Dimitri Tsafendas assassinates Verwoerd: more than a footnote in history

2013-09-08 17:52

On September 6, 1966, Dimitri Tsafendas plunged a dagger repeatedly into the heart and lungs of Prime Minister Hendrik Verwoerd.  As Dr Hendrik Verwoerd,  the notorious architect of Apartheid, made his way through parliament, Tsafendas, the 48-year old ‘crazy Greek’ who’d got himself a job as a parliamentary messenger, followed Verwoerd and decisively stabbed him to death.

One could not openly celebrate the assassination of a head of state, and to consider the full humanity of Tsafendas’s existence would have proved impossible at the time. At his trial, Tsafendas claimed that he’d followed instructions from ‘a giant tapeworm’ he believed lived in his body, and was pronounced not guilty by reason of insanity by Judge Andries Beyers. After thirty years in prison, he was finally incarcerated at Sterkfontein psychiatric hospital where he remained until his death in October 1999. Tsafendas and his tragic life, his schizophrenia, his marginalisation by society, which must have exacerbated his schizophrenia, became a footnote in history.

I was reminded of Tsafendas’s story around this time last year when I took my daughter to compete at the South African National Gymnastics Championships in Centurion. This land mass sprawls between Pretoria and Johannesburg, a  lelike plek if there ever was one,  an endless tract of security estate housing and shopping malls (although the clivias were in bloom and jacarandas about to). It was once known as Verwoerdburg Stad.

My plans were to show Louise the historical landmarks of Maropeng, the Cradle of Mankind, the Voortrekker Monument and the Apartheid Museum, to take time out to reflect on our history.  But any parent who follows their kid to a sporting event will know there’s no time for the greater plan.  There might be time for the kid to grab a horrog and slap chips during the breaks, there might be time for a pizza later at a nearby Mall, but during the day the sport is all-consuming.

It was at the Mats Hall (mats line the floor, thus the original name) that we watched lithe and muscular gymnasts flip and somersault on trampoline, vault, bars, beam, until, at last, the victorious lined up, proud and straight-backed in their Provincial tracksuits, for the awards ceremony. Children from eight to eighteen, with names like Testemonia, Thandi, Chantelle, Christelle, Daniel, Tebogo and Tariq jumped on the podium with smiles as bright as the medals scored.

I remember thinking that Verwoerd would be rolling in his grave at the thought of our children - every colour of the SA rainbow - competing on a level playing field.  He’d have had apoplexy knowing that back at the guest house Ouma (as the owner had introduced herself) not only cooked breakfast for black guests, but served it up to them too. She’d insisted on showing me the visitor’s book. ‘Dis n vyf stêr plek hierdie! Home away from home.’ She shared with pride: ‘People come here from everywhere, the UK, Germany, Nelspruit, Ladysmith. Even black people stay here.’ This last morsel delivered with an air of triumph, as if she was keen to share that she’d overcome her limiting prejudice.

Tsafendas had, of course, believed that killing Verwoerd would mean the end of apartheid, but black South Africans continued to be marginalised, defeated and diminished by apartheid, surviving a living hell. The system, so entrenched, would only fall after years of international boycotts, years of coming so close to a civil war before the Nationalist Party bowed to pressure, and common sense and humanity prevailed, and the ANC was unbanned.

Tsafendas in fact, was not the first man to attempt an assassination on Verwoerd.

We have all learned about Sharpeville. On 21 March 1960, 10 000 people marched to a local police station and insisted on being arrested for not carrying pass books. The campaign, orchestrated by the PAC, went pear-shaped and 68 people were massacred by police. It was less than two weeks later, on 9 April, at the VIP stand at the Rand Easter Show, Milner Park, that gunshots rang out as Verwoerd was shot twice at close range.  52-year old farmer David Pratt was arrested and locked up as insane. Verwoerd survived, only to be dealt the death blows several years later.

The child of a Cretian father and a Mozambican mother, Tsafendas, though classified white, was marginalised as a half-breed by every cultural group into which he attempted to assimilate.  The progeny of an illicit affair, he was never accepted by his Greek family. He was brought up in Alexandria by his grandmother, was later sent back to South Africa to boarding school where he continued to be shunned by whites and blacks alike. He was repeatedly slapped down as an outcast till at last, after being denied reclassification as a coloured so that he could marry the coloured woman he’d fallen in love with, he did what he believed he had to do.

Although it is argued that Tsafendas was primarily concerned with the plight of the ‘poor white’, a heart-breaking biography by Henk Van Woerden, The Assassin, shows how damaged Tsafendas had become by the policies which left him in a virtual no man’s land, and which contributed to successive mental breakdown. Six days after the stabbing of Verwoerd, he told police that he had done it because he was ‘disgusted with the racial policy’-  which indeed had eroded his self-worth from the moment he was brought into the world.

The reason I’m reminding you of these stories is firstly, I believe we've come a long way. And secondly, I’d like to know what Manu (and those with similar views), who criticised my last article as ‘surreal’,  feels about Nelson Mandela having visited and shaken the hand of Mrs Betsie Verwoerd in her whites-only community of Orania; "It is always better to sit down and talk," Mandela said, as he visited the widow of the man who was the epitome of evil.  I’m interested to know what Manu feels about Desmond Tutu’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission which enabled countless men who have murdered (no judgement, just fact) to be released from Death Row, on amnesty.

Surely these actions point to the kind of giant leaps we have made to understand each other as ‘people’, and to understand  and come to terms with the kind of convoluted history we've suffered.  If we hail those leaders whom many respect and revere  - Mandela and Tutu to name only two known to preach and practice tolerance -  then we should follow their example instead of clinging to our insecurities, our fears, our  petty hatreds which are symptomatic of intolerance.

This year the National gymnastics competition was held in Oudtshoorn.  Victorious athletes applauded each other, shook hands with and hugged each other.  No matter the background -  ‘race’ or ‘colour’ of the competitors -  the winners were celebrated as those whose routines were the most polished on the day. Maybe the thing to do is to take an example from our children who seem largely oblivious of whether they are black, brown or pink.

The problem when one takes sides on the black/ white question, is that the ‘race issue’ becomes a monster which threatens to eat us whole and spit us out. I’m not saying, and never have said, that we ignore inequalities or deny history. What I’m saying is let’s look beyond colour.

It was colour and race, this belief in separation, that motivated Hendrik Verwoerd to instigate the heinous laws of apartheid. It was the divisions around colour that made Tsafendas suffer to the point that the only option was to kill. It was the belief of security police that ‘black’ was inferior which led to crimes against humanity. It is this constant focus on race -  and the many assumptions we make and conclusions we jump to about each other based on 'race' - that is so destructive.

It was in reading Tsafendas biography that I truly understood Breyten Breytenbach’s endorsement: ‘Van Woerden has ....fetched Tsafendas out of the darkness and our ignomious silence so that we may be acquainted with the full humanity of his existence.’

This is the thing then: by listening to each other, talking, and learning, we come to understand that as South Africans, we are inextricably entwined, linked, and that surely we can find solutions together to the problems that face us. We have to. We have to learn from history.


AB praises selfless skipper

2010-11-21 18:15

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