Melanie Verwoerd

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Melanie Verwoerd pictured with her partner Gerry Ryan at the opening of the Grand Canal Theatre in March 2010

Melanie Verwoerd (pronounced [fɛrvurt];[stress?] née Fourie; born 18 April 1967) is a South Africa-born politician, ambassador and former director of UNICEF Ireland.

Verwoerd was elected as a Member of Parliament for the African National Congress (ANC) during the first democratic elections in South Africa in 1994. She was the youngest woman ever to be elected. She was re-elected in 1999. In 2001 she was appointed as South African Ambassador to Ireland a position she held until 2005. Between 2007 and 2011 she was the Executive Director of UNICEF Ireland.[1][2] In 2007 Melanie was awarded with the Irish Tatler, International Woman of the Year award. [3]

Early life[edit]

Melanie Verwoerd was born Melanie van Niekerk in Pretoria, South Africa on 18 April 1967 into an Afrikaner family. After the family’s move to Stellenbosch in the Western Cape she attended Bloemhof Girls High School. After school she considered a career as a dancer, but eventually enrolled in a degree in theology, philosophy and psychology at the University of Stellenbosch. She was the only woman in her class. Thereafter she received a Honours degree in philosophy and a master's degree on the topic of feminist theology.

During this time she met her future husband Wilhelm Verwoerd, grandson of Dr. Hendrik Verwoerd, Prime Minister of South Africa between 1958 and 1966 who is generally regarded as the architect of apartheid. After their marriage the couple moved to Oxford, England in 1989 where Wilhelm was studying on a Rhodes scholarship. During this time, Melanie met and interacted with South Africans in exile, in particular ANC members who were promoting the struggle from abroad.

Following the unbanning of the African National Congress in 1990, she returned to South Africa, where she met with the newly released Nelson Mandela. Shortly after she joined ANC and spoke publicly about the brutality of apartheid and the suffering of black people under this regime. Being married to the grandson of Hendrik Verwoerd (who was assassinated in 1966) made her the subject of enormous public interest, but also caused security threats to her and her husband. Amongst others they were on the death list of far-right conservative white organisations.

Political and diplomatic career[edit]

During the first democratic election in South Africa in 1994 Melanie was elected as a member of the National Assembly of South Africa for the ANC. At 27 she was the youngest woman ever to be elected. She was, again, re-elected in 1999. During her time in parliament she was part of the writing of the new constitution and served on various committees, such as the Local Government and Constitutional Affairs, Youth Committee, Broadcasting and Communication and the Tourism and Environmental Affairs Portfolio Committees. She took part extensively on fact-finding missions, travelling to places like The Netherlands, UK, Sweden, Cuba, Chile, Australia, Brazil, Argentina and the US among others. She was heavily involved in the Women’s Caucus, served as a resource person on the Women’s Budget and was a member of the Standing Committee investigating Surrogacy.[4] In 2001 she was appointed as South African Ambassador to Ireland.

During her period as ambassador she focused on increasing tourism from Ireland to South Africa with great success. In addition, her tenure as an ambassador saw trade and investment increase substantially in South Africa. She also spoke widely on the challenges facing South Africa and the developing world, particularly the challenge of HIV/Aids.[5]

Time in Ireland[edit]


In 2005, she completed her term as Ambassador and decided to remain in Ireland. She presented a weekly radio programme, Spectrum, on RTÉ Radio 1 on the theme of multiculturalism, which addressed the challenges facing the New Ireland and examined the issues that arise in a multicultural society.[6] She also represented the Mandela/Rhodes Foundation in Ireland and did consultancy work on development and multi-culturalism. In 2007 Melanie was awarded the Irish Tatler International Woman of the Year award.


In April 2007, Verwoerd was appointed executive director of UNICEF Ireland. She presided over an increase in income from €4.7 million in 2005 to €8.4 million in 2010 despite a crippling recession in Ireland from 2008 onwards.[7][8] During her tenure she travelled extensively to UNICEF field offices, amongst others, Mozambique, Rwanda, Kenya, Swaziland, and Zimbabwe. She was involved in lobbying the Irish government to introduce new legislation to protect women from female genital mutilation and was instrumental in introducing a child-friendly asylum process.

Personal life[edit]

Melanie married Wilhelm Verwoerd in 1987. They have two children, Wilmé (born 1990) and Wian (born 1992). Both are studying at Trinity College, Dublin. The couple divorced in 2005.

In 2008, Melanie became the partner of Gerry Ryan, a well-known radio and TV personality in Ireland. Gerry died suddenly on 30 April 2010 and Melanie found his body.[9] In July 2011, the Board of UNICEF Ireland fired Melanie, citing the media attention following the death of Ryan as the reason. This resulted in a public outcry. She logged unfair dismissal proceedings.[10][11][12] UNICEF settled the case out of court in April 2013 and issued a statement stating that "her departure was in no way a reflection of her performance, which was always of the highest standards."[13]

Current work[edit]

She currently resides in Cape Town, South Africa where she is doing consulting work for various NGOs. Her memoir When We Dance was published by Liberties Press in October 2012. It was quickly removed from sale pending a court action regarding alleged defamation.[14] The action was set aside and the book returned to the shelves with a clarification being inserted into each printed copy.[15] The first edition of the book sold out in the first week. It entered the Irish non-fiction best seller chart at number 2 and became the number 1 best seller the second week. According to the Nielsen BookScan figures it was in the top 10 best sellers list for 6 weeks.[16]


  1. ^ "Melanie born to be voice for those who cannot speak". Irish Independent. 4 July 2010. 
  2. ^ "Business & Finance". 
  3. ^ "Melanie is backward in coming Verwoerd". Irish Independent. 26 November 2012. 
  4. ^ "For A Change". 
  5. ^ "Metro Eireann". 
  6. ^ "". RTÉ News. Archived from the original on December 10, 2008. 
  7. ^ "UNICEF Ireland Annual Report 2008" (PDF). 
  8. ^ "UNICEF Ireland Annual Report" (PDF). 
  9. ^ Lally, Conor (1 May 2010). "Ryan's death not being treated as suspicious". The Irish Times. Irish Times Trust. Retrieved 1 May 2010. 
  10. ^ Collins, Liam (24 July 2011). "Irish Independent". 
  11. ^ Walsh, Anne-Marie (25 July 2011). "Melanie tells of shock over being 'sacked' as head of Unicef: Gerry Ryan's ex 'worked tirelessly' for charity". Irish Independent. Independent News & Media. Retrieved 25 July 2011. 
  12. ^ Swords, Warren (31 July 2011). "Charity cash should go to starving children, not to fire me: Former Unicef boss blasts poverty charity". Daily Mail. London. Retrieved 31 July 2011. 
  13. ^ "Verwoerd settles case over UNICEF dismissal". Irish Independent. 29 March 2013. 
  14. ^ [1]
  15. ^ Irish Independent 25 October 2012
  16. ^