EXTRACT: Verwoerd - My Journey through Family Betrayals

 Verwoerd: My Journey through Family Betrayals written by Wilhelm Verwoerd, published by Tafelberg Publishers.
Verwoerd: My Journey through Family Betrayals written by Wilhelm Verwoerd, published by Tafelberg Publishers.

To best enjoy the beautiful southern view on the Stellenbosch and Kogelberg mountains, Sharon and I put our home's living room on the second storey. This provides an unobstructed view over vineyards stretching up the slopes. To visit our neighbours the Mabelas, as I was doing this morning, one must go from the living room down a few dozen steps to street level. Then there is another stairway up to their front door.

As always, Ouma Emily called out a friendly "Come in!" and I entered to find her sitting on the sofa with the view on Helderberg. She was hemming green, yellow and red kitchen towels that had been cut into quarters. They were going to be mini dishcloths for children in the crèche to dry their dishes.

I went to sit with her on the sofa. Our conversation eventually turned towards the topic of Naledi's schooling in Soweto during the time of Bantu Education.

"I could feel before 16th June 1976 that something was taking place, but I couldn't put my finger on it. One day, my nine-year-old daughter, Naledi, came to me, 'Ma, if you don't see me tonight, don't be surprised.'

"I found out what they were busy with. They were looking through dustbins and taking all the clean ones to a certain spot. They were using the dustbins to store food. We didn't know. We had wondered why the dustbins were disappearing. The food was for those children who were in hiding, those children who were already being hunted by the police. Winter coats would just disappear, such things. We didn't know what was going on, until we heard on the news that the children were dissatisfied because they would now have to learn everything in Afrikaans. Even then, most of our teachers were not trained.

I don't know if it was because of separate education or what, but our teachers were not trained to teach things like maths, science and so on. But they were thrown into classrooms – 'You are a teacher, you teach!' If you don't know maths, how do you teach a child maths?

"We only knew that the teachers were dissatisfied, but we didn't get the true story of what is happening. On the 16th of June my daughter said to me, 'Mummy, are you going to work?'

"I said: 'Yes, fortunately I work nearby, so even if they are struggling with taxis, I will walk back home.'

"She said: 'If I were you, I wouldn't go.'

"I did go to work that day [because] when I got to the clinic there were a lot of police. They said, 'People, you have to go home.'


"'Things are bad. The children are marching.'

"The children were gathering one another from one school to the next, and they were forming this big march to go into town. That's when the trouble started. The police started shooting. There were helicopters, hippos [armoured military vehicles], mellow yellows – that's what we called police cars. It was just busy. Police, police, police with guns, all over. And the hippos with black people in them. I didn't know what language they spoke, I didn't know if they were taken from other countries to come and patrol our streets. With the white guys I was brave enough, I said, 'Guys, what is happening?'

"They would say, 'We have just been told to come here to keep order. We don't like the position we are in, but a job is a job and we have to follow orders.'

"You could see that they were scared. They didn't know what was happening. They were just young white boys who should still be in high school perhaps. They were so young, nothing had been explained to them, they were just thrown into a situation like that. With the black guys you would try and speak to them in English but they would just show that they don't understand. You could see that they were not local.

"On the 16th, everything was so quiet, because as we were coming there was a group of boys who said, 'It is not safe for you to be walking in the streets, let us accompany you and show you shortcuts to get to your homes. Where do you stay?' We gave them our addresses and they started taking us to our homes using not the usual routes, for our safety.

"On the 17th, I couldn't stay home, I said, 'No, man, I can't, because everybody else can stay, except the health workers. Let me go to Baragwanath Hospital, if there is nothing happening in the townships Baragwanath will be open.'

"We had to leave early because the taxi men were also scared for their lives. On the 18th, I still went to Baragwanath. There were lots of young people coming in with injuries. Shot wounds, pellet wounds. Those with pellet wounds would go home with the pellets in their bodies if the doctors were too busy to see them. It was difficult to see those students in their uniforms, still so young.

"It remained tense for quite a long time. I had to go to Coronation Hospital, which was the coloured area, outside of Soweto, not far from what used to be Sophiatown. I had to get there and so the Soweto incidents were far from me, though in Coronation we still got a lot of children that were shot in Soweto. They came to Coronation because casualties wasn't as busy as at Bara."

Ten years later another wave of youth protests gathered momentum in the townships, including Soweto. In the midst of the tragic "liberation before education" strand of the anti-apartheid movement, Emily's resolute commitment to the best possible education for her children had frightening consequences.

"Later, at the beginning of 1986, during a time of school boycotts in Soweto, I took my other daughter and my late son to a boarding school. I didn't want children staying at home. A friend also took her children to a boarding school, in the Free State. Mine were close, in Roodepoort. One night some people knocked on the door and said, 'Mama, we understand that you have taken your children to school. On such-and-such a date, we must find them here.'

"There was lots of open veld around Zone 9 where I lived. On Sunday nights, I would take the children's school clothes and hide them in the veld. Early on Monday mornings, I would fetch the clothes, get a taxi, and take the children to school. I couldn't let any of my neighbours see our activities. It was dangerous. The youth activists came to me: 'Mama, even if nobody saw you, we know that you are taking your children to boarding school.'

"Fortunately, I had made ginger beer so I asked them to sit down. We started talking. I said, 'I see what you are doing is very good, but you must look at the consequences. Winnie Mandela, what is she by profession?'

"They said, 'She is a social worker.'

"'Okay, and Nelson Mandela?'

"'He is an attorney.'

"'Don't you think those people will need somebody to run their offices when they come back? If no one is educated, who is going to run those offices?'

"They looked at me and said, 'What you are saying is sensible.'

"I said, 'We can't all be illiterate, some must study while some are fighting. That is how I see it.'

"They said, 'Yes, we need somebody like you, do you mind if we come again and talk?'

"I said I didn't. So they became regular visitors. I eventually asked for a transfer to the East Rand and moved there because it wasn't healthy anymore for any of us. My children were not safe, I didn't feel safe myself.

"Naledi herself was nearly a victim at one stage, because I forced her to go to school and I forced her to wear a uniform even though it was dangerous. And she was nearly burnt. It was just the Lord's doing [that she wasn't], because the shops were so near, just across the street."

"They were holding her [about thirty metres away from where the shops were]. They had petrol, but they didn't have the matches and nobody thought of just going to the shop to get matches. She was standing there, scared, you know.

"Someone said, 'You know what, we might be making a mistake. Did you ask her where she lives? Maybe she doesn't know what is happening in the townships.' So they asked her and she said, 'Sotepa.'

This was an enclosed area for those working for Oppenheimer. I don't know if they were working in the mines or what, but they had beautiful houses and their area was enclosed. And Naledi told them that she was staying there.

"They said, 'We nearly murdered Oppenheimer's child!'

"Naledi didn't even tell me what had happened. I heard it later from the taxi driver who drove her away. He said, 'Mama, you have a brave girl!' He told me that they'd been ready to throw petrol on her and she didn't even cry.

"You know, sometimes when you are faced with a thing it brings out the best in you. Look at how the Lord does things. Her school bag was there. Nobody even pulled out a book to see her address.

"After that she couldn't wear her uniform. I said, 'You will get your matric, but maybe now is not the right time.'"

Sometimes, Emily explained, children going to school to write exams were beaten by young people wielding sjamboks to prevent them from going to school.

We discussed Sharon's exposure, as a maths teacher in Mitchell's Plain, to the terrible legacy of apartheid education, and how tragic it was that two generations of children (1976 and 1985-86) had experienced all that tension and violence and were unable to go to school and how these people were now the parents of school-going children.

"I had to do two, three jobs to get enough money to keep my children at school. I had an agreement with the manager at the clinic to leave early every day so that I could get to the group of students I was teaching after school. I got home late every day. Naledi had to grow up before her time. She had to cook and clean and look after the young ones before I got home."

Emily recalls a picture on a postcard she was given in 1948 at her first Holy Communion. It was of two children standing before a rickety wooden bridge with several broken slats. Behind them is an angel with his wings around them. The picture has stayed with her as a reminder that God sends angels when things are hard.

As I wearily climbed the steps to my house, I wondered where the angels were in 1948. In 1976? In 1986? Where is heavenly protection against so much ongoing suffering, today? In the face of all she encountered, my neighbour's seven decades of steadfast, rock-like humanity astonishes me.

Ouma Emily and Naledi's experiences estrange me from, among others, my grandmother and especially her "darling", my grandfather. But my faith and commitment to inclusive humanisation means I cannot give up on my blood family. I cannot stop trying to understand and accept them more deeply. Despite the accompanying darkness; even though it often feels impossible and overwhelming to stay on this Verwoerd track and continue on the journey I've started with my new neighbours.

* This extract was taken from Verwoerd: My Journey through Family Betrayals written by Wilhelm Verwoerd, published by Tafelberg Publishers.

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