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On September 06 1966 just after 14:15 Dr HF Verwoerd was stabbed by Dimitri Tsafendas in the neck and chest four times. There was an earlier attempt on his life in 1960.
Pieter du Toit
It's South Africa’s JFK moment – people who were alive on September 6, 1966 can to this day remember exactly where they were when Dr Hendrik Frensch Verwoerd was assassinated.
Just after 14:00, exactly 50 years ago today, the nationalist Prime Minister was stabbed to death in the House of Assembly in Parliament just as the afternoon session was about to start. Assassin Dimitri Tsafendas’ actions left Afrikaner intelligentsia reeling, and the shockwaves it sent through Afrikanerdom are still felt today.
50 years later, we are still grappling with the legacy of his disastrous and dehumanising policies of social engineering, which were declared a crime against humanity – it remains almost unfathomable that he wielded so much power and exerted so much influence on generations of South Africans.
It’s a well-worn story among Afrikaners: how the emergency bulletin came through on the SABC’s radio service – with a beep-beep-beep announcing that something serious had happened – the announcer saying the Prime Minister had been stabbed and the sombre music that was played for the rest of the afternoon after Verwoerd’s death became official.
Verwoerd represented everything Afrikaners wanted themselves to be: he was intelligent, articulate, authoritative and confident. In 1966, the country was (economically) enjoying, in the words of the Rand Daily Mail, “a surfeit of prosperity”, with a commodities boom making white South Africa one of the most privileged societies on earth.
The grand political project of uniting English and Afrikaans speakers - after the tumult of the South African War, the Rebellion of 1914, two World Wars and the Smuts government - was complete, while the National Party also delivered a Republic and exited the Commonwealth.
Verwoerd, the third NP premier, seemingly was the embodiment of a people taking charge of their country and its ability to stare down the rest of the world. He enabled Afrikaners – rendered destitute, poor and largely uneducated after the “Boer War” – to challenge their English-speaking counterparts for supremacy.
Government policy enabled Afrikaners to empower themselves academically and economically and to create a white utopia which, a mere 60 years before, seemed impossible – while relegating the black majority to a life of struggle.
His convictions gave people self-confidence. With Verwoerd at the helm there was no doubt and no uncertainty. (He once told an interviewer: “I don’t have the worry that when I go to sleep I might wonder whether or not I am wrong.”)
He was also able to coherently and convincingly explain the racist apartheid policy to critics, selling it as a just and logical framework to bring fairness and justice to the different “national groups” comprising South Africa. For Verwoerd, the righteousness of racial segregation was never up for debate, and at the time he was able to cloak apartheid in a veneer of academic and sociological respectability – the crudeness of his immediate predecessor, Advocate JG Strijdom (“the Lion of the North”), having been a source of discomfort for many.
On December 5, 1950, shortly after he became minister for native affairs, Verwoerd addressed the Natives’ Representative Council, a body on which a number of black leaders sat and which was supposed to serve as a forum for dialogue with government (Chief Albert Luthuli tried to make it work, but eventually denounced it).
In his address to the Council, he explained the basic tenets of “separate development”, which stayed the same until his death. “The Bantu has been led to believe that the word ‘apartheid’ means suppression, or even that it means that the natives will be dispossessed of their areas. Apartheid actually means exactly the opposite.”
“In order to avoid all sorts of unpleasantness and a dangerous future for both population groups (white and black), this government wants for others exactly that which it claims for itself. It believes in the rule, or baasskap, of whites in their areas, and the rule, or baasskap, of the Bantu in his area.
“Government wants to give the white child all possible chances for self-development, prosperity and volksdiens in his own area, and for the Bantu the same opportunities to fulfil his ambitions and the rendering of service to his own people,” Verwoerd told the gathering.
“There is therefore no policy of suppression, only the creation of a dispensation that the Bantu has never enjoyed, namely the opportunity to develop in accordance with his language, traditions, history and the different Bantu peoples.”
Whites felt safe in the knowledge that Verwoerd, their leader, could moor apartheid in morality and justice and that he could explain it with such clarity that even South Africa’s staunchest critic could say: “Some of it makes sense…”
When he was murdered it was as if all the confidence built up after 1948 evaporated – there was great uncertainty about who had the assertiveness and the vision to complete the task Verwoerd had undertaken on behalf of white South Africa. The Nationalists’ vision for a workable and “acceptable” apartheid scheme died with Verwoerd – certainly his successors John Vorster and PW Botha weren’t able to make it work, while FW de Klerk eventually oversaw its demise.
Even though apartheid started unravelling on this day in 1966, the leaders that came after Verwoerd gave strong, Calvinistic and dour leadership to an increasingly embattled white South Africa, and to Afrikaners in particular. The loss of political power in 1994 was therefore an enormously traumatic event for Afrikaners, and is still hotly debated today. (De Klerk and Roelf Meyer being easy targets for many who troll website comment sections or bombard newspaper letterboxes.)
I once met Betsie Verwoerd in her Orania home, in the Northern Cape, in 1995. She was old, frail and smiling, and I was struck by the stately and regal manner in which she carried herself. Still Verwoerd’s wife.
She took my arm and showed me around the small, dark Verwoerd house, filled with memorabilia and gifts from her time as First Lady, including wooden carvings from a black community in the Eastern Cape, leather-bound photo albums with family snaps and pictures of her husband’s funeral, and stinkwood furniture, accumulated over a lifetime.
“What do you want to be one day, young man?” she enquired in a grandmotherly fashion. “Go back home and hold our name high wherever you go,” she said, smiling. I was unsure whose name I should hold high – the Afrikaner’s? Verwoerd’s? My own?
Verwoerd completely dominated Afrikaner society and politics for more than a decade.
Piet Cillié, editor of Die Burger, wrote the day after his death: “The influence of his enormous willpower and drive is felt in all corners of the country’s administration and public life. It sometimes felt as if he dominated the landscape so completely, that the power of his personality and authority was so overwhelming, that initiative in the lower ranks suffered and that active citizenry was replaced by mere followers.”
There’s no doubt that the vast majority of Afrikaners made the trek to our post-1994 society and are committed to its future. Even though you’ll be hard-pressed to find a Verwoerd apologist today, his death remains a seminal moment in Afrikaner lore – the beginning of the end of Afrikaner domination.
** Pieter du Toit is Assistant Editor at Huisgenoot. He is a former Parliamentary Correspondent for Beeld.
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