I’m at a fairly dodgy neighbourhood haunt. Not dodgy in the way that might get you killed but dodgy in the way that you feel a distinct need to wipe down any surfaces before touching them. There is a group of us around the table and the mood is jovial, it is a Friday, the music is good and the drinks are cheap. I laughingly tell my colleague that he speaks Afrikaans as though the words are uncomfortable in his mouth, kind of the way I do. Only, it’s much worse for him because he is “Afrikaans” and of course I am not, so I get some sort of foreigner’s pass. It is in laughter and jest that the name of his high school is raised and upon hearing it, I am suspended in the moment temporarily. I am certain that the temperature has dropped a few degrees and that all of a sudden people have all stopped moving. Unconsciously I cross one arm over the other and reach up to my shoulders, hunching inwards as if to protect myself. His high school was named after Hendrik Verwoerd.
I am no historian, or political analyst and as such, my infantile way of describing Verwoerd would be to call him a monster. Not the monster that lurks under your bed, sprouting horns and beady red eyes, but a smiling monster, a cold calculated monster with a gilded tongue and keen intellect who fed on freedoms and human dignity. For many South African’s Verwoerd is known as the “architect of apartheid” and is remembered for some of the most abhorrent apartheid laws inflicted upon the masses of our population. Even before Verwoerd became Prime Minister he introduced Bantu education in an attempt to prevent “the creation of a frustrated people, who as a result of the education they receive, have expectations in life which circumstances in South Africa do not allow to be fulfilled”. What he really meant was “know your place Bantu, you are barely human and you don’t deserve a seat at the table”. I don’t write this now for a history lesson, although it is an important one, I could write myself blind about the horrific legacy of Bantu education. I write this now because I wonder about the icons of apartheid, I wonder about this school named for man who was really a monster.
It takes me back to the #Rhodesmustfall movement in our country a few years ago and there is a conflict within my mind. On the one hand, we could, as a country still struggling with invisible shackles, remove any trace of the monsters who crippled our country. To those whose hands are dirty with apartheid involvement, let us strike them from public view, let us confine them to spaces unseen. Will it do much to mend the wounds, to forge unity in diversity? I’m not sure. I am not sure that we need any help forgetting because we seem to do that well enough by ourselves. In a free South Africa, I remember the conciliatory vision that the then ANC had in mind that the monuments should remain as reminder of our past and as a cautionary tale for our future. That we should not forget our history and those involved in it. But to what degree do we do that? To what degree to I remember John Voster, when I drive on the road named for him? Do I recall how Helen Suzman infamously said to him that he “should go into the townships heavily disguised as a human being” so that he could witness the ugly reality of apartheid? Is Hendrik Verwoerd a talking point at the high school named after him? It certainly served as a talking point when the subject was raised in our small group and for that I am grateful. I am grateful that my stunned silence confused the Australian man sitting next to me and that it enabled others to talk about the history of our country. I cannot pretend that I have the maturity to be calm and dispassionate when it seems like Hendrik Verwoerd is being venerated (as it seems to me that having a school named after you would be akin to veneration). And I cannot pretend that I have the maturity to be calm and dispassionate when I see Black children excelling at Hendrik Verwoerd High School, it is some kind of ironic justice. Maybe just enough for me to believe that the school being named as it is has merit. Maybe just enough for me to remember that his name on that school is symbol of strength of our people and not of the ugliness of his regime.