Melanie Verwoerd

Happy 23rd birthday, South Africa!

2017-04-26 08:23
(Themba Hadebe, AP)

(Themba Hadebe, AP)

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Today 23 years ago I woke up to the ringing of my cellphone just before 5 am. As part of the ANC election committee in Stellenbosch I had not slept for three long nights. The previous night a few of us on the committee sat together on a worn out mattress on the floor of the dusty office close to Du Toit station and wept watching on our little television with bunny ears, the old South African flag being lowered and the new one being raised. 

On this morning someone shouted on the other side of the phone that I should quickly go to Kayamandi to see what was going on. I got dressed and sped through the sleepy streets of Stellenbosch. As I crossed the railway bridge leading to the entrance of Kayamandi, I spotted it: lines and lines of people, barely visible in the rain under the few streetlights. For miles people stood quietly in the cold, wet darkness.

Old people were sitting on oil drums, and those who could not walk were wheeled over in wheelbarrows. Babies were tied to women’s backs with plastic shopping bags made into little hats to keep their heads dry. Even sleepy teenagers were there to see what was going on. They were all there, in line, waiting to vote!

Together with the other election organisers, we went up and down the lines, explaining that there was no need to stand in the rain since the polling booths would not be open for several hours and that there were three days of voting. But over and over we were told to go away, and no one moved. One old man said to me: “Comrade, it is my first and possibly only chance to vote. I will not move until I have done so.”

Of course these scenes were repeated all over South Africa. People waited for hours in mile-long queues – some even sleeping outside overnight. In the Eastern Cape, a very frail, elderly gentleman was wheeled by his grandson into the voting station in a wheelbarrow. He could not read or write, but was assisted by the independent election monitors. He smiled broadly as they marked his finger with the indelible ink. As they left the venue, he suddenly collapsed and died. His final act was to vote. His family believed that he had ‘hung on’ so that his lifelong dream of voting could be fulfilled. When asked how it felt to vote for the first time, an emotional Archbishop Desmond Tutu said: “It is like being asked to describe the colour red to someone born blind – impossible!”

Today as we prepare to celebrate Freedom Day, those emotional days of 1994 feel very far away. As a country we had so many dreams. Of course we were scared, but in those three days as we found each other in the long queues; we started to believe that we could do it. We started to celebrate the triumph of good over evil and we knew we could show the world the best that humanity could offer. 

I, like millions of others, voted and worked for the ANC because we saw something in the policies and leadership of the organisation that aspired to something better for the country and for those who lived in it. “A better life for all,” as the posters said. 

Even though it was rare for a white and especially a Verwoerd to join the ANC, for me it was an obvious and natural thing. I had known at a very early age on my grandparent’s farm that something wasn’t right with race relations. I remember declaring with all the confidence of an eight year-old that things would change when I was big. Even though I cried angry tears when the adults laughed, a firm determination grew in me, that I wanted to be part of fighting injustice. 

Years later on my first day at the lily white Stellenbosch University the left-wing professor of Political Philosophy, Johan Degenaar, started his first class with: “Why do you think you are alive at this time, in this part of the world?” He paused for a few seconds and then said: “Answer that with your soul and you will have more wisdom than most people.” And with those words he walked out of the lecture room.  

It was this question that became my guiding light in years to come. 

Five years later I met Madiba shortly after his release from prison. At that stage I was married to the grandson of HF Verwoerd. After asking about Verwoerd’s widow, Madiba looked at us and said: “Your surname can either become a burden to you in the new South Africa, or you can use it for good. It is up to you to decide what your contribution will be to the history of our country.” There it was again… Why was I alive at this time in this country and with this surname? 

Today I am asking those questions again. As so many millions of people who trusted the ANC with our dreams and hopes, I am desperately disappointed.  But not because I personally feel betrayed. I am angry and sad when I remember those people who stood quietly in line in the rain at five o’ clock in the morning 23 years ago. I want to despair when I think about those babies who are now adults and in most instances don’t have a better future than the mothers on whose backs they were sleeping. 

I know that many of the ANC leaders of those days share my sadness and anger when we listen to the crude racism expressed by some ANC leaders, or the obscene excesses of wealth obtained through corrupt deals or the apartheid style disregard for the law and transparency. 

And so I ask myself again: At this time and in this country, what should I do?

It would be easy to bail out and either “privatise” my citizenship behind the big walls of gated estates or to follow many South Africans abroad. But having worked for South Africa and Africa abroad for many years, I know one thing for sure: my soul belongs to this country. 

During the 13 years that I was away, I discovered with certainty that, even though my ancestors came to this country only 350 years ago, there is no other place that I can call home. This country also belongs to me, as I belong to it and I want to be fully engaged with its challenges, difficult as they might be. 

As a white person, I know that I carry a responsibility to correct the wrongs of the past. However, I will fight those who today want to hide their own failures behind those wrongs. As I fought those who during apartheid used race and fear to mobilise people and distract from their own wrongful deeds, I will fight those who do the same today. And as I fought those who used their positions of power to enrich only a few to the detriment of others, I will fight those who do that today – irrespective of their race. Because I know that South Africa belongs to all who live in it and not to any political party or organisation. 

And in the end I believe that on Freedom Day we should all ask ourselves: “What must I do, given that I am alive at this time, in South Africa?”

- Melanie Verwoerd is a former ANC MP and South African Ambassador to Ireland. 

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Read more on:    nelson  |  mandela  |  freedom day

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