South Africa: Overcoming Apartheid

Hendrik Frensch Verwoerd

(September 8, 1901 - September 6, 1966)

Academic, politician, prime minister and ideologue, Verwoerd is remembered as the architect of the racist laws and segregation practice known across the globe as ‘grand apartheid’.

Hendrik Verwoerd was born in Amsterdam, Holland on 8 September 1901. He was the second child of Anje Strik and Wilhelmus Johannes Verwoerd. His father was a shopkeeper and a deeply religious man who decided to move to South Africa in 1903 because of his sympathy towards the Afrikaner nation after the South African War. The Verwoerd family settled in South Africa for ten years, after which they moved to Bulawayo, Rhodesia where the elder Verwoerd became an assistant evangelist in the Dutch Reformed Church. After four years they returned to South Africa and settled in Brandtfort, in the Orange Free State.

Young Hendrik proved himself to be an able student at the Lutheran School in Wynberg and the Wynberg High School for Boys. In Rhodesia Verwoerd attended Milton High School where he did so well that he was awarded the Beit Scholarship. After refusing this because of his family’s move back to South Africa, he took the matric exam and came first in the Free State and fourth in South Africa.

After his schooling, he proceeded to study theology at the University of Stellenbosch, later changing to psychology and philosophy. He was awarded an MA and a doctorate in philosophy, both cum laude, and turned down a scholarship to Oxford University in London, opting to continue his studies in psychology in Germany. In Hamburg he married a fellow student from Stellenbosch and returned home in 1927 to lecture at his old university. He was appointed to the chair of Applied Psychology and six years later also became Professor of Sociology and Social Work. During the Depression years Verwoerd became active in social work among poor white South Africans. This drew him into politics and in 1937 he was offered the editorship of ‘Die Transvaler’ with the added responsibility of helping to rebuild the National Party (NP) in the Transvaal.

Verwoerd was a staunch republican and befriended Nationalist leader J.G. Strijdom. He also declared himself strongly in favour of racial segregation by attacking the United Party policy of ‘pampering, levelling and living together’. In 1938 he published a poster condemning mixed marriages depicting a black man and white woman living in poverty. Jews were also sharply criticized as a result of the important professional positions they held, which were seen as a threat to Afrikaners. There is no doubt that many of his racist and anti-Semitic views were in sympathy with ‘master-race’ ideologies current in Germany at that time.

During World War II the Johannesburg ‘Star’ accused Verwoerd’s ‘Transvaler’ of taking a pro-Nazi stand. This prompted him to sue the ‘Star’s’ owners for libel, but the judge ruled against him and accused his newspaper of being helpful to the German propaganda machine. Following the war his republican sentiments again manifested themselves in 1947 when he issued instructions to his newspaper staff that they were to ignore the British royal family’s visit to South Africa that year. The following year, when the National Party led by D.F. Malan came into power, he left his position as editor to represent the NP in the Senate. He rose to Cabinet level in 1950 as Minister of Native Affairs and was responsible for the displacement of some 80 000 Africans from Sophiatown, Martindale and Newclare to the newly established townships of southwestern Johannesburg (Soweto). Verwoerd was also in charge of African education, which he believed should be adapted to the economic life of Africans in South Africa. In reality this was a veiled way of ensuring that the benefits of higher education, good jobs and economic advancement would be closed to Black people in perpetuity. It was here that he made his infamous statement regarding the limitation of the black academic curriculum to basic literacy and numeracy because Africans were meant to be ‘hewers of wood and drawers of water’ only.

Verwoerd became Prime Minister in 1958 on the death of J.G. Strijdom, realizing his republican dream two years later when a white referendum supported his plea for a republic. This was also the first time in 12 years of government that the National Party was able to gain a majority in the white electorate. Given this mandate Verwoerd then engineered a confrontation with fellow heads-of-state at the 1961 Commonwealth meeting and unilaterally took South Africa out of the Commonwealth. However, his triumph was short-lived and within a few years, thanks to his policies, South Africa had become a pariah nation.

After he became leader of the NP his concepts of apartheid began to alter. Cynically restating apartheid, he claimed that black people were not disqualified from political participation because they were inferior, but because they were not really South Africans and owed their loyalty to tribal affiliations. He promised that the different ‘tribal nations’ living in the Republic would be given equal political rights in their own ‘homelands’. This represented a radical swing in NP policy as previous leaders D.F. Malan and J.G. Strijdom had preached a naked form of white racism and ‘baasskap’ (paternalistic domination) in order to retain Afrikaners in a position of power.

The refinement of apartheid into a ‘separate-but-equal’ policy can be attributed to Verwoerd, who strongly advocated a theory of separate ‘nations’. He argued that contact between groups would hinder their evolution into independent nationhood. His willingness to guide black people to self-determination once he considered them ready, won him the many new white supporters. He dismissed the international and internal rejection of apartheid policies with incomprehension, as if neither the international community nor the black South African populace was unaware of the favours he was bestowing on them. His apparent failure to perceive the abhorrence his policies aroused among civilized nations was best described in his own words when, shortly after the Sharpeville Massacre Verwoerd addressed a cheering crowd of white supporters, reassuring them that the ‘black masses of South Africa’ were in support of the government and administration of the country and were also peace loving and orderly. Twenty-five years later, his dreams of a ‘balkanized’ South Africa lay in shreds after the uprisings of 1976 and then 1986.

On 9 April 1961 Verwoerd escaped assassination when, at the Rand Easter Show, he was shot twice in the face. Five years later, in 1966 a second attempt by a parliamentary messenger, Dimitrios Tsafendas, proved successful when he stabbed Verwoerd while sitting at his desk in the House of Assembly. Although his death was bannered throughout the white community with the words ‘Verwoerd – A nation mourns’, there is no doubt that his passing went largely unlamented among the majority of South Africans, most of whom had suffered as a result of his ideology. Today his legacy, in the form of the apartheid city, land dispossession, racist indocrination, black poverty and urban crime, lives on to plague the progress of a young South African democracy.


This biography is from South African History Online. Used by permission. 
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