Wilhelm Verwoerd: Reconciliation requires more than 'tea with Madiba'

President Nelson Mandela visits Betsie Verwoerd in Orania as a gesture of reconciliation. Photo: Archive
President Nelson Mandela visits Betsie Verwoerd in Orania as a gesture of reconciliation. Photo: Archive

If white people profess to remember Mandela warmly, but do this only within our comfort zones, from behind our security walls, what does it say about our commitment to his vision of racial inclusivity, asks Wilhelm Verwoerd.

Today all South Africans are invited again to celebrate the life and legacy of former president Nelson Mandela. A part of me is encouraged by how many white South Africans will do this also in practical ways, for at least 67 minutes. However, the more time I spend with young black South Africans, the more troubled I become by the way those racialised as white typically embrace "Madiba" in post-1994 South Africa.

I am increasingly haunted by this question: to what extent does my comfortable acceptance of the generosity of spirit of a smiling, grandfatherly President Mandela contribute to the disillusionment of younger South Africans of colour with "Mandela the sell-out"?

The urgent question I therefore want to pose today to myself and people with a similar historical racial identity is: how can we really honour our first democratic president without domesticating his true legacy? How do people like us remember Madiba without betraying Mandela?  

I hasten to acknowledge the intersectional diversity amongst us as "white" South Africans, in terms of the complex interplay of race, class, gender, sexual orientation, age, family, region, religion and personality in our lives. But, especially on the birthday of Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela, at a time when the language of "post-apartheid" South Africa increasingly rings hollow, I do believe it is appropriate to zoom in on the ongoing legacy of generations of systematic pre-1994 racial discrimination. It is of course very tempting to rather focus on the deeply disturbing revelations of, for example, the Zondo commission. But in white circles, I believe, we can only legitimately criticise (many) post-1994 black politicians and their associates if we also face up to our shared historical responsibility.

In a recent book I grapple more fully with what this shared responsibility means for me as a white South African, who happens to also be a grandson of Dr HF Verwoerd, widely remembered as the "architect of apartheid". In the spirit of trying to ground my remembrance of President Mandela today I want to return to just one anecdote from Verwoerd: My Journey through Family Betrayals.

In the process of writing this book I sat down with my 70-something neighbour, Emily Mabeba, and humbly asked her, "Ma Emily, could you please tell me more about your experiences during the time of my grandfather?" Over the next couple of days she graciously gave me a deeper glimpse of what the pass law system, "Bantu Education", racial segregation and forced removals really meant in grinding, daily, dehumanising practice. She shared many experiences like this one: "When I was working at Baragwanath Hospital I was earning R300 a month. And this white guy was a porter. He didn't even finish his high school. He was earning R900! He even said to me, 'let me see your cheque'. I showed him and he said, 'Wow! Here I am in this uniform and you are earning so little. Look at me!' I said, 'wow!' And he said, 'Yes… my VEL is my GRAAD!'"

I did finish high school. And I studied very hard at university. But Ma Emily's experiences highlighted with renewed intensity the many ways in which my "VEL" (skin) was not only my "GRAAD" (degree). Apart from access to excellent education, my skin was also my key to live and work and move around and own property in more than 80% of South Africa – without being regularly harassed or constantly humiliated. My secure family and stable sense of community were not disrupted, uprooted, violated, because I happened to be classified "white". "My vel is my graad", is, tragically, but the tip of a large iceberg.

In many ways this systemic, racialised privileging continues to benefit people like me, even though these benefits seem to lurk mostly below the surface of white political awareness. The fruits of these my-vel-is-my-graad benefits are being enjoyed by my twenty-something children as well. It is very tempting for their generation and mine to focus on our individual experiences and become frustrated, to forget to zoom out to the bigger historical picture when faced with misapplied affirmative action or black anger towards whiteness. When I struggle to get a job as a white person, I just have to drive past the sea of shacks between Stellenbosch and Cape Town, or visit the township high school where my wife is trying to teach Maths, to be reminded of the glaring, unequal legacies of unjust white privilege.

By highlighting these legacies on a day like today I am hoping to contribute to the uncomfortable remembrance of Mandela the freedom fighter, especially in white middle class circles, as a route to reclaiming his dream of genuine racial transformation. I am acutely aware that President Mandela's magnanimous efforts at reaching out to white South Africans during the fragile infancy of our democracy is now undermining his legacy amongst justly impatient, Fallist South Africans. A highly symbolic example of those reconciliatory efforts was him going all the way to the remote, whites-only Afrikaner enclave of Orania to have tea with my 94-year-old grandmother, Betsie Verwoerd, in August 1995.

For me, this visit used to be a deeply encouraging symbol of his vision of radical inclusivity and costly reconciliation. Today, when I look back at how (most) white South Africans have responded to this vision, I am increasingly troubled by the symbolism of this extraordinary tea ceremony. Of course, there are many good reasons for wanting to keep one's distance from the "racist Boere" in Orania. Still, if white people profess to remember Mandela warmly, but do this only within our comfort zones, from behind our security walls, what is really going on here?

If people with my skin colour occasionally (for example, on July 18) "reach out" to impoverished black South Africans, but basically remain in control, engaging on our terms without risking vulnerability, does the line between us and the white grandma in the Orania tea ceremony become more blurred than we might want to admit? Is an all-too-comfortable white embrace of "Madiba" that different from Ouma Betsie's tea with President Mandela?

I believe, therefore, that among white South Africans, we urgently need the kind of historical re-education gifted by having unrushed tea with the Ma Mabebas of our beloved country. We need to commit ourselves today to the lifelong, creative, non-paternalistic, restitutional sharing of our privileges, as embodied by the work of the Restitution Foundation and young Afrikaner "betereinders". Then our rehumanising kinship with Madiba will, at last, become real.

- Wilhelm Verwoerd is a researcher and facilitator with the Historical Trauma and Transformation Unit at Stellenbosch University.

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