This week marks 25 years since the man credited with taking down the foundation of apartheid by assassinating the man who engineered the oppressive system was transferred from the Pretoria Central Prison to a mental institution.
Dimitri Tsafendas, a temporary Parliament messenger, killed Dr Hendrik Verwoerd in cold blood on the floor of the then House of Assembly on 06 September 1966.
He had followed him into the debating chamber, where he was due to make a speech.
He pulled out a sheaf knife and plunged it into his heart and lungs four times.
Pandemonium broke and Tsafendas was restrained.
The Prime Minister died within minutes from his wounds, which some believe could only have been made with training.
In a statement to the police six days after the assassination, Tsafendas admitted to the murder, saying he was disgusted by apartheid.
“I did not care about the consequences for what would happen to me afterwards. I was so disgusted with the racial policy that I went through with my plans to kill the Prime Minister.”
A point he repeated in a documentary on his life more than 20 years ago.
However, due to his previous brushes with the law and mental diagnosis, an investigation into his mental state was conducted. After observations by at least six psychiatrists he was confirmed to have schizophrenia.
In the report, Tsafendas had blamed the killing on a tapeworm living in his stomach, which he said, ordered him to carry out the act.
A three-day inquiry into the murder was conducted and he was declared unfit to stand trial – getting him off the murder charge.
Judge Andries Beyers committed him as a state President’s patient, creating an expectation that he would be held in a mental hospital.
“I can as little try a man who has not at least the makings of a rational mind as I could try a dog or an inert implement … He is a meaningless creature !” Judge Beyers pronounced.
Life in Prison
However, instead of keeping him in a psychiatric hospital as expected, the National Party government placed him on death row after exploiting a loophole in the law. Tsafendas was held for four months on Robben Island and was later placed on death row in the Pretoria Central Prison, renamed Kgosi Mampuru II Correctional Centre.
The cell was specially designed for him and he was punished daily for his deed for at least 23 years. It was within an earshot of the execution chamber; he could hear prisoners when they were being taken for their last journey of life; hear them breathing; their cries and the silence that follows their hanging.
In the mornings, Tsafendas woke up to see the prisoners hanging.
He’s says warders used to put a strait jacket on him and punched him until he was unconscious. They also threw out his food, poured water on his bed and sometimes on the floor and asked him to clean it up.
Tsafendas was transferred to Zonderwater Prison in 1989, after 23 years of torture.
On 30 June 1994, Correctional Services Minister Dr Sipho Mzimela did what the National Party government should have done when Tsafendas was declared insane on 20 October 1966.
He announced that he would be moved to Sterkfontein Psychiatric Hospital, where he spent his last days on earth.
Government had wanted to release him from custody, but couldn’t find any family or friends who could accommodate him at the time.
Tsafendas died a lonely man in 1999, from pneumonia. He was buried in an unmarked grave, something that doesn’t seat well with former ANC Eastern Cape Provincial Member of Parliament, Christian Martins.
Martins believes Tsafendas shouldn’t go down in history as a deranged man, but a man who played a part in liberating Black people from the National Party’s oppressive racial policies.
In 2013, he applied for Tsafendas and Verwoerd’s graves to be declared national heritage sites. The request was rejected by the National Heritage Council.
While Martins respects the decision, he says Tsafendas and Verwoerd’s story is not one to be swept under the carpet. Martins believes that had Verwoerd lived longer, the Holocaust was going to be a child’s play compared to the devastating impact the policies that Verwoerd advocated for and had effectively developed could have had.
Changing the course of history
Tsafendas was 48 years old when he made history, sending the Afrikaner world into mourning and exhilarating those who either disagreed or were on the receiving hand of the brutal apartheid laws.
Tsafendas managed to carry out an act wealthy businessman and farmer, David Pratt had tried six years earlier against a man he called the epitome of apartheid.
Pratt shot Verwoerd twice on the face at close range when opening the Rand Show in Johannesburg in 1960. He later told authorities that he had not wanted to kill him but had hoped the incident could give him time to re-think his government’s policies.
The assassination attempt happened 19 days after the Sharpville massacre, a tragedy that reportedly also got Tsafendas hopping mad. According to SA History, he decided to take violent action against the apartheid regime after the gunning down of unarmed peaceful anti-pass law protesters. He had previously wanted to kidnap the man who was once described as having seen Black people as a problem he couldn’t solve in exchange of political prisoners. He however ditched the idea after realising it wasn’t going to be a walk in the park.
Who was Tsafendas
Tsafendas was born in 1918 in Mozambique to a mixed woman and a Greek father.
He never knew his mother Amelia as he was raised by his paternal grandmother. He suffered discrimination when he was at a boarding school here in South Africa, earning a nickname – Blackie.
Tsafendas never married and apparently longed to have a baby boy.
He had loved a white girl but is said to have been afraid to marry her as he would produce a Black child.
A madman or hero
Tsafendas was a well-traveled man who spoke more than eight languages. He was banned in Mozambique and South Africa for his political views in 1942. He persuaded the Portuguese to grant him amnesty in 1963, saying he was no longer a communist and anti-colonialist. He was able to re-enter South Africa in 1964 after his family bribed an immigration official following the death of his father.
Tsafendas spent most of his life crisscrossing the world and spent most of his time in Portugal. He took part in the Greek civil war – allegedly fighting on the side of the communists.
He has nonetheless denied being a communist.
Days before the assassination Tsafendas was classified as white, but had applied for re-classification as a coloured.
Truth or fiction
In a documentary on his life, Tsafendas’ friend and church mate Patrick O’Ryan paints a story of frustration, heartache and injustice that drove a decent man to the edge.
O’Ryan says Tsafendas once expressed disgust for Verwoerd, saying he’d bash his skull should he ever get hold of him.
However, he says these are the facts he never disclosed to authorities during the inquiry into the killing.
Instead, he says, they went along with the cover-up worm story that investigators asked them to give as an account while testifying to get Tsafendas off the death row.
O’Ryan says the worm story was more of a joke between him and Tsafendas because he ate a lot.
Tsafendas had, after all, been hospitalised for a tapeworm delusion at Grafton State Hospital, Massachusetts, in 1946, and again in Hamburg, in 1955. After the assassination, at least six psychiatrists confirmed his diagnosis of schizophrenia and/or delusion.
Even long after any threat of execution had ended, he is said to have still discussed the worm in some detail with his first biographer, Henk van Woerden. Tsafendas told Van Woerden he’d contracted the tapeworm as a boy, but medicine had killed only half of it. He left instructions in his will for his body to be biopsied to find the worm.
While some believe Verwoerd’s assassination was an act of mindlessness – others suspect the murder was planned. They cite his detachment to the gravity of his deeds as reason enough to believe Tsafendas was trained to kill Verwoerd.
Others have suspiciously pointed the missile to then Police Minister John Vorster, whom they believe appeared to calm when the knife was plunged into Verwoerd’s body.
The psychiatrist who treated him and David Pratt, the man who had shot Verwoerd six years before the assassination, is another suspect.
He apparently treated both men in 1959 and was present at the Rand Show during an attempt on Verwoerd’s life six years earlier.
Writer and former political prisoner Breyten Breytenbach has described Tsafendas and Nelson Mandela as two sides of the same coin.
In her thesis, Dr Zuleiga Adams says Verwoerd’s assassination exposed the fault lines of apartheid governance.
“Tsafendas’ life story had, as we shall see, defied the rules of racial rationalism upon which the apartheid state was based. He had crisscrossed South African and international borders with seeming impunity. His personal genealogy was the very antithesis of a system where racial laws were tightly designed to eliminate frontier zones between white and black. His very presence in South Africa attested to the failure of an immigration regime to keep out ‘half-castes’, ‘communists’, and the ‘mentally disturbed’, as he was variously referred to in official documentation.”
The author of a fairly-newly released book on Tsafendas Harris Dousemetzi has petitioned government to rectify history books on the man he hails as an unsung hero.
He believes he was a revolutionary who killed Verwoerd with the hope that his death will result to a just and equal society for all.
Dousemetzi’s call has been supported by some of the country’s great legal minds, including human rights lawyer, George Bizos, former Truth and Reconciliation Commissioner Dumisa Ntsebeza and retired Constitutional Court justice Zak Yacoob.