Hendrik Frensch Verwoerd

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Hendrik Frensch Verwoerd (1901-1966) was a South African academician, newspaper editor, and politician. He is best known for his role as the "architect of apartheid" when he was Minister of Native Affairs during the 1950s, and his popular yet polarizing stint as Prime Minister from 1958 until his assassination on September 6, 1966.

Personal life

Verwoerd was born on September 8, 1901 in Amsterdam, the Netherlands. Two years later, his father, Wilhelmus Johannes Verwoerd, decided to emigrate to South Africa as an expression of solidarity with the Afrikaners who had been recently vanquished in the Anglo-Boer War and to become a missionary of the Dutch Reformed Church. The Verwoerd family settled first in the Wynberg, a suburb in what was then the Cape Colony, where they resided for ten years before moving to Bulwayo, Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe) and then to South Africa's Orange Free State province.

In 1927, Verwoerd married Elizabeth (Betsie) Schoombie, whom he had met when they were both students at Stellenbosch. They had seven children.

Education and academic career

Verwoerd's early education took place at Wynberg's Lutheran School, Wynberg High School for Boys, and Milton High School in Bulwayo, and he completed his secondary education in Brandfort, a small town in the Orange Free State, after his family resettled there in 1917. He began his post-secondary education in 1919 at the University of Stellenbosch, where he earned a doctorate in psychology, cum laude, in 1924. His dissertation, Die afstomping van gemoedsaandoeninge (The Blunting of Emotions), was published in the Annale van die Universiteit van Stellenbosch (Annals of the University of Stellenbosch) in 1925.

He spent the next few years furthering his studies in various cities in Germany and, more briefly, in Britain and the United States before returning to Stellenbosch, where he was appointed Professor of Applied Psychology and Psychotechnics in 1928. In this capacity, he taught a variety of courses, including introductory psychology, business psychology, and psychology and law.

In 1932, Verwoerd was appointed to head the University of Stellenbosch's new Department of Sociology and Social Work despite having no formal training in these disciplines.

It was at about this time that he became heavily involved in policy debates surrounding the issue of poverty in South Africa, especially the so-called "poor white problem" that affected the Afrikaner population in particular.

Nationalist editor and politician

Verwoerd left academia in 1936 to become the first editor of Die Transvaler, a Johannesburg-based Afrikaner nationalist newspaper founded by the Gesuiwerde (Purified) National Party. He completed a brief apprenticeship with Die Burger, another nationalist paper based in Cape Town, before moving to the Transvaal province to assume Die Transvaler's editorship in 1937.

Architect of apartheid

Although Verwoerd's candidacy for the parliamentary seat from Alberton was unsuccessful in the fateful 1948 general election, he was appointed to the Senate shortly thereafter. Two years later, he was offered a cabinet position as Minister of Native Affairs, a post he held until he became Prime Minister in 1958.

Prime Minister, 1958-1966

Prime Minister J.G. Strijdom's death in office on August 24, 1958 gave rise to a succession struggle within the National Party. For the first time in the party's history, a party caucus election was held to select a new party leader. Verwoerd narrowly beat out the candidates from the Cape and Orange Free State, Eben Dönges and Nicolaas Havenga, and became Prime Minister on September 2, 1958.

Three events made 1960 a watershed year in both Verwoerd's premiership and South African history more generally. Early in the year, Verwoerd announced that a popular referendum would be held on the question of making South Africa a republic. Then, on March 21, demonstrations in the Sharpeville and Langa townships in the Transvaal resulted in massive police brutality that has come to be known as the Sharpeville Massacre. Finally, less than a month later, Verwoerd was shot in a narrowly failed assassination attempt by a white farmer at the Rand Easter Show in Johannesburg.

While any one of these developments — let alone the combination of all three — might have derailed the National Party's ascendance and spelled disaster for its still-nascent apartheid program, they ended up having the opposite effect.


Verwoerd is among the most polarizing figures in South African political history.