Hendrik Frensch Verwoerd was born in Amsterdam, the Netherlands 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 Wynberg, Cape Town 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 Brandfort, 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 fifth 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 a masters and a doctorate in philosophy, both cum laude, and turned down an Abe Bailey scholarship to Oxford University, England, opting to continue his studies in psychology in Germany. Verwoerd left for Germany in 1925, and stayed there during 1926, studying at the Universities of Hamburg, Berlin and Leipzig. His later critics have at times suggested that this coincided with the rise of German National Socialism in the 1930s; however this stay predated it by a number of years. During this visit, he might have met with Fischer, but even at this stage, social-Darwinism was not the focus of Verwoerd's research. He published a number of works dating back to that time, which are all still available at the library of the University of Stellenbosch:

  • A method for the experimental production of emotions (1926)
  • "'n Bydrae tot die metodiek en probleemstelling vir die psigologiese ondersoek van koerante-advert" (1928) ("A contribution on the psychological methodology of newspaper advertisement")
  • The distribution of "attention" and its testing (1928)
  • Effects of fatigue on the distribution of attention (1928)
  • A contribution to the experimental investigation of testimony (1929?)
  • "Oor die opstel van objektiewe persoonlikheidsbepalingskemas" (1930?) ("Objective criteria to determine personality types")
  • "Oor die persoonlikheid van die mens en die beskrywing daarvan" (1930?) ("On the human personality and the description thereof")

His fiancee, Betsie Schoombie, joined him in Germany and they were subsequently married on 7 January 1927 in Hamburg. Later that year, he continued his studies in the United Kingdom and then in the United States. Millar, who did an in-depth study on the early career of Verwoerd, concluded that there is no evidence that Verwoerd had been infected by the racial ideology of the National Socialists in Germany. He was in fact more impressed by some strands in American Sociology. His lecture notes and memoranda at Stellenbosch stressed that there were no biological differences between the big racial groups, and concluded that "this was not really a factor in the development of a higher social civilization by the Caucausians."  Verwoerd's admiration of the American doctrine of "separate but equal" cannot be equated with the racial ideology of the National Socialists.

He returned home in 1928 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. He devoted much attention to welfare work and was often consulted by welfare organisations, while he served on numerous committees.  His efforts in the field of national welfare drew him into politics and in 1936 he was offered the first editorship of ‘Die Transvaler’, a position which he took up in 1937, 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’s 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 criticised as a result of the important professional positions they held, which were seen as a threat to Afrikaners.

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 Dr 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. He began to slowly transform the Black reservations into autonomous states (Bantustans), which would eventually federate with South Africa. He was responsible for the displacement of some 80 000 Africans from Sophiatown, Martindale and Newclare to the newly established townships of south-western 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 limited the access of Black people to the benefits of higher education, good jobs and economic advancement. 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’.

Verwoerd became Prime Minister in 1958 after the death of J.G. Strijdom, realising his republican dream two years later when a White referendum supported his plea for a republic. This was also the first time in twelve years of government that the National Party was able to gain a majority in the White electorate.

The opposition United Party and many English-speaking Whites of British descent were opposed to a republic, but once again, Verwoerd changed the law to his advantage: He lowered the voting age for Whites to 18, and allowed Whites in South West Africa to vote. On 5 October 1960 a referendum was held in which White voters were asked "Do you support a republic for the Union?" ”” 52 percent voted 'Yes'. The government under Strijdom' had brought in a rule requiring government to seek a 2/3 approval of the electorate before carrying out a constitutional change, but this rule was ignored: Verwoerd barely managed to cross the 50% threshold. He persuaded many South Africans that given Harold Macmillan's Winds of Change speech and international condemnation following the Sharpeville massacre, South Africa would have to go it alone by becoming a republic. Many South Africans of English origin voted for the change believing that South Africa would remain in the Commonwealth, suggesting that there may have been significant numbers of Afrikaners opposed to the change, given that they made up a much larger proportion of the voting population. Verwoerd also managed to persuade them by keeping the system of government almost exactly the same (except that the president would be chosen by both houses).

Following India's assumption of republic status, it was agreed by Commonwealth leaders that being a republic was not incompatible with membership, but that a Commonwealth Realm would have to reapply for Commonwealth membership if it became a republic, with the result that Verwoerd arrived at the meeting of Commonwealth Prime Ministers in London with the firm intention of applying for membership of the Commonwealth after becoming a republic. Verwoerd argued that apartheid was just a matter of good labour policy. However, a number of Commonwealth prime ministers, particularly John Diefenbaker of Canada, denounced apartheid and argued that racial equality was a principle of Commonwealth membership. As a result of widespread opposition from the leaders of non-White New Commonwealth countries as well as Old Commonwealth member Canada and the threat that several countries would resign from the Commonwealth if South Africa's application was approved, Verwoerd withdrew South Africa's application to remain a member of the Commonwealth on 15 March 1961. South Africa's membership officially lapsed on 31 May when it officially became a republic.

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 many new White supporters. 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 Whites in a position of power.

As a result of the repressive laws, rebellions broke out in some rural reservations, and strikes and riots occurred in the main industrial areas. Verwoerd's answers to these were bans, banishments, arrests, and the enactment of increasingly harsh laws. On March 21, 1960, Mangaliso Sobukwe, president of the Pan-African Congress (PAC), called the Africans out in a nationwide protest against the Pass Laws. The police opened fire on peaceful demonstrators at Sharpeville, killing 83 and wounding 365. A state of emergency was declared, and the African National Congress (ANC) and the Pan Africanist Congress (PAC) were banned.

Verwoerd dismissed the international and internal rejection of apartheid. His apparent failure to perceive the abhorrence his policies aroused among civilised 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’.

Verwoerd is often attributed the title of ‘Architect of apartheid’. Apartheid was however a partial legacy of British colonialism that introduced a system of pass laws in the Cape Colony. However, he was responsible for considerably expanding the apartheid system and creating the "modern" version of apartheid.

The following principal ‘Apartheid acts’ were introduced during Verwoerd’s tenure as Prime Minister:

  • The Promotion of Black Self-Government Act (1958) This law set up separate territorial governments in the 'homelands', designated lands for Black people where they could have a vote. The aim was that these homelands would eventually become independent of South Africa. In practice, the South African government exercised a strong influence over these separate states even after some of them became 'independent'.
  • Bantu Investment Corporation Act (1959) This law set up a mechanism to transfer capital to the homelands in order to create jobs there.
  • The Extension of University Education Act (1959) This law created universities for Blacks, Coloureds and Indians.
  • Physical Planning and Utilization of Resources Act (1967) This law allowed the government to stop industrial development in 'White' cities and re-direct such development to homeland border areas. The aim was to speed up the relocation of Blacks to the homelands by relocating jobs to homeland areas.

On 9 April 1961 Verwoerd escaped assassination when, at the Rand Easter Show, he was shot twice in the face by David Beresford Pratt.

In 1966 a second attempt on his life by a parliamentary messenger, Dimitrios Tsafendas, proved successful when he stabbed Verwoerd while sitting at his desk in the House of Assembly. At the time of his death, he was mourned by his wife and seven children.

His death was bannered throughout the White community with the words ‘Verwoerd – A nation mourns’, but 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. Twenty-five years later, his dreams of a ‘balkanised’ South Africa lay in shreds after the uprisings of 1976 and then 1986. Today, H.F. Verwoerd’s name is notoriously associated with the repressive policies of Apartheid, a policy that still casts its shadow over the progress of a young South African democracy.

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