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27 March 2000

The assassin and the tapeworm

The killer of Verwoerd, architect of apartheid, remains unhonoured in South Africa even now. Jon Rob

By Jon Robins

At 2.10pm on 6 September 1966, Dimitri Tsafendas, a parliamentary messenger in South Africa’s now defunct Assembly House, crossed the parliament floor, unsheathed a dagger and plunged its blade four times into the chest of the prime minister, Dr Hendrik Verwoerd.

Thus Verwoerd, the so-called “architect of apartheid”, was brought to an abrupt and bloody end. Tragically, the despised system of separate development was to survive another three decades. But each successive prime minister – John Vorster, P W Botha and finally F W de Klerk – was forced to dismantle the edifice brick by brick.

There was little grieving for Tsafendas, and there were no elegies honouring his contribution to the fight against apartheid when he was laid to rest last October. The 81-year-old assassin died of pneumonia in a mental institution after spending most of his life on a South African death row.

Fewer than ten people turned up at St Andrew’s Greek Orthodox church. It was out of a sense of duty that the local Greek community pitched in to spare the son of a Cretan-born engineer the ignominy of the pauper’s grave.

But it could have been a different story. “Displaced person, sailor, Christian, communist, liberation fighter, political prisoner, hero” was the dedication on one wreath. It was from the South African film-maker Liza Key, who believes that her country’s hall of fame to the liberation struggle is one hero short.

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Verwoerd’s death, like John F Kennedy’s assassination three years before, was a moment that defined an era. A generation of South Africans can recall where they were when the news broke of the murder. In the US, there was an outpouring of inconsolable grief for Kennedy, but in South Africa most people were happy to see the back of the old tyrant Verwoerd.

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The leader of the liberal Progressive Party at the time, Helen Suzman, the only opposition member in parliament that day, shed no tears. “I thought we were rid of one of the worst scourges we had,” she said. She has no doubts that Verwoerd’s death changed the course of South African history. She believes that the hated policies of the Verwoerd era wrecked the lives of two generations of blacks, and that their legacy still casts a shadow.

But what of his killer? “The man was a nutcase. He used to say that he had a tapeworm that used to growl every time he passed a cake shop,” Suzman says. The story of “Tsafendas and the worm” has reduced the stature of this political assassin to little more than a freakish footnote in the liberation story. According to the legend, the delusional assassin was acting under the command of a giant tapeworm wrapped around his guts. This is the man the people of South Africa remember today – the crazy Greek with no race axe to grind – if they remember him at all.

Judge Beyers pronounced Tsafendas mad at his trial. But his frenzied attack was too reprehensible for psychiatric treatment and too insane for the noose ; he was left to rot on death row in Pretoria Central Prison.

In a brutal judgement, Beyers sought to deny the defendant any humanity. “I can as little try a man who has not in the least the makings of a rational mind as I could try a dog or an inert implement. He is a meaningless creature.”

Meaningless? Even a cursory analysis of Tsafendas’s troubled life serves as a reminder of the damage done in an age when racism was a national obsession put on the statute books.

Tsafendas was born in Mozambique in 1918, the son of a Greek engineer, and moved to the Transvaal at the age of ten. On account of his dark complexion, he was taunted and nicknamed “Blackie”. Four years later, when he returned to Mozambique, the Tsafendas family secret was revealed: he was the illegitimate son of a Mozambican woman – and thus “coloured”, not “white” as many still believe. He returned to South Africa in 1936 and, a year later, the tapeworm made its first appearance. He complained that it gave him stomach-ache and that he could hear it moving. Two demons – race and madness – began gnawing at his psyche. They would never leave him.

In 1941, he joined the merchant navy and began a bizarre odyssey that was to last almost a quarter of a century. Key, in a submission she made to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission three years ago, tracked this journey. The itinerant Tsafendas picked up odd jobs and settled fleetingly in various countries, but ended up either in psychiatric care or being deported. At one point, he crossed the frozen St Croix river from Canada to the US. On another occasion, he presented himself at the Mandelbaum Gate demanding entry from Israel to Jordan. He spent six months on New York’s Ellis Island; received shock treatment in a German asylum; was certified insane in England; baptised on a beach in Greece; received more shock treatment in Germany; and passed through France as a refugee under the auspices of the Red Cross.

His moments of madness are chronicled in an inquiry made after the trial. A US psychiatric report in 1946 describes how he complained of voices in radiators and smeared his excrement on the hospital walls. The report is one of many findings of schizophrenia. It also reveals his grievances about the race politics of South Africa. Tsafendas was pining for a South African girlfriend, but he feared that their offspring would be black.

Those grievances take on political expression. Allegations of subversive behaviour and flirtations with communism followed him around the world. He was particularly concerned with the fight for independence in his homeland, Mozambique. The inquiry unearthed a startling internal memo from the Mozambican security police. Tsafendas “of mixed blood (a coloured)”, it reported, was spotted consorting with “persons of the negro race (blacks)” in a hotel bar.

In 1964, Tsafendas was back in South Africa and – in spite of mixed parentage, communism and periods of insanity – landed himself a job as a messenger in the whites-only parliament, within reach of Verwoerd. Shortly before the assassination, he applied for reclassification from “white” to “coloured”. Six days after the assassination, Tsafendas told the police that he had killed Verwoerd because he was “so disgusted with the racial policy”.

The leaders of the new South Africa remain reluctant to talk about the man who delivered one of the most profound blows against apartheid. Nelson Mandela in his autobiography, A Long Walk to Freedom, deftly sidesteps him. Political assassination is not a strategy that the ANC supports, he wrote. In his memoirs, Mandela does not even name the man who felled the despot, but he describes him as an “obscure white messenger”. Again, it is the story of the mad Greek who turned on his own for no reason. Today, neither the Pan-Africanist Congress nor the South African Communist Party acknowledges the man. Indeed, the latter – in a display of uncomradely pique – insists that he was never a member, despite evidence that he was.

Songezo Mjongile, a national executive member of the ANC Youth League, says: “We simply note his action as an isolated incident informed by the context in which [the killing] took place.” And what was the context? A society that viewed Tsafendas as “this white who is black . . . or a black man in a white skin” which led to the assassin forming his own agenda. Mjongile rules out any suggestion that any form of political conviction inspired Tsafendas’s act. Even posthumously, Tsafendas is the outsider, excluded from the liberation movement because his battle was seen as personal rather than political. Mandela ordered him to be moved to the Sterkfontein mental hospital in 1994. But, by then, prison had done a good job in destroying whatever was left of the man’s sanity.

Sadistic warders are reported to have urinated in his food, trussed him up in a straitjacket and beat the living daylights out of him. His cell was situated next to a brutal symbol of the old politics of hate: the prison gallows. Three ropes hung over a gate in the floor, and on each rope were tied two nooses to accommodate the regular executions.

The South African-born novelist and painter Henk Van Woerd befriended Tsafendas in the hospital. He avoids the “hero or villain” analysis of Tsafendas, but says that his life was indicative of the trauma that beset South Africa. To dismiss the man as mad is to be unfair both to the man and his deed. The assassination was a rational act in a country gone mad, Van Woerd reckons.

In her A Question of Madness, Key captures Tsafendas talking movingly of a moment of kindness 70 years ago by a fellow pupil defending him from the racial taunts of the headmaster’s son. “These blond people gave me an insecurity complex,” he remembers.

The tapeworm was there until the end. Tsafendas, in his will, requested a postmortem to decide the issue, but the authorities never honoured his wish.

Now that he is dead, South Africa has found a place for the misfit assassin. Just as Tsafendas resisted being defined under the dehumanising race laws, so he still evades classification today. He was neither black nor white, and neither sane nor totally insane. He was not a freedom fighter and he certainly was not a “meaningless creature”. So where do you put him? He was laid to rest in an unmarked grave in Krugersdorp last October.