africa to promote the book.

First published in Ireland under the title When We Dance, the book is described in the front pages as “a memoir of politics and love”.

But it was the “love” part — relating to Verwoerd’s passionate and tragic love affair with one of Ireland’s most famous citizens, radio broadcaster Gerry Ryan — that saw it flying off the shelves in Ireland late last year.

Such was the public interest in Ryan — and by association, in Verwoerd — that the book sold out its first edition within the first week of hitting the shops last November. In that week, it reached number one on Ireland’s best-seller list, outselling the erotic blockbuster Fifty Shades.

A riveting and often sad read, the book was written mainly to honour a promise Verwoerd made to the controversial Ryan, who died in April 2010, that she would tell the world the “real” story about him.

The book, which is divided into two parts, titled “South Africa” and “Ireland”, respectively, was initially pulled off the shelves amid a rush of national publicity in Ireland after a friend of Ryan’s complained it had slandered him, but the case was withdrawn and Verwoerd put in a clarification.

In the early chapters, the book relates how life took a turn for Verwoerd — a Stellenbosch schoolgirl, who was completely dedicated to her ballet — when she met and fell in love with Wilhelm Verwoerd, the grandson of apartheid architect Hendrik Verwoerd.

She married him at the age of 19, and the young couple attracted international attention when, in the early nineties, they defied all family traditions and joined the African National Congress. Their decision came about after they befriended exiled ANC members abroad while Wilhelm was a Rhodes scholar at Oxford University.

It was a decision that literally saw former friends crossing the street when she approached them.

Verwoerd relates in the book how she went on to become the youngest female ANC MP, and served in the first non-racial Parliament under Nelson Mandela. It goes on to describe how, two children later, her marriage to Verwoerd fell apart and she went on to become South African ambassador to Ireland, and later, head of Unicef in Ireland.

It was in Ireland, a place that she loves for its softness and gentleness (“but South Africa is still home”), where she met, and quite unexpectedly, fell head over heels in love with the hugely popular Ryan.

It is this part of Verwoerd’s story that, because of Ryan’s massive fame in Ireland, had the whole country abuzz and which ended up turning Verwoerd’s life completely upside down. (If Ryan was featured on the front page of any newspaper, sales were, reportedly guaranteed to go up by 30%. It didn’t help that the romance took place in a Catholic country and, at the time of their meeting, Ryan was separated, but not divorced from his wife. On top of that, he was a drinker and an alleged former drug user who was suffering ill health, as well as financial woes.)

In heart-wrenching detail, Verwoerd describes how, what was the love story of a lifetime, came crashing down with Ryan’s premature and sudden death — and, with it, a public and media frenzy that left her shattered. The publicity around his death eventually led to her losing her job at Unicef.

The book describes how, after splitting with Wilhelm, Verwoerd met Ryan. He had interviewed her in relation to her work with Unicef. When he started to call and SMS her while she was helping to deal with post-election violence in Kenya in December 2007, to check on her safety, she realised he had intentions.

Despite Verwoerd’s reservations about his fame and the fact that he was married (although separated), Ryan continued to pursue her. He later told her that the first time he had interviewed her, he vowed that if ever they were both single, he would date her.

It was during their first drink together that she realised this was a man she would love deeply, and she did.

Despite trying to keep their relationship private, the two ended up in the media spotlight.

In the book, Verwoerd relates how, after the initial story of their relationship broke, she expected the “wall-to-wall” coverage to die down.

“After all, how many times can you print that Gerry Ryan is seeing Melanie Verwoerd? I was to learn quickly however, that stories about Gerry sell papers, and so the stories about us kept appearing.”

So, of course, when Ryan died suddenly in his home of cardiac arrhythmia on April 30, 2010, the focus fell on the bereft and distraught Verwoerd, who discovered his body in his Dublin apartment, and, along with her devastated son Wian —

who was writing the equivalent of matric exams at the time — tried to resuscitate him.

The media went berserk again when the inquest into his death revealed that Ryan had been drinking the night before his death and that there was Xanax (sleeping pill), as well as trace amounts of cocaine in his blood.

“The moment cocaine was mentioned there was a sharp intake of breath from the numerous journalists who had packed the room. They ran out to start filing stories. When this happened, I knew that Gerry’s worst fears would come true,” Verwoerd wrote in the book.

In a poignant chapter towards the end of the book, Verwoerd admits that Ryan was a drinker, but insists he was not addicted to cocaine.

“There is no chance I would have missed a cocaine addiction and none of the signs was ever present with Gerry. I spent more than two years with him and we often spent 24 hours a day together for weeks on end … There is no way he could have hidden drug use from me.

“There were minute traces of cocaine found in Gerry’s blood … The coroner made it clear that Gerry died of a cardiac arrhythmia but emphasised that he could not say if, or to what extent, the tiny amounts of cocaine played any role.”

Perceived as “the other woman”, Verwoerd was excluded from the funeral and from saying a proper goodbye to her partner — and, now, was literally being hounded by the media.

“We laugh about it now. After a while, my children and I were convinced that, depending on the knock on the door, and what time of day it was, we knew which publication it was who had arrived at our home. We were nearly always right!”

In the interview, Verwoerd described how, three years after Ryan’s death, she is now on the road to healing.

“You ask me if I am in one piece. Well, I am still breathing, which in itself is good. Writing the book helped.”

Verwoerd said she never expected to meet someone like Gerry … “or that I would fall so deeply in love with him. The intensity of the love caught me unaware.”

Asked what recent events have taught her about life, Verwoerd replied: “The pain and experience of the past three years have made me wary and more cautious of trusting people. “But I have also learnt that there is a lot of goodness in the world.

“When I went through this really dark period in Ireland … people would come up to me in the street and say, ‘I know who you are’ and give me a hug.”

These days, Wilhelm Verwoerd lives in Stellenbosch with his Australian wife, Sharon. Verwoerd will continue living in Dublin with her children, who still describe themselves as South African.

So, what’s next for Melanie Verwoerd?

“The book is the end of an era for me. Now I feel ready to go back to what I am passionate about, which is fighting injustice. And it has to be about Africa and the developing world.”

Would Verwoerd still toyi-toyi for the ANC in its present state?

“I just don’t know enough about the ANC these days,” she replied. “I still have really good friends in the ANC. There are a lot of people I respect deeply.

“The ANC was always a huge, diverse social movement. If I look at Parliament now, there are a lot of people I don’t know. But I am still very positive about South Africa’s future.”

After loving so intensely, is Verwoerd open to meeting anyone else?

“Intellectually, I am open to meeting someone. I know Gerry would have wanted that for me. I hope I will find love again but I don’t know if life allows you to love twice like that.”

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