Melanie born to be voice for those who cannot speak
Gerry Ryan's partner has, since childhood, spoken out against injustice, writes Paul Hopkins
Published 04/07/2010 | 05:00
LISTENING to Melanie Verwoerd talking about Gerry Ryan to Marian Finucane on her radio show last weekend, one could not but be moved by her honesty and bravery and lovingness as she talked openly about her relationship with the late broadcaster. And, as a nation, we were moved, such was the outpouring of support from listeners after the show.
She was obviously upset about her loss, yet she chose to go on air and reveal her innermost feelings about Gerry, about their times together trying to juggle two families of children, about their closeness and meeting of minds on myriad subjects, and the awfulness of that morning when she found him dead at the end of his bed after she and her son had to break into the star's home when they could not contact him.
Yet, anyone who has ever met the Unicef Ireland chief or spent time with her would not be surprised by her strength of character and her ability to hang on in there in the face of such grief and the loss of someone she loved.
Melanie Verwoerd has had her fair share of loss and very trying times to deal with in her chequered life. Born into a staunch Afrikaner family in the jacaranda-strewn city of Pretoria -- the administrative capital of South Africa -- Melanie spent her formative years growing up in a country based entirely on the political, social and economic machinery of apartheid, where she and her family as whites lived a privileged life while the majority blacks of the country lived in abject circumstances.
This petite, hazel-eyed mother of two, with an infectious smile and bursting with energy and ideas that can't come out quickly enough, has had a sense of injustice from a very early age.
"I remember I was younger than 10, sitting on the farm and getting really upset about where the (black) farm workers lived and announcing to my grandmother that I was going to change all this and let the workers live in a house like ours,'' she once told me.
"And I remember them laughing at me.
"I was so annoyed that they could laugh at me . . .''
Though her concern was dismissed as the ramblings of a child, her sense of right and wrong, of her country's fundamental injustice, never left her from that day and she has spent the last 20 years of her adult life attempting in many way to right those wrongs. But it came at the cost of more loss and pain.
Wilhelm Verwoerd, Melanie's former husband, was no ordinary South African joe. His grandfather, Hendrik, was one of the principal architects of apartheid. It was Hendrik Verwoerd who said of the country's blacks that it was pointless to educate them beyond what was needed. Why teach them maths, when their futures were as servants and unskilled labourers?
Hendrik Verwoerd was assassinated in parliament by a 'deranged' messenger in 1966 but he left a legacy that still has huge repercussions.
In the late Eighties, Melanie followed Wilhelm to Oxford, where he was on a Rhodes scholarship. There, she met numerous South African exiles who told her of their experiences at the hands of their white masters.
"That was the first time that I realised what was going on in the country," she told me. "They were sitting down and talking to us about a country we had no clue of. That was very hard, going back to South Africa then, and realising that everything you thought was true, that none of that was real.''
The experience in Britain had a deep impact on the Verwoerds, setting Melanie on a path to which, through her ongoing human rights agenda, she is still committed.
They returned home in 1990, shortly after the ban on the ANC was lifted and Nelson Mandela was released from prison. The couple wrote to Mandela, expressing a wish to contribute to the process of a new South Africa, and subsequently met him at a drinks party in Stellenbosch.
"I remember Wilhelm telling Mandela how sorry he was for what his grandfather had done. But this amazing man brushed aside Wilhelm's sense of guilt, exhorting us all to look to the future.''
Melanie and Wilhelm joined the ANC, and were at once ostracised by most of their fellow whites. "It was a very difficult time. My grandparents were extremely upset by my joining the ANC because the area they lived in was very strongly peopled by the AWB (the far right Afrikaner brotherhood).
"But when the press leaked the fact that there was a Verwoerd in the ANC camp, all hell broke loose. Wilhelm's parents were livid, they closed ranks and refused to see us,'' she said, recalling her first personal experience of the power and persistence of the press, something she hit out at on last week's radio show when talking of the media hounding her and her children since Gerry Ryan's death.
"But I carried on letting Wilhelm's parents see their, by then, baby grand-daughter. I remember bringing the two kids to their home, leaving them there for a while and going for a coffee or just sitting in the car, until Wilhelm's mother would send someone to say my daughter Wilme needed to be breast-fed.''
There were only ever, at any one time, about eight white people in the ANC in Stellenbosch, and crossing over the line lost Melanie most of her adult friendships.
"I lost every single friend I had. I remember being spat on as I walked along the streets in Stellenbosch.''
In 1994, aged just 27, Melanie Verwoerd became the youngest woman to be elected to South Africa's first democratic parliament. She served two terms before being subsequently appointed ambassador to Ireland in 2001 with the personal blessing of then-President Nelson Mandela.
Her four-year tenure saw trade with South Africa increase by 60 per cent. Her appointment two years ago as CEO of Unicef Ireland was the first time a major Irish-based NGO had appointed a foreign national as chief executive.
The graduate in feminist theology agrees that 16 years down the road, World Cup host South Africa still has significant problems in terms of poverty, HIV-Aids and crime. "South Africa is doing well, the economy is doing fairly well, but there are enormous challenges on the socio-economic front. That is the legacy, and it will take a time to deal with that; it will be another couple of generations.
"But I see my children going back some day and living there and contributing," she said.
In her nine years living in Ireland, the biggest change she has witnessed has been the immigration.
"The same questions that were asked in South Africa in the late Eighties and early Nineties are now being asked in Ireland -- how does one deal with multiple faiths, multiple languages, multiple cultures?
"My biggest concern,'' she once told me, "about Ireland is that I don't always detect a clear vision about where we are heading. I think one needs to decide whether people are just here as economic units, just here to work and help the economy, but fundamentally are expected to go back 'home' at some stage,or whether Ireland is going to change in future and these people are going to perceive themselves as Irish, and be part of a multicultural, multiethnic Ireland.
"And we need strong leadership politically, and at a community level. Otherwise you end up with a huge part of your population feeling alienated," she added.
As a non-Irish citizen, she was abruptly dealt with by the Garda National Immigration Bureau. After some thought, she decided to go public about her experience.
"Like so many other immigrants, I was treated very badly and very impolitely when I had to renew my visa.
"I very much debated whether I should make a fuss about it, but I felt very strongly that I do have a voice and I could voice my concerns about the issue on behalf of other immigrants who've had such experiences.''
Without making too much of a fuss, Melanie Verwoerd obviously felt so strongly about her relationship with Gerry Ryan and about the effect of his sudden loss to go on air last weekend and to speak about her time with him, and in doing so, to end the continuous tabloid gossip and to talk of issues that deeply affected the man she loved. For that, she is saluted.