This is what nationalism can do to you
Hendrik Verwoerd was the architect of apartheid. He was responsible for at least two of apartheid’s most infamous policies: the creation of the Bantustans and the Bantu Education Act (where he famously proclaimed:”There is no place for [the Bantu] in the European community above the level of certain forms of labour … What is the use of teaching the Bantu child mathematics when it cannot use it in practice? That is quite absurd. Education must train people in accordance with their opportunities in life, according to the sphere in which they live.”) Most South Africans – black and white – now consider Verwoerd and his ideas nefarious: he led us down a road that we are still struggling to recover from.
But when and where did Verwoerd acquire his racist ideas of the world? Was it always there, simmering under the surface, allowed to boil over with the National Party victory in 1948? Or did context and circumstance gradually pull him in a certain direction? Was Hendrik Verwoerd the Evil One born or created?
I recently stumbled on a rather surprising paper. Written by Roberta Miller and published in 1993 in the Journal of Southern African Studies, the paper investigates the early professional life of Dr Hendrik Verwoerd. An immigrant from Holland, Verwoerd arrived with his missionary family in 1903 at the age of 2. After school, he moved to Stellenbosch to study Psychology, earning his PhD (The Blunting of the Emotions) cum laude by the age of 23. He was immediately offered a position in the department.
Verwoerd received a bursary to study at Oxford (the Abe Bailey scholarship, which he declined because of Bailey’s imperial jingoism) but chose instead to travel to Germany for his post-doc education. Here he spent time in Berlin and Leipzig, learning the latest statistical techniques in the field, before traveling to America for a lecture and study tour. Miller explains that the quality of Verwoerd’s scientific articles improved remarkably after these trips. While in America, he received word that he had been appointed professor in Psychology and he had to cut short his trip to be home in time for the new academic year in 1928. Verwoerd is still, as far as I know, the youngest professor ever to be appointed at Stellenbosch University.
The remarkable thing, though, is that none of his early career research or teaching could have predicted his future policies. While American sociologists were proclaiming the innate intellectual differences between black and white people based on IQ scores, Verwoerd rejected these ideas. Miller (1993: 650) writes:
Verwoerd did not believe that there were any biological differences between the racial groups. He clearly recognised the distinctions between whites, coloureds, and natives that were made in South Africa and often presented population statistics in terms of the major racial groups in the country. In the context of discussions of population growth, for example, Verwoerd presented his classes with population statistics on natives, Asians, coloureds, and Europeans, and occasionally Jews. But although many South Africans argued that biological factors contributed to the development of civilisation, Verwoerd did not. ‘There are no biological differences among the big race groups as was argued earlier,’ he told his classes, adding that because there were no differences, ‘this was not really a factor in the development of a higher social civilisation by the Caucasian race.’
Verwoerd did not deny that there were measurable differences between the performance of blacks and whites in intelligence tests, but he told his classes that it was difficult to compare test scores across groups of people with different backgrounds and experience. The critical issue, he argued, was not whether there were differences in underlying intelligence, but rather whether the differences in the test scores of various groups were due to inadequate tests and differences in living conditions.
In fact, his academic career paints the picture of a caring, open-minded pragmatist. After five years as Professor of Psychology, in 1932, Verwoerd was appointed as professor in the first Department of Sociology and Social Work in South Africa, also at Stellenbosch University. He immediately began to work on community social welfare activities in Cape Town, mostly dedicated to solving the poor white problem which had become a huge economic and political issue of the time (exacerbated by the global depression).
Because he was not trained as a sociologist, he chose to follow the theories propagated in American universities. Miller (1993: 647) explains:
Certainly the general approach of American sociology sat well with Verwoerd’s own mild socio-political ameliorism. American sociology in the early twentieth century was marked by a pragmatic positivism, an impulse toward the amelioration of social problems rather than structural social change, and a methodological reliance on empirical data.
Verwoerd’s methodological approach was ahead of his time. But his research activities received less and less attention, as the scale of white poverty became clearer. He organised national conferences on poverty alleviation; in fact, he became the spokesperson for social work education. He also worked hard to reconcile English- and Afrikaans-speaking animosities:
Rather than promoting racialism between the English and the Afrikaners, however, Verwoerd’s speech, taken in its entirety, suggests that Verwoerd was instead anticipating a new approach to dealing with poverty in which the English and the Afrikaner worked together in social welfare programmes. His goal was to ensure that the Afrikaner became a part of the country’s welfare activities rather than to eliminate English participation in welfare.
Verwoerd firmly tied social welfare to the democratic state rather than to any social or ethnic group in the state. ‘In the past,’ he said, ‘charity had been the task of a few self-appointed philanthropists; welfare work is now the task of the democracy. New times bring new problems and need new tools’ (Miller 1993: 654).
None of this suggests that Verwoerd would become one of the largest social engineers of the twentieth century. And yet he did. What happened?
The answer: The rise of Afrikaner nationalism in the 1930s. Verwoerd increasingly became agitated with the (apparently persistent) plight of the poor Afrikaner, and thought that political change was the only vehicle to achieve this. In 1937, he was offered the editorship of a new Afrikaner newspaper – Die Transvaler – funded by the Purified National Party of DF Malan. He accepted the position.
After Verwoerd left Stellenbosch, he abandoned the non-partisan politics of civil society that had previously consumed his energies and became deeply involved in party politics. The man who had insisted on joint English and Afrikaner welfare activities emerged as a strong Afrikaner nationalist. The professor who had denied that there were intellectual and biological differences among Africans and Europeans and who had proposed research that assumed them both to be part of the same South African society ultimately became an advocate of apartheid as the means to encourage and protect the differences between these groups. Finally, the academic who had commended the Jews for their contributions to world culture espoused strongly anti-Semitic sentiments (Miller 1993: 660).
As I’ve written before, nationalism – an extreme form of patriotism marked by a feeling of superiority over others – is extremely dangerous. It accentuates artificial differences between peoples, using that as justification for policies of exclusion. It punishes ‘outsiders’, however defined by the ‘insiders’. It inevitably cannibalizes itself, but at an unspeakably high cost for society. And it can shape the minds of brilliant scholars, like Hendrik Verwoerd, to enact policies that will take centuries to undo.
Lest we forget.
Source: Miller, Roberta Balstad. “Science and society in the early career of HF Verwoerd.” Journal of Southern African Studies 19.4 (1993): 634-661.