Verwoerd should not be remembered fondly

Tim Crowe says the 'architect of apartheid' missed several key opportunities for reform

Reinterpreting Verwoerd

In his piece Remembering Verwoerd and in previous book-length publications The Afrikaners: Biography of a People and The Last Afrikaner Leaders: A Supreme Test of Power, eminent Afrikaner historian Prof. Hermann Giliomee presents a highly personalized, arguably apologist, perspective on Prime Minister/Dr Hendrik Frensch Verwoerd.  In the end, he concludes that Verwoerd may be an historical “scape goat”. His arguments are not persuasive. 

I guess the primary effect Verwoerd had on Giliomee and many of his adversaries (e.g. Prime Ministers John Diefenbaker and Harold Macmillan, historian C.W. de Kiewiet, editor Allister Sparks, diplomat Dag Hammarskjöld and politician Frederik van Zyl Slabbert) is: mesmerizing.  They agree with Giliomee, regarding Verwoerd as a political “genius” committed unswervingly to the development sensu lato of the Afrikaner volk (especially the poor) mediated through ‘hard-wired’, ‘White’-dominated Apartheid and Separate Development.   

To that end, Verwoerd’s ideological perspective on Apartheid was much more strongly influenced by policies encountered in 1920s USA than those in Germany.  Indeed, many of his German mentors suffered under Nazism. 

Nevertheless, he encouraged pro-Nazi and anti-Semitic journalism and opposed war on Nazi Germany while he was editor of ‘Die Transvaler’.  He never argued for inherent biological ‘White’ superiority over ‘Blacks’.  Moving into politics in 1948, he became Minister of Native Affairs under D.F. Malan and Strydom, and initiated the transformation of native (‘Black’) reserves into autonomous states (Bantustans). 

Now as to why Verwoerd is not a “scape goat”.

Verwoerd engineered J.G. Strydom’s election – over the ‘moderate’ N.C. Havenga – to succeed D.F. Malan as prime minister. Strydom was an aggressive, but not innovative, white supremacist whose political strategy was essentially ‘baasskap’.    His major political ‘achievements’ were an unscrupulous pursuit of removing ‘Coloured’ voters from the common voters roll (opposed by Malan/Havenga) and initiating the failed/protracted Treason Trial of 156 activists (including Nelson Mandela).  Had he not died prematurely, there might have been a much more rapid escalation to violent resistance (and even collaboration between) to this crude, unstructured Apartheid by the ANC/PAC. 

This revolution could (but probably wouldn’t) have precipitated a rapid transition to peaceful compromise.  A more likely scenario would have been an as yet not overwhelmingly dominant National Party being defeated by the United Party (UP), followed by a peaceful transition to more representative government.  But, this would have required the UP being led by someone with the vision of a Jan Hendrik Hofmeyr. As early as the 1930s, Hofmeyr – who died relatively young - opposed the removal of the ‘Black’ and ‘Coloured’ franchises and resigned from the Cabinet and left his party caucus over a political appointment that disadvantaged ‘Coloureds’. 

But that was not to be. 

Strydom died and was replaced in a closely contested competition (against T.E. Dönges who viewed Apartheid as a transitory means to an end) by Verwoerd.

Building on his previous ‘achievements’, Verwoerd immediately, dramatically and relentlessly transformed Apartheid, ‘perfecting’ it into Separate Development to deal with ‘Blacks’ “swarming everywhere, uncounted and uncontrolled”.  In the end, he laid the groundwork for and was the prime mover in drafting and implementing more than 300 oppressive/emasculating acts of legislation including:

1. the Population Registration Act (1950) which required South Africans to be classified and registered according to ‘racial’ characteristics;

2. the Group Areas Act (1950-57) which confined resident racial groups to different housing and business sections - urban apartheid;

3. the ‘Black’ (Natives) Laws Amendment Act (1952) which stipulated that all ‘Blacks’ older than 16 were required to carry passes and could not stay in an urban area more than 72 hours;

4. the Reservation of Separate Amenities Act (1953) which legalized the racial segregation of public premises, vehicles and services;

5. the Bantu Education Act (1953) which suppressed missionary/church school education for ‘Blacks’ and massively developed state-funded, deliberately deficient education;

6. the Promotion of Black Self-Government (‘Homelands’) Act (1958) marketed as ‘decolonization’;

7. the Bantu Investment Corporation Act (1959) to finance Homelands;

8. the Extension of University Education Act (1959) which created separate universities for ‘Blacks’, ‘Coloureds’ and Indians,  and excluding them from ‘White’ universities;

9.  the Physical Planning and Utilization of Resources Act (1967) to promote Homeland industrial development;

10. the displacement of some 80 000 Africans from Sophiatown, Martindale and Newclare to the newly established townships of south-western Johannesburg (Soweto); and

11. with strong support from his minister of justice (Vorster), declarations of state of emergency to repress demonstrations, censorship (via his government’s Publications Control Board) of the press and the banning and imprisonment of anti-apartheid individuals and parties.

In this transformation, Verwoerd was strongly influenced by his ideological partner (perhaps even mentor) Prof. Werner Eiselen. Eiselen had a deep knowledge of African culture and languages and genuinely believed that Separate Development could actually succeed.  De-emphasizing a biologically based racist approach, Verwoerd marketed Separate Development as a cultural/ethnically significant step towards cooperative development of a “commonwealth” of ‘self-governing’ southern African states founded on a "policy of good neighbourliness".  But, Separate Development was always a cunning ploy to promote, if not enshrine, ‘White’ domination.   Eiselen eventually realized this and quietly parted ways with Verwoerd. 

Given what’s happening literally today on South African university campuses, Verwoerd and his henchmen behaved particularly shamefully when they marketed Bantu Education as a means of: salvaging inadequate missionary/church schools, ‘rescuing’ ‘Black’ children from illiteracy and gangsterism and preserving “African heritage”.   

Bantu education, especially in ‘White Areas’, was effectively limited – financially, in curriculum content, years of education and teacher competence – to prevent ‘Black’ development beyond vassal status.  This situation worsened over time.  It had nothing to do with Verwoerd/Eiselen assuming inherent ‘Black’ inferiority or developing them educationally, and was extended to tertiary education at ‘bush’ universities.

In 1961, Verwoerd manipulated voting laws/rights to engineer South Africa’s departure from the anti-Apartheid British Commonwealth and to entice political and economic support from English speaking ‘Whites’ for Apartheid policies.  Thereafter, he subsequently refused to accept ‘Black’ ambassadors from Commonwealth countries or allow ‘non-whites’ to represent (or compete against) South Africa in international sports.

There were key points during 1960-61 which the Verwoerd regime could have exploited to ameliorate the impact of Apartheid: 

1. the aftermath of the Sharpeville Massacre when the economy collapsed and many ‘Whites’ feared violent revolution;

2. when Nelson Mandela sent him two letters offering to create a CODESA-like gathering;

3. Harold Macmillan’s “Winds of Change” speech;

4. UN Secretary General Dag Hammarskjold’s fact-finding visit; and

5. the aftermath of Verwoerd’s first assassination attempt when acting Prime Minister, Paul Sauer (supported by ministers Theophilus Donges and Ben Schoeman and by the nationalist newspaper Die Burger), expressed the need for fundamental reform.

Yet, Verwoerd chose to ‘tough it out’ describing negotiated democracy as a “prescription for chaos and disaster”.   Mandela’s letters were ignored.  

He rebuffed Macmillan with his “we have nowhere to go” reply.  Hammarskjold was sent packing.  Sauer was forced into the political wilderness. Liberal historian C.W. de Kiewieit described this strategy as: “destroying those with whom it could deal and breeding a generation of exiles with whom it will not be able to deal”.  

During the 1960s, Verwoerd also exploited ‘swart gevaar’ generated by turmoil in Africa to the north from ‘forces of evil reign[ing] chaos and genocide in a total onslaught” and the benefits of local massive economic growth (including employment of young ‘Blacks’), international investment and military capacity. 

Lastly, there was the very real danger of an ANC-dominated government transforming South Africa into a communist state.  By the time of his assassination, his power was unassailable. The 1966 South African general election resulted in another comprehensive NP victory (105 vs 49 opposition seats), with Helen Suzman barely retaining her seat.  He had no reason to divert politically.

My own view of Verwoerd is decisively negative.  His toxic implementation of Eiselen’s ‘philosophy’ during his time in power, especially his years as prime minister, caused the cultural, educational, psychological, political and socio-economic emasculation of “non-whites”, especially black Africans.  This precipitated the transformation of the ANC from a non-violent organization into an (albeit ineffectual) revolutionary ‘army’. 

His bumbling and brutal successors followed a tragic political trajectory that further isolated/embittered the ANC/PAC and engendered the development of the Black Consciousness Movement (BCM).  BCM, in turn, has been perverted into a destructive, chaotic force of leaderless, solution-free ‘Fallists’.

Rather than offering a new, improved, principled, socio-educational-economically superior alternative, even as I write, they seem bent on destroying the few remnants of liberal democracy that withstood and, ultimately survived, the Apartheid Era and which are desperately trying to adapt constructively to remedy its effects.

In his various analyses, Giliomee describes Verwoerd as an honest, brilliant, principled, deeply religious, family man and explains his policies and actions within a historical context and based on poor projected demographics for ‘Blacks’.  [Indeed, one of his sons, Wynand Schoombee Verwoerd (b. 1947) became a world-class physicist, rated ‘A’ by South Africa’s National Research Foundation.] But as de Kiewieit states in his frequently cited commentary on Verwoerd, Loneliness in the Beloved Country:  “In any event, an explanation is not a justification”.  In his post-mortem analysis of Verwoerd, Die Beeld editor Schalk Pienaar summed up Verwoerd perfectly:

“Man and policy, creator and creation had grown so much together in the crisis of our time that the one cannot be easily seen as separate from the other”.

Without Verwoerd’s repeated and resolute pivotal political intervention, Apartheid may not have morphed into a “coherent ideology that followers could believe in with utter conviction” and could have fallen three decades earlier.

Emeritus Prof. Tim Crowe