Hendrik van der Merwe

1929 - 2001

Hendrik van der Merwe was a South African Quaker academic and peacemaker.  For 27 years, he was head of the Centre for Conflict Resolution at the University of Cape Town and was the founding president of the South African Association for Conflict Intervention.

In his 2001 Backhouse Lecture, he wrote: "A recurrent theme of my work has been the need for constant vigilance to reconcile apparent opposites, and to balance the pursuit of peace and justice.”

Van der Merwe grew up in a conservative rural, Calvinist Boer community in the Western Cape.  In his lecture he described how his attitudes, engrained from childhood, shifted when he heard his brother call a black woman by the respectful term ‘vrou’ rather than the derogatory ‘meid’.

For over 25 years, he was actively involved as a mediator in South Africa, meeting with leaders from the ruling National Party, the exiled and imprisoned leaders of the then banned African National Congress (ANC), and those from the still legal Inkatha Freedom Party and the United Democratic Front.  Thabo Mbeki of the ANC called him ‘an honest Quaker broker.’

His close ties with Steve Biko led to Quaker Service Fund financially supporting Biko’s Black Communities Programmes Ltd, while his friendship with Winnie Mandela, started in 1982, led to Quaker support for her home industries for black women – in the same town where, following the Anglo-Boer War (1899-1902), Quakers had supported home industries for Afrikaner women.

In 1984, Mbeki asked van der Merwe to help the leaders of the ANC meet members of the South African government. Van der Merwe was able to bring pro-government newspaper editors to Lusaka to meet the ANC leaders in exile, and to win their public support for talks between the government and the ANC.  In April 1994 he was  described by one of those newpapers (the Argus) as ‘the man who got the ball rolling.’

Van der Merwe was always careful to distingush between the role of activist for social justice and that of mediator for peace and reconciliation.  His concern that the middle ground in South Africa was being eroded motivated him, in the 1970s and 1980s, to move away from activism towards conciliation and mediation.  He was aware that impartiality could be controversial while one party much stronger than the other.

“Where there is gross asymmetry of power between adversaries, a process of empowerment of the weaker party is essential.”

Yet for a peacemaker it was essential to remain on fairly good terms with both sides. In order to reach a mutually acceptable solution, one must also help the guilty party to save face.  Van der Merwe was well aware of the gap that often existed between what was said privately during negotiations and what might be said publicly, for the benefit of the leader’s constituency.

“Leaders I dealt with often quoted the public utterances of their opponents to prove that they were intransigent. In almost every case I was able to point out that they were equally guilty of inconsistency between public and private statements. This realisation often broke down their resistance to formal talks. “

During negotiations towards the new South Africa, van der Merwe mediated between Afrikaner Vryheidstigting (a group within the Conservative Party) and the ANC over the establishment of a non-racially based ‘volkstaat’ or Afrikaner homeland in the Northern Cape.

Following the first free elections in South Africa, van der Merwe was at times critical of the Peace and Reconciliation process for ignoring need for restitution.

“I define restitution as a comprehensive process whereby society can heal itself and be able to face the future: it is an accounting and exposure of the injustices of the past, a unified process of repentance and forgiveness, and a plan to compensate for past evils as well as create a blueprint for the future. Its aim is the restoration of broken relationships… In the case of the Truth Commission, the victims got a raw deal in spite of many good intentions.”

In 2001, he wrote, “South African Quakers are now facing new challenges of continuing to speak truth to power and to support those in need.”

Further Reading and Credits

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