ON 7 September 1966, Prime Minister Hendrik Verwoerd died in the chamber of the House of Assembly from stab wounds. The adjective Verwoerdian subsequently entered the language as a description of extremism based on racial categorisation, although surprisingly his name is still found on street signs in certain parts of South Africa.

The assassin was Dimitri Tsafendas, born in Lourenco Marques in 1918 the illegitimate son of a Greek engineer and a Mozambiquan woman called Amelia Williams whom he never knew. Rejected by his family, he was sent to his grandmother in Egypt and then in his teens to school in Middelburg (Eastern Transvaal). For nearly a quarter of a century he drifted around the world, the number of countries from which he was deported matched only by admissions to psychiatric wards. There were varied diagnoses but Tsafendas was basically schizophrenic, an intelligent and sociable person with an ugly side that destroyed relationships. His ultimate dream was to marry and settle in South Africa. He returned finally in 1964, a coloured man with unstable mental health, a major identity crisis and a tendency to make his hatred of apartheid loudly known. There was probably no worse place in the world for him at the time.

The Natal Witness in an editorial characterised by contemporary heavy-handed conservatism called the murder of Verwoerd ‘cruel and utterly meaningless.’ The leader writer was correct on the first count, but way off the mark on the second. The assassination, its reporting and the government’s reaction was indeed full of meaning.

This was the second attempt on Verwoerd’s life. Neither Tsafendas nor David Pratt, his unsuccessful predecessor, was ever convicted. Pratt was labelled insane, but reportedly committed suicide before his trial could begin. Tsafendas was judged unfit to plead. There are two ways in which to interpret this. The first is revealing of the psychology of apartheid. Anyone who attacked the most obvious symbol of the supposed logic and philosophy of God’s chosen people in southern Africa simply had to be disturbed: as Verwoerd, played by Marius Weyers in the play I.D., says, ‘either they are mad, or we are.’

The second is even more intriguing. Was there in fact a plot against Verwoerd that the trials of Pratt and Tsafendas would have revealed? Certainly in 1966 there was speculation that since Verwoerd was about to make a major policy announcement about the bantustans there may have been elements in the National Party keen to remove him. John Vorster came to the curiously speedy, publicly announced conclusion within 48 hours of the murder that there was no plot. And how had Tsafendas managed to get a job in Parliament so easily?

The investigation was headed by the notorious security policeman Hendrik van den Bergh who denied the existence of a dossier on Tsafendas. This was utter nonsense. He had been noted as a member of the Communist Party of South Africa and of mixed blood in the late 1930s and refused entry to South Africa no less than eight times. He was also known to the Mozambique security police (PIDE), who worked closely with the South African authorities (as Dennis Brutus’s recent capture had shown), as a troublemaker and undesirable; and by the security services of a number of other countries. Was the apartheid state that inefficient?

It subsequently transpired that the authorities had files on him in variants of his name. But Tsafendas had recently attracted attention by outspoken comment and then trying for reclassification from white to coloured, a rare enough event. Furthermore, in September 1966 there was a deportation order waiting to be served on him, although his destination is hard to imagine. The only real possibility was Mozambique, which had previously expelled him.

The decade of the 1960s was possibly the most desolate in recent South African history. The totalitarian state ruled supreme, unchallenged in any major way: it is a period about which we still know surprisingly little. The response to Verwoerd’s death in the English-language press was formal, somewhat detached but also noticeably deferential. In Pietermaritzburg any activity that could possibly be regarded as inessential was abruptly cancelled and the local Greek community ducked for cover. The Natal Witness described Verwoerd as a colossus and he was lauded elsewhere as a cedar of Lebanon, while the murder was compared closely with that of Julius Caesar. Oddly enough, there was a non-fatal knife attack on an employee at the South African Embassy in London six days later.

Verwoerd is known only too well, but who was Tsafendas? For the remaining 33 years of his sad life he lived in various forms of darkness on death row at Pretoria Central and then Sterkfontein Hospital. Famously he believed he was infected by a giant tapeworm, something that was used to ridicule him. But it was a reasonable metaphor for a man whose life experiences were shaped by the insanity of racism and apartheid’s bureaucracy. The Dutch/South African writer Henk van Woerden interviewed him in the mid-1990s and wrote a sympathetic portrait, finding him remarkably alert in view of his experiences, a man obsessed by certain ideas but with a poor grasp of chronology. Van Woerden summed him up as a ‘survivor of the detritus of South African history’.

Both Tsafendas and Verwoerd were troubled fantasists. Tsafendas was punished by a life of rejection, confinement and the ultimate obscurity of an unmarked burial. Verwoerd was elected Prime Minister and handed the power to damage the lives of South Africans from beyond his grave. There are no prizes for judging who was the greater danger to humankind; but the one is still recorded as the misfit, the other as the statesman.

Immediately after the murder P.W. Botha screamed at Helen Suzman that liberals were responsible and threatened to ‘get the lot of you.’ It sometimes feels as if nothing much has changed.

This article was first published in The Witness on 5 September 2006 and entitled ‘The murder of Hendrik Verwoerd’.

Further reading: Henk van Woerden, A Mouthful of Glass (Johannesburg: Jonathan Ball, 2000).