I knew nothing about Melanie Verwoerd before I had read this book other than that she was married to Wilhelm Verwoerd and that he had voted for the ANC in the first free elections in South Africa. It turns out she’s far more interesting than I ever knew and is a woman who was strong enough to stand up against one of the most powerful Afrikaans families in history and work hard to defend her beliefs.
This autobiography of hers covers two important areas of her life – her marriage to Wilhelm, her divorce, and after that her relationship with Gerry Ryan, an Irish celebrity broadcaster. When she and Wilhelm were students in Stellenbosch in the early 1990s, they joined the recently unbanned ANC – of course they were ostracised by the community and disowned by family and friends, yet they were undeterred by this. Melanie became a parliamentarian working under Mandela, with whom she developed a close relationship. On her and Wilhelm’s first meeting Mandela, Wilhelm tried to apologise for what his family had done to Mandela.
“No,” Mandela said, ‘you only need to remember that with the surname you both carry, you have a voice. People will listen to you.”
Melanie remembered those words and used them in Parliament. Her accounts of the first non-racial government are fascinating and often surprisingly funny. She went on to become the South African ambassador to Ireland, where she met Gerry Ryan and started a relationship with him. I didn’t find the part about Ireland so interesting, I’m sure because I don’t know Ireland like I know South Africa, but I found Gerry Ryan to be a bit of an irritating naff and wasn’t quite sure why she fell so inutterably in love with him.
This book is not about politics, it is Melanie’s story about her life and her beliefs and I ended up admiring her for being a strong woman who stands up for herself.