Remembering Verwoerd

Hermann Giliomee on the 'architect of apartheid', 50 years after his assassination

Hendrik Verwoerd

When one thinks of Hendrik Verwoerd, who was assassinated fifty years ago, one thinks immediately about the issue of guilt. There exists a rare consensus in our politics today that South Africa is not a happy, prosperous society today because of Verwoerd.

In the book The Sense of an Ending by Julian Barnes, which won the Man Booker Prize in 2011, the function of singling out a guilty one is neatly delineated. A character poses the question: “Isn’t the whole question of ascribing responsibility a kind of copout? We want to blame an individual so that everyone else is exculpated or we blame a historical process as a way of exonerating individuals.”

Today Hendrik Verwoerd is above all the individual singled out for all the disasters and calamities that South Africa has experienced since 1966. In general blacks blame whites, white English-speakers blame the Afrikaners, the Boland Afrikaners blame the Transvalers and everyone blames Verwoerd.

I was a student at the University of Stellenbosch during the time that Verwoerd was Prime Minister. Like most of my friends we tended to follow the lead of Piet Cillié, the redoubtable editor of Die Burger, who occasionally clashed with Verwoerd over apartheid. Yet a meeting I had with Verwoerd in 1960 always made me hold back from full-throated condemnation whenever I would write about him over the following fifty years.

Along with a few other friends of Siebert Wiid, I spent the Winter holiday of 1960 on the farm of his father, called Welgevonden, near Groblersdal in the Transvaal. A few days after our arrival the Verwoerd couple arrived to stay for week-end. He was scheduled to address a meeting where a large crowd was expected to turn out since it was his first public meeting after a failed assassination attempt three months earlier.

The Welgevonden week-end with the Verwoerds and Wiids was a memorable occasion. I sat next to Dr. Verwoerd at mealtime and marvelled at the calm and utterly persuasive way he formulated his point of view. After he had spoken it was very difficult not to come away convinced.

Fifty years later I judged Verwoerd more favourably in my The Last Afrikaner Leaders: A Crucial Test of Power (Tafelberg) than is normally done. My judgement of the man had much to do with the personal contact I had with him during that memorable weekend in 1960, as I had experienced the force of his personality and persuasive powers first hand.

The Cape Town publisher Koos Human recorded a similar experience in his memoirs. He asked Dr Verwoerd, who was Prime Minister at the time, to write a preface for José Burman’s manuscript on the Boland’s mountain passes. Like his wife, Verwoerd had been an avid mountaineer in his student days. Verwoerd invited Human and Burman to his office where he told them that he had read the entire manuscript and written the preface himself. 

In a monologue of ten minutes he spoke with considerable expertise about mountain passes and made suggestions for another book on the subject. Human, who was not a NP supporter, writes in his memoirs ‘n Lewe met boeke (2006): “Never before or since was I in the presence of such an incredibly dominant personality. After this encounter I had no doubt that he had his cabinet, caucus and party totally under his control.”

Verwoerd was also able to impress those who were fiercely hostile to apartheid. In his book Op `n gelop na Buckingham Palace (2011) Naas Steenkamp, an ex-diplomat, tells of an encounter with John Diefenbaker, the Canadian Prime Minister. Along with the African and Asian heads of state he wanted to expel South Africa during the Commonwealth conference in 1961. Diefenbaker described Verwoerd as follows: “I actually had a very high regard for Dr Verwoerd. One could not help admiring him although he was such an impossible fellow. He was one of the most intelligent politicians I have ever met. But he was very rigid and very wrong.”

Diefenbaker told Steenkamp that if Verwoerd allowed a number of directly elected black representatives into Parliament the pressure on him would immediately have been relieved. South Africa would in all probability still have been in the Commonwealth.

In 1960 Nelson Mandela, standing trial on a charge of treason, made a similar proposal in a personal letter to Verwoerd. He had to allow blacks to elect sixty parliamentary representatives, Mandela wrote. This form of representation, would have to be reviewed every five years. Sixty representatives would constitute a third of all representatives. It takes little imagination that an alliance would have immediately been formed between the more liberal members of the United Party and the black representatives. They would have had a good chance of taking over power and writing a new constitution. It would almost certainly mean the destruction of the National Party. It could also have constituted a trigger for civil war.

Dr. Verwoerd’s office never acknowledged receipt of Mandela’ letter, but the latter later conceded that the tone of the letter might have had something to do with that. At a dinner after the Commonwealth conference of 1961 Verwoerd spelled out a plan for a system in South Africa modelled on the Commonwealth in which leaders of the different ethnic groups would regularly meet and discuss policy. Although this plan was not properly fleshed out it caught the imagination of my generation of Stellenbosch students in the early 1960s.

One of them was Frederik van Zyl Slabbert, who came from Johannesburg to find the university in Stellenbosch captivated by Verwoerd and the apartheid ideology. Apartheid had been reshaped by Verwoerd from a loose set of beliefs into a coherent ideology that followers could believe in with utter conviction. Slabbert would in an interview with the Sunday Times of 19 April 1981—he was then leader of the Progressives – tell of “the excitement, even the thrill” of academics and students in discussing this ideology. He added that it had “a coherence and systematic quality which cannot be dismissed as racism pure and simple”. It “made logical sense and addressed some very prickly issues.”

This feeling was not restricted to Afrikaner nationalists. Allister Sparks, later editor of the Rand Daily Mail, told me how as a young reporter he was captivated when Verwoerd, sitting on a bed in his hotel room, explained his policy to him.

In 1964 C.W. De Kiewiet, the most admired liberal historian, wrote in the prestigious US journal Foreign Affairs that Verwoerd was confronting the country’s grave problems with “boldness, shrewdness and even imagination”. It was, he indicated, by no means absurd to suggest a comparison between Verwoerd and Charles de Gaulle, “the stern, headstrong but deeply imaginative leader of France”.[1]

On what basis did De Kiewiet pass this judgement? A clue may be his disillusionment with the newly independent states in Africa. Democracies had been replaced by corrupt dictatorships in Ghana and Sudan; there were ethnic massacres in the Congo; and bloody strife was sapping the prospects of Zanzibar. Most commonly, there was a perversion of the democratic system into one-party rule accompanied by the arrest and expulsion of dissenting leaders without even any pretence of trial by law.

One can add a factor that De Kiewiet does not mention. As long as the Soviet Union propagated socialism, which appeared to be working at the time, radical politicians would continue to be attracted to it. There was no reason why an African National Congress government that unexpectedly came to power in the early 1960s would not want to experiment with it. Nelson Mandela after all briefly attended meetings of the executive of South African Communist Party during the early 1960s.

Implicit in De Kiewiet’s assessment is the question: how could voters be persuaded to accept majority rule if there was a good chance that South Africa could follow this negative route independent African states seemed to be following? De Kiewiet noted that liberals were showing “respectful interest” in the concept of Bantustans. His own view was that while the homelands did not offer a major solution to black and white relationships, “the Bantustan experiment” nevertheless had some appeal because “it promises an enlarged political experience and establishes an enlarged area of experiment”. It offered “some relief from the political rightlessness in the white areas”.[2]

De Kiewiet understood that an abrupt and violent change in the political system would disrupt the conditions needed for economic development. The South African liberal, he added, was “searching desperately to find a way between the two unacceptable alternatives of economic chaos and human despair.”

What went wrong with Verwoerd’s plans? “Demography is destiny” So wrote the French sociologist Auguste Comte nearly two centuries ago and it is as true as ever. Verwoerd’s policy was based on the projections made by the Stellenbosch demographer Jan Sadie during the early 1950’s. Sadie admitted later that the demographic tools were still inadequate to project the growth of a still predominately rural African population.

In 1951 Sadie projected that the total black population would reach the figure of 19 million by the year 2000. The real figure turned out to be 34 million. Verwoerd totally overestimated the potential of the homelands to feed their own inhabitants and the ability of influx control to stem the migration to the towns and the cities. Sadie also projected two to three millions blacks living in the big cities by the year 2000. In actual fact there were 15 million. 

Initially Western governments watched the Bantustan experiment with some interest but the intensification of the Cold War from the early 1960s changed all that. Africa, after all, was one of the great prizes in the battle between the Super Powers and its leaders wanted nothing to do with the homelands.

In Verwoerd’s last month in office Time magazine put his photograph on its cover. It was highly critical of apartheid, but observed that South Africa was in the middle of a massive boom. Attracted by cheap labour, a gold-backed currency and high profits, “investors from all over the world had ploughed money into the country. Production, consumption and the demand for labour [were] soaring”. Time magazine wrote: Verwoerd was ‘”one of the ablest white leaders Africa has ever produced”.[3]

Two weeks before his death, the Rand Daily Mail wrote: “Dr Verwoerd has reached the peak of a remarkable career … The nation is suffering from a surfeit of prosperity.’” The day after his death the same paper paid tribute to the leader who had refined the crude ideology of white supremacy “into a sophisticated and rationalised philosophy of separate development”.[4] In 1967 the Financial Mail, South Africa’s premier financial magazine, celebrated the period 1961 to 1966 as the “Fabulous Years”, a period in which South Africa’s Gross National Product rose by 30% in real terms.[5]

Some modest redistribution did take place. In 1964 Harry Oppenheimer, head of Anglo-American Corporation, remarked that in the previous five years the average wages of ‘non-white’ workers in secondary industry had risen by 5.4% (against those of whites at 3.7%) per year. This explained, Oppenheimer said, why the country was “so much more stable than many people are inclined to suppose”.[6]

This was of little comfort to blacks living in dire poverty in the reserves. For them the only glimmer of hope was the prospect of a job, albeit one at a very low wage. In 1965, 73.6% of new entrants to the labour market were absorbed into the formal sector, a rate never achieved before. It would rise to 76.6% in 1970, but dropped to 43.4% in 1998.[7]

There is some speculation that Verwoerd may have changed his mind about apartheid. Nationalist MP and chief whip Koos Potgieter later told business magnate Anton Rupert that a day or two before he died Verwoerd had confessed to him that the existing policy was impractical and impossible to implement. There had to be a change of course, but it could not be done abruptly.

A new policy may have looked like the one that was on the table in the talks held early in 1961 by Verwoerd and Dag Hammerskjold, UN Secretary General, who had flown to South Africa to discuss the violation of human rights. Instead of only the one meeting that was scheduled they met six times. Hammerskold insisted that the homelands policy represented only a partial solution and that blacks living outside the homelands had to enjoy the same rights, including full citizenship, that were given to guest workers in the Western countries. Verwoerd did not reject the proposal out of hand.

I believe that Verwoerd was capable of embarking on a new, more productive policy. But those who share this view is a small minority. In the sorry situation our country is in today people want to single out a scape goat and no one serves that function as well as Dr. Hendrik Frensch Verwoerd.

Hermann Giliomee is the author of The Last Afrikaner Leaders: A Crucial Testof Power (Tafelberg, 2012).


[1] De Kiewiet, ‘Loneliness in the Beloved Country’, pp. 413-27. ‘Oh, you remind me of De Gaulle, you are the same type’, British prime minster, Harold Macmillan, remarked in a conversation with him after Verwoerd, on the grounds of principle, refused to concede something. See Betsie Verwoerd, ‘Eggenoot’, Wilhelm Verwoerd (compiler), Verwoerd: So onthou ons hom, p. 50.

[2] De Kiewiet, ‘Loneliness in the Beloved Country’, pp. 424-25.

[3] Time, 26 August 1966, pp. 20-25.

[4] Rand Daily Mail, 7 September 1966.

[5] Financial Mail, 14 July 1967, Supplement, p. 59.

[6] Anglo-American Corporation, Chairman’s Statement in 1964 Annual Report, p. 2.

[7] Personal communication from Jan Sadie, 23 July 2002.