THE BLOG
27/04/2018 06:48 SAST | Updated 27/04/2018 08:25 SAST

Verwoerd's Great-Grandson: 'Dealing With The Past Is By No Means Easy'

"From my perspective, I have carried with me an obvious and indisputable connection to a painful past."

The South African flag flies at half mast behind the iconic Mandela statue at the entrance of the Groot Drakenstein Prison (formerly Victor Verster Prison) situated in the Cape Winelands outside Cape Town. December 9, 2013.
Mark Wessells/ Reuters
The South African flag flies at half mast behind the iconic Mandela statue at the entrance of the Groot Drakenstein Prison (formerly Victor Verster Prison) situated in the Cape Winelands outside Cape Town. December 9, 2013.

As I enter immigration control at the arrivals hall in Cape Town International Airport, I proudly flash my South African passport to get into the significantly shorter "local" queue. "Counter 3!" an airport attendant shouts, while facing the wrong way and seamlessly continuing a conversation with a colleague.

I'm greeted at the counter by a broad-shouldered black immigration official with a beaming smile. "Welcome home," he says, as he flicks through the pages in my green mamba to find the photo page. He pauses — smile disappearing — looks at me, back at the page and then back at me. "Yoh, yoh, yoh... Verwoerd?" he exclaims in a seemingly sombre manner.

I laugh somewhat awkwardly, and before I can muster a reply, the official regains his infectious smile and says warmly, "Don't worry, Verwoerd; you are still welcome."

It's good to be back home.

The LIFE Images Collection/Getty Images
Dr HF Verwoerd, 'architect of apartheid' and SA prime minister, 1958-1966 — and the author's great-grandfather.

I was asked to write this piece about Freedom Day by an outstanding young academic and friend of mine, Lufefe Boss. The piece he suggested could be about the various freedoms that South Africans enjoy.

So I sat at my desk, as a white, middle-class, cisgender, straight male, and thought: "Well, this should be a walk in the park." But as I sat and thought, I ended up shying away from the obvious and bountiful freedoms and privileges that have been afforded to me. Instead, I ended up fixating on the things that I am not and never will be free from — my kin and my skin.

A focus on intergenerational conflict often falls by the wayside in times of transition and transformation. This is understandable, given the plethora of pressing social, civic, political and economic challenges facing our young democracy. I do believe, however, that there lies great potential within this thorny field of focus.

The first step towards unlocking this potential is to tackle this issue head-on by naming a few facts —backed up by an extremely rudimentary understanding of science. Biologists out there, bear with me — or please switch your devices to aeroplane mode now.

This challenge — of dealing with the past — is by no means easy. It involves, in whiteness' case, questioning those whom you hold dearest and value most – previous generations of relatives.

I am made up of my parent's genes and they, in turn, of their parents', and so on and so forth. It is a biological reality that these people are a part of me. Some people carry less obvious connections to the past than others and over time, the strength of this connection fades, making it harder to find and easier to dispute.

But the connection is still there. Millennials, think wi-fi router. From my perspective, I have carried with me an obvious and indisputable connection to a painful past.

I have been forced to confront this connection by a vast array of people, including myself, my (often divided) family, friends, drunken pool players at the Shack, and of course, immigration officials.

My lineal connection, as the great-grandson of HF Verwoerd — known by many as the "architect of apartheid" — places me in a somewhat challenging position. One which many other white and Afrikaans-speaking youth find themselves in today — some more obviously than others. Here, one can deny or accept the challenge.

Juda Ngwenya / Reuters
A man watches the bust of Hendrik Verwoerd being removed from the entrance of Pretoria's main hospital.

This challenge — of dealing with the past — is by no means easy. It involves, in whiteness' case, questioning those whom you hold dearest and value most — previous generations of relatives. In many cases, it may prove easier to internalise, individualise and resist this intergenerational tension.

For if I say that apartheid was evil, does that make my (grand)parents so? A divergent trend that I am increasingly beginning to notice within youthful whiteness is the desire to "move on".

This response is understandable, given the lack of direct responsibility that the youth of today carry for the past. However, if my life experience (and Critical Race Theory, for that matter) has taught me anything thus far, it's that you always carry the past with you.

Furthermore, given that previous generations are a part of me, refusing to accept this connection to the past ends up rejecting a part of myself. Without this unconditional acceptance of who I am as a person, I cannot expect to build meaningful relationships with people of colour in South Africa.

Following this individualised acceptance comes acceptance of a shared responsibility — but this deserves its own piece. Ultimately, intergenerationality not only works looking backwards, but also looking forward. Though the connection to the past may weaken, it remains and simply becomes harder for the next generation to find and deal with.

Perhaps collectively we can find answers to these challenging questions, noting the complexity of responsibility that arises from the various freedoms afforded to whiteness.

But what does it mean for me, as a white 25-year-old, to establish present-day responsibility for past actions and the ways in which I have benefited from systemic injustice? What does it look like in practice?

Perhaps collectively we can find answers to these challenging questions, noting the complexity of responsibility that arises from the various freedoms afforded to whiteness. Indeed, the road ahead for South Africa is laden with challenges.

These should be provided with a welcoming port of entry by current generations of white South Africans, as they offer opportunities to aid in strengthening our country's connectivity.