Human Engagement and How it Transcends Conflict
Esteemed members of Congress, fellow members of the Washington Ireland class of 2012, Program directors and managers, distinguished guests and friends
Good evening and a warm welcome to this year’s congressional forum.
As Eoin mentioned, My name is Wilmé Verwoerd. I am a political science and sociology final year student at Trinity College Dublin. Speaking on behalf of the Washington Ireland class of 2012, I am honored to be representing such a talented and inspiring group of young people – speaking in part the words of those who cannot speak tonight. This year I am in the privileged position of interning on Capitol Hill with Senator Tom Harkin, from Iowa. And I have thoroughly enjoyed my time spent in his office.
I ask you now to join me as I share with you my personal journey on the Washington Ireland program. I will begin with some context to my story. My passports will tell you that I am Irish and I am also South African. Half and half if you like. I was born in England, I grew up in South Africa for 10 years and I have lived in Ireland ever since.
During my time thus far in Washington DC I have been in the privileged position of attending many inspiring and thought provoking discussions from people around the world. One such an event stands out in my mind, bringing me back to my childhood in Africa. Just over 3 weeks ago the WIP class of 2012 was invited to attend an event hosted by our sister program, the South African Washington International Program. We were invited to share an evening themed around the legacy of Nelson Mandela. As the students reminisced about their encounters with him I couldn’t help but think back to my own experiences.
Let me tell you a story about one such experience. In 2003, Nelson Mandela came to Dublin, Ireland. Mandela had previously met Republican and Unionist politicians. Northern Ireland shares many striking parallels with post -apartheid South Africa. Many of the physical structures enforced to separate communities have been broken down yet with that still exists a dangerous undercurrent of issues that need to be faced and addressed. With that in mind, Mandela met these leaders urging them to learn from South Africa’s past.
One afternoon during his visit I had the opportunity to sit quietly with my dad and with Mr. Mandela. We talked for over 20 minutes. We talked about politics, education and personal relationships. He even asked me whether I had a boyfriend or not. This was a meeting that translates well into my time here in DC almost 10 years later. Let me tell you why.
My younger years took shape during a turbulent political period in South Africa. I was born a few months after the ANC- the African national congress (Nelson Mandela’s political party) had its ban lifted and Mandela was released from prison in 1990. The country was beginning a journey, transitioning from an oppressive Apartheid regime to a newly formed democracy. Of course I was too young to grasp this at the time. But unlike most white Afrikaans children at the time, I had a mother and a father who had joined the African National Congress (ANC).
White Afrikaners in the ANC were pretty unique but in my family’s case it was even more unusual, since: My great grand-father was the South African prime minister in the early 1960’s. He was also better known as the architect of Apartheid, playing in part, a significant role in the imprisonment of Nelson Mandela. He was assassinated in 1966, after a first assassination attempt had failed. He was survived by my great grand-mother whom I knew until I was 10.
Making the decision to break away from my great grand-fathers political ideology and join the ANC came at a huge personal cost for my father and led him to be ostracized by our family for more than 10 years. My mother, a member of parliament for the ANC at the time, was put on death- hit lists by conservative white extremists. To an extent, I had some awareness that things were a little different in my house but no real understanding of how my family history would ultimately affect my future.
So, when I met Mandela 2003 it was more than just a conversation. For Mandela to sit with the grandson and great grand -daughter of the man who imprisoned him was testimony to the power of real human engagement and its potential to transcend conflict. I suggest that we all carry a legacy of conflict.
For some it’s shown in painful personal experiences of loss or trauma. For others the legacy comes from the limited views we have when sitting at a distance from a conflict, not knowing enough about the various complexities, perspectives and realities of the people involved. Not seeking to find out, before we form our opinions of who was right and who was wrong.
As a young person growing up in Ireland, and in my family; conversations about the realities of conflict and the challenge of moving beyond this, were common in my upbringing. They continued in my experience here. On the Washington Ireland I have been met with checkpoints. I have had to stop and think of my past. I have had to stop and I think of my future. The Washington Ireland program has been important in making this possible.
The Program has fostered an environment where difficult conversations could be had. We, the Class of 2012 have transcended boundaries. We have engaged in a dialogue that has moved beyond the communities we come from. Amongst many other difficult questions, we have grappled with our past and present experiences, and looked at how as young leaders we can reconcile a legacy of conflict with the possibility of a shared future.
We have continued the dialogue past Northern Ireland. Past Ireland. Past Europe. We have continued the conversation in the United States of America. And, we, will continue to have these conversations back home. Participating in the Washington Ireland Program ‘12 I have been caught in the crossfire of confronting these issues with my fellow participants. And I have been caught confronting my own ideas and beliefs.
I was recently reminded of something I read a while ago about what happened after the Berlin Wall fell in late 1989 (8 months before I was born). A year or so after the wall fell, graffiti appeared on a building in the new united Berlin. It read: “The wall is gone, but who is breaking down the walls in our hearts and minds?”
For me, this breaking down of walls is what I have always had to grapple with – first growing up as a white Afrikaner, with a particular family history, then as an immigrant on an island which is like my birth country still deeply divided and now through a program that brought us to the land of the free. I have been challenged to break down walls of my own. What have I learned is:
1) That things are not over yet – we still have a long way to go with breaking down the walls
2) If there is one thing America can teach the world (as is entrenched in your Constitution) it is the importance of having a voice – of having the right and obligation to debate and discuss – even the difficult issues that we sometimes rather would not discuss.
3) And sometimes we need to step outside of our own worlds to find the common ground that binds us all as part of the bigger human family.
As my time in DC comes to an end, and my speech to a close I recognize that the journey will continue; it must. Let us not become complacent by what others consider to be peace and reconciliation. The walls are beginning to disappear slowly in Northern Ireland, let’s now begin to break down the walls in our hearts. We must open our minds to a new way forward. Let us not be bound by the past but rather look to the future. In looking to the future let us not sit idly by and wait for things to change.
In the words of President Ronald Reagan:
There are no constraints on the human mind, no walls around the human spirit, no barriers to our progress except those we erect ourselves.