The Truth Behind the Assassination of the South African PM

The Truth Behind the Assassination of the South African PM

The Truth Behind the Assassination of the South African PM

When my relative stabbed PM Hendrik Verwoerd to death, he was described as a “madman”—but he was really trying to bring down apartheid.


When Dimitri Tsafendas stabbed to death Prime Minister Hendrik Verwoerd, the architect of apartheid, in South Africa’s parliament in September 1966, he shocked the country and sent my family into panic. The killer was my father’s cousin. One of my clearest childhood memories is of the day of the murder (I was 5 at the time): Family members gathered around the radio, listening to a gruff announcer in absolute silence, then talked louder and louder in fear and anger. After that, I heard no more about what had happened. My family, like the rest of South Africa, stopped mentioning Tsafendas, who lived another 33 years as South Africa’s longest-serving prisoner, although he remained for us a hidden wound that never healed.

For decades, Tsafendas was described as a madman (he had been diagnosed as schizophrenic); according to his defense in court and claims made by the police, Tsafendas had said he had a giant tapeworm inside him that compelled him to do the murder. “I can as little try a man who has not got at least the makings of a rational mind as I could try a dog or an inert implement,” Justice Andries Beyers said. Tsafendas was declared not guilty by reason of insanity and ordered to be detained at the pleasure of the state president.

After a nine-year investigation, with a book (The Man Who Killed Apartheid, Jacana Media, 2018) and a 2,192-page report submitted to South Africa’s justice minister, Durham University academic Harris Dousemetzis has placed the killing in its correct historical perspective. Tsafendas died, aged 88, in a psychiatric hospital, where he had been moved in 1994, after the end of apartheid, probably because no one knew what else to do with him; he emerges from the book as a complicated, committed revolutionary who sacrificed himself in an effort to derail institutionalized racism.

He had described his motives clearly in his statement to the police. “I did believe that with the disappearance of the South African prime minister a change of policy would take place.… It was my own idea to kill him. I did not care about the consequences.… I was so disgusted with the racial policy that I went through with my plan to kill the prime minister.” The statement was not heard in court.

Security cover-up

State security officials, with the collusion of justice minister John Vorster (who succeeded Verwoerd as prime minister), presented Tsafendas as insane so as not to concede that the regime’s formidable security apparatus had been beaten. The act of a deranged drifter could be explained as an accident; tyrannicide could not. Dousemetzis notes that of 200 people he questioned, only four commented negatively on Tsafendas’s mental state, and none of them knew him well. While in custody, Tsafendas was tortured by police; he was under threat of a death sentence (later, in prison, he was for some time kept on or near death row) and was made to understand that being declared mentally ill would save his life. He had pretended madness before in his life to get out of problems with the authorities.

He accepted the offer and maintained the front. Dousemetzis summarized what Tsafendas told his own visitors in prison: “He had killed the tyrant and managed to stay alive. He was convinced…that apartheid would collapse sooner or later without Verwoerd’s brains behind it. And then, he might even be paroled.”

Tsafendas was born in 1918 in Mozambique, the son of a Greek marine engineer; his mother was half Mozambican and half German. Tsafendas’s parents did not marry, but when the engineer later married a Greek woman, she raised the boy along with the couple’s son and daughters. The couple were from Egypt’s Greek community, and lived in Mozambique and South Africa while Tsafendas was a child.

Tsafendas was shattered at 17 when he learned by chance that his father’s wife was not his mother. His father, who had become an anarchist while studying in Italy, instilled in Tsafendas a pride in Greek democracy and his Cretan ancestors’ history of rebellion; Tsafendas wanted to impress his father and take his own place in the family’s revolutionary tradition. When the Spanish Civil War broke out in 1936, his father wanted to go to fight against Franco, and Tsafendas, then 18, had to be persuaded not to leave for Spain himself. At a young age, the boy embraced communism, but also joined a Christian church.

‘A useful member of society’

He left for Canada in 1942 (the last words he heard from his father were injunctions to “be a useful member of society”) and served on US Merchant Marine convoys in the North Atlantic during the Second World War before going to Greece, where he joined the communist side in the civil war from 1947 to 1949. In the 1950s he traveled through Europe, occasionally returning to Mozambique; and in the 1960s he visited Egypt, Lebanon, Israel, and Turkey, where he taught English. By 1963 he was back in Mozambique, after the Portuguese granted him amnesty, but had another run-in there with the authorities; in 1964 he visited Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe) and was deported back to Mozambique. From there, he left for South Africa in March 1965.

Tsafendas was dogged in his years of travels by a 1938 file drawn up by Portuguese security police, and his rebellious nature and political activities got him into trouble repeatedly in colonial Mozambique, Canada, the United States, and Europe. As early as 1943, he had learned how to trick law enforcement officers and doctors into thinking that he was insane. Whenever he needed to, such as when he applied for a job as a temporary parliamentary messenger in South Africa in 1966, he presented himself as mentally stable, and had good references from former employers.

He had been banned from entering South Africa because of his trouble-making record, and was only able to do so in 1965 because his wider family, most of them by then living there, decided, after many pleas, to help him by bribing a passport officer at the South African embassy in Mozambique to grant him a visa. With this, and a legitimate Portuguese passport, he got in. This was one reason the family feared retribution from the government after the murder, and it made them angry with Tsafendas. Throughout his life, he had upset family members by starting arguments with strangers over politics, but as he pleaded to enter South Africa, he had promised them this was all over. Still, he was driven to act against Verwoerd, whom he habitually called “Hitler’s best student.”

Reading the book has been a personal reckoning for me. Beside its many revelations, I was shaken to find that among the prime sources interviewed were many people I knew, including close family members. My father’s sister, Mary Eintracht, was close to Tsafendas and had much to say to Dousemetzis about his life, character, and travels. Neither she nor my father, both of them now dead, ever spoke of Tsafendas to me, not even when I asked. Not even after I became a journalist.

I admire Dousemetzis’s stated wish to redress the historical wrong of this case, and have felt guilt because I did not do the same. I could have searched in the archives as he did, joined the dots of scattered reports and the few accounts by people who had known Tsafendas in prison. There were documentaries about Tsafendas, made late in his life by the Greek filmmaker Manolis Dimellas and anti-apartheid activist Lisa Key, that could have helped me understand that the story about madness was flawed. Both films undermined the official version, as did Dutch novelist Henk van Woerden’s book A Mouthful of Glass, yet Dousemetzis uncovered far more material in his long investigation of the archives.

Greeks under attack

Immediately after the murder, Greek businesses were attacked and Greek children were called murderers by classmates. The madness story calmed things down for us, as did our silence. Yet if the family had stood by Tsafendas, would there really have been more serious retribution against Greeks and other immigrants, as many feared? And could family members have made a case that Tsafendas was not mad, knowing that it might lead to his execution?

One reason I left South Africa at 22 was that, as a young white, I was sick with guilt over apartheid but felt powerless, with no place in this battle. If Tsafendas’s true motives had been known, it might have made opposition to apartheid seem less futile. I, and others, might not have walked away from the fight.

By feigning madness, Tsafendas did manage to live to see the end of a sick system. And during his physical and psychological isolation, he remained sure of the need for his sacrifice. He told two Greek priests who visited him in 1994, “You are guilty not only when you commit a crime, but also when you do nothing to prevent it when you have the chance. If I don’t burn, if you don’t burn, if we don’t burn, how will the light vanquish the darkness?” He was quoting the Turkish poet Nâzım Hikmet.

Five prominent South African jurists have now signed a letter accompanying Dousemetzis’s report to the justice minister, requesting a reevaluation of the trial verdict: “South African history, in proper recognition of the generations who preceded us as well as those to come, should record in its annals an accurate account of the killing of Dr Verwoerd which recognizes that Tsafendas was motivated to kill him by reason of his deep opposition to apartheid and was indeed a freedom fighter and a hero. This must be acknowledged by a revision and a correction of this event in history.”

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