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Grandson of South African Apartheid Prime Minister on Healing Racial Rifts

By Sandra Knispel | Published 30 Mar 2014 09:19pm | comments
Wilhelm Verwoerd is a former researcher for South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission under President Nelson Mandela. He visited the University of Mississippi last week to speak about healing racial rifts.

Healing racial rifts takes an honest dialogue and time, says a former researcher for South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission under President Nelson Mandela. Wilhelm Verwoerd visited the University of Mississippi last week, which has been grappling recently with several race incidents of its own.

Wilhelm Verwoerd was just six years old when his grandfather – Hendrik Verwoerd – the then prime minister of South Africa and the main architect of Apartheid -- was assassinated. The young Verwoerd grew up in an entirely white world.

“I had an entirely white neighborhood, mostly Afrikaans speaking, completely white church – Dutch Reformed Church we went to – the school was completely white. You might see black South Africans on the margins or in serving positions. But when you go on holiday, when you go shopping… whatever you do, it was so effectively segregated that it was actually scary when I look back.”

It wasn’t until he went abroad to study in England and the Netherlands that he began to realize the true ramifications of Apartheid. That’s when he decided to join the African National Congress, President Nelson Mandela’s party, and became subsequently a part of his Truth and Reconciliation Commission.

“For the family there was a sense – especially for my father who felt that by publicly committing to the vision of the ANC – that I was betraying also his father and the community… that I was joining the enemy, you know,” Verwoerd says.

There are plenty of parallels between the Old South and South Africa  – both had a system of state-sponsored discrimination.

“South Africans actually came to Mississippi to learn how to set up Apartheid in the early part of the 20th century,” says

Susan Glisson, the director of the William Winter Institute of Racial Reconciliation at the University of Mississippi.

“So in the same way that these folks that set up these systems of repression shared how to do that – we now want to work with people there who are working in restorative justice and non-violence, in civic engagement to build a stronger democracy that’s based on a strengthened diversity instead of being fearful of diversity," Glisson added.

Verwoerd spoke to students, faculty and administrators at Ole Miss recently about his work in reconciliation and facilitating dialogue in conflict areas.

Sandra Knispel, MPB News, Oxford.

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Wilhelm Verwoerd is a former researcher for South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission under President Nelson Mandela. He visited the University of Mississippi last week to speak about healing racial rifts.


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