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Melanie Verwoerd Discusses Her Eventful Life at the Launch of The Verwoerd Who Toyi-toyied

Melanie Verwoerd

“Promise me that when I die, you won’t stop talking about me,” Melanie Verwoerd’s partner, Irish media personality Gerry Ryan said to her two weeks before he died.

Marianne Thamm and Melanie Verwoerd The Verwoerd Who Toyi-toyiedThat is one of the reasons why she decided to write her memoir, The Verwoerd Who Toyi-toyied, Verwoerd revealed in conversation with journalist Marianne Thamm at the book’s launch last night. Ryan had a feeling that the fickle public’s love for him would soon sour after his death and he had been right. When Ryan died, Verwoerd was plunged into a media storm that went on for months and months. Even as she was preparing to launch her book in Ireland two years after his death, she was stopped by an urgent lawsuit.

“That is why it is so special for me to finally be launching my book in South Africa,” Verwoerd told guests who were gathered at The Book Lounge in Cape Town. Contrary to the Irish tabloids’ view of her book, Verwoerd explained that the story of her love for Ryan and his subsequent death only makes up one third of memoir. The rest, of specific interest to South Africans, deals with her marrying apartheid prime minister Hendrik Verwoerd’s grandson Wilhelm, becoming the youngest woman in Nelson Mandela’s parliament and eventually ambassador to Ireland.

Verwoerd said that when she first met Wilhelm Verwoerd, she did not realise who he was related to, although she wondered “who the hell has a flag pole in their garden?”. When she was told, she asked him what his political views were. “He said he was slightly left to the NP and I could live with that.” They got married when she was only twenty years old.

Through her husband, Verwoerd met ANC members in exile. “They were angry. They wanted to purge, to tell us how much they hated Hendrik Verwoerd.” It was a lot to deal with for a twenty-something-year-old who had married into the family.

The turning point for Verwoerd came when she met Nelson Mandela. He told her that she could see the Verwoerd name either as a curse or a blessing, which could be used to her advantage. Verwoerd was inspired by Mandela and joined the ANC. She was active in the townships around Stellenbosch.

As expected, this did not go down well with the in-laws. Verwoerd related some of the instances where she found herself having to traverse the political divide, for instance when visiting Hendrik Verwoerd’s widow (her husband’s grandmother) in Orania.

At the age of 23, when she was appointed as a member of parliament, Verwoerd was instrumental in changing some of the old sexist aspects of life as an MP. For example, when she started at parliament, there was still no restroom for women. There was only one facility with the sign “For members’ wives”. During her tenure a daycare centre was also created.

When she learned that there was no South African ambassador in Ireland, Verwoerd took the liberty of asking Thabo Mbeki for the job. “You should read that part in the book, because it shows a Mbeki that we don’t often see.”

In Ireland, Verwoerd divorced and, although she was not looking for a new relationship, especially not one with a public personality, she found happiness with Ryan. Verwoerd still gets emotional when talking about his death.

The fact that traces of cocaine were found in his blood, although Verwoerd says he did not use drugs, was sensationalised by the media. The public’s dissatisfaction with their relationship, as Ryan had been separated from his ex-wife for less than the four years required by law in Ireland before getting a divorce, also boiled over. Verwoerd described how she could not leave her house for months as journalists were camped outside.

However, with the help of her children, Verwoerd got through this trying time. And whatever direction her life takes next, she is adamant that she wants to use her voice to improve South Africa’s standing abroad.

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Carolyn Meads tweeted live from the event with the hashtag #livebooks:

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