PRIME Minister Hendrik Verwoerd died in the chamber of the House of Assembly from four stab wounds to the neck and chest. His assailant was beaten up by National Party members of parliament while P.W. Botha screamed at the lone Progressive Party representative Helen Suzman that liberals were responsible: ‘we’ll get the lot of you’. It happened fifty years ago this coming Tuesday on 6 September 1966. And while caution is required in identifying apparent turning points in history, especially the actions of individuals, there is no doubt this was a signal moment for South Africa, one that is possibly under-estimated.

Dimitri Tsafendas was the assassin. Born in Lourenço Marques in 1918, he was the illegitimate son of a Greek engineer and a Mozambiquan woman, 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 where he was nicknamed ‘Blackie’. For nearly a quarter of a century he drifted around the world, often as a seaman: Jack Kahn in the New Yorker described him memorably as going everywhere and getting nowhere.  The number of countries from which he was deported was matched only by admissions to psychiatric wards. Diagnoses varied but Tsafendas was generally regarded as schizophrenic, an intelligent, articulate and sociable person who functioned capably at times; with an ugly side, limited concentration and a tendency to ramble. This was later to be passed off as gross disturbance. His ultimate dream was to marry and settle in South Africa. He returned finally in 1963, a coloured man (although not classified as such) 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; and no more unlikely employer than the South African parliament.

The Natal Witness in an editorial described the murder of Verwoerd as ‘utterly meaningless’. This could not have been wider of the mark. The assassination, its reporting and the government’s reaction was all too full of meaning.

This was the second attempt on Verwoerd’s life. Neither Tsafendas nor David Pratt, his unsuccessful predecessor during the 1960 Emergency, was ever convicted. Pratt was labelled insane, but reportedly committed suicide while his future was being considered in 1961. Tsafendas was also judged unfit to plead. There are two possible interpretations. The first reveals 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 choice was clear.

The second is more intriguing. Was there a plot against Verwoerd that the trial of Tsafendas would have revealed? In 1966 there was speculation that since Verwoerd was due 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. But how had Tsafendas managed to get a job in Parliament so easily?

The immediate investigation was headed by the notorious security policeman ‘Lang’ Hendrik van den Berg (like Vorster detained in World War II as a neo-Nazi) who denied the existence of a dossier on Tsafendas. This was clearly untrue. He had been noted as a member of the Communist Party of South Africa 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’ recent arrest had shown), as a troublemaker and undesirable; and by the security services of a number of other countries. Was the apartheid state that lax and inefficient?

It subsequently transpired that the authorities possessed files on Tsafendas under various names. But he had recently attracted attention from outspoken comment and then trying for reclassification from white to coloured, a rare event aggravated by his derogatory comments about the community he wished to join. Furthermore, in September 1966 there was reportedly a deportation order waiting to be served on him, although his destination is hard to imagine given that Mozambique had previously expelled him.

He went on trial in mid-October 1966 before Cape Judge-President Andries Beyers amid a general thirst for revenge. But the mood of the proceedings changed rapidly. Naturally the defence pleaded deep-seated mental disorder and a number of health professionals testified accordingly. The State psychiatrist, after a day or two arguing for sanity, abruptly agreed. Either there was a plot that required cover up or the security services needed to obscure their incompetence. Beyers halted cross-examination of State witnesses, thus closing the door on further speculation and revelation, and declared Tsafendas unfit to stand trial, a decision that apparently suited everyone.

Tsafendas provided the perfect corroboration claiming that since the age of fifteen he had been possessed by a giant tapeworm that governed his behaviour, including the ‘demon’ that had incited him to knife Verwoerd. Yet for much of the remaining 33 years of his sad life he lived in conditions that (in the experience of Breyten Breytenbach) amounted to torture at Pretoria Central prison and was transferred to Sterkfontein Hospital only in 1989. The Van Wyk Commission that endorsed the insanity decision nevertheless argued that Tsafendas should have been held as a mental patient. In spite of his deed, Tsafendas was a demonstrably non-political figure and the post-liberation ANC government has never accorded him any significance. Gavin Cooper writing about his father Wilfrid, Tsafendas’ advocate at the trial, points out that the assassin – rejected, deported, institutionalised and imprisoned – was denied recognition as a criminal, political or mental prisoner. This was the ultimate punishment of total anonymity. The Truth and Reconciliation Commission dealt with him in cursory fashion and he remains in historical limbo. There is a sense that history has been suppressed in both authoritarian, apartheid South Africa and its liberated, democratic successor.

The tapeworm was used to ridicule Tsafendas, although it was not an unreasonable metaphor for a man whose life experiences were shaped by racism and apartheid’s bureaucracy. However, a number of fellow patients and psychologists who encountered Tsafendas believe he was an accomplished actor who was shamming and that his above average intelligence and vast experience of mental health institutions enabled him to use the tapeworm for his own ends when necessary. Was the victim also cunning and unscrupulous? This would increase the likelihood of a plot to kill Verwoerd; or at the very least fortuitous circumstances that were adroitly exploited.

The decade of the 1960s was arguably 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. Coincidentally, 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? Virtually every statement about him leads to further questions whose answers now seem irretrievable. But in a sense the tapeworm remains the central figure. Were it not for the assassination Tsafendas would have disappeared into historical insignificance; although hardly without trace because a life of little apparent consequence was remarkably well documented in official records in several countries. 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 and with a poor grasp of chronology. Van Woerden summed him up as a ‘survivor of the detritus of South African history’. This seems as close an understanding as will ever be possible of a man who was a victim of confused identity and a general rootlessness.

Both Tsafendas and Verwoerd were troubled fantasists. Tsafendas, deemed out of touch with reality, was punished by a life of rejection, confinement and the ultimate obscurity of a largely unremarked burial. Verwoerd was elected Prime Minister and handed the power to damage the lives of millions of South Africans from far beyond his grave. His grand plans, endorsed for decades by most of the white population of South Africa, to force fellow citizens on the basis of perceived race into labour reserves, make-believe states of no possible viability, constituted one of the twentieth century’s greatest examples of mass human rights abuse. Apartheid was declared religious heresy.

Who was truly mad? There are no prizes for judging the greater danger to humankind; but the one remains the misfit, the other the statesman.

Further reading: Gavin Cooper, Under Devil’s Peak: The Life and Times of Wilfrid Cooper, an Advocate in the Age of Apartheid (Cape Town: Mercury, 2016); Peter Lambley, The Psychology of Apartheid (London: Gollancz, 1980); and Henk van Woerden, A Mouthful of Glass; translated by Dan Jacobson (Johannesburg: Ball, 2000).

Sharp Thoughts from the Thornveld 46, 2 September 2016