When Dimitri Tsafendas killed South African Prime Minister Hendrik Verwoerd on September 6, 1966, the courts decided it was an act of a madman. Yet the Greek-Mozambican knew very well that the man he stabbed to death was the architect of apartheid, and he considered it his “moral obligation” to assassinate him.
The little-known story of Tsafendas comes to light in a new book titled “The Man Who Killed Apartheid: The Life of Dimitri Tsafendas,” written by researcher Harris Dousemetzis with journalist Gerry Loughran.
Dousemetzis spent nine years researching the life of the man who, on September 6, 1966, entered South Africa‘s packed parliament building, where he worked as a courier, and stabbed the prime minister. PM Hendrik Verwoerd was assassinated in front of all the assembled lawmakers of South Africa as well as a full contingent of the press.
Tsafendas was brutally tortured during his subsequent interrogation. He confessed that the prime minister’s assassination came about as a result of on his own initiative, for purely political reasons, because he considered Verwoerd a racist tyrant.
The Greek-Mozambican assailant was put through a psychiatric assessment and was found to be suffering from schizophrenia. In the end, he was acquitted of the crime by reason of insanity.
Dousemetzis’ book presents evidence showing that Tsafendas was actually a militant advocate of human rights. The writer exhaustively studied police files, psychiatric records, immigration documents and testimonies of people who had known the man.
A turbulent life
Dimitri Tsafendas was born to a Greek father of Cretan origin who worked as a marine engineer. His father married his Mozambican mother in 1918 in Lourenco Marques (now Maputo), the capital of Portuguese Mozambique.
At the age of three Dimitri was sent to live with his grandmother and aunt in the Greek community of Alexandria, Egypt.
Young Tsafendas was extremely interested in politics at an early age, and perhaps this was due to the fact that his father was an anarchist. Or perhaps it was because his Cretan ancestors had a history of heroism and rebellion against their Ottoman overlords.
In any event, Tsafendas was fascinated by the concept of communism, and Portuguese authorities were already aware of his political activism when at the age of 21 he emigrated to South Africa.
He joined the Communist Party there and was not afraid to express his political views openly, a fact which cost him many jobs. In 1942 he embarked on a Greek freighter destined for Canada, working in the ship’s kitchen.
From Canada he crossed over the border to the United States, subsequently working on American merchant ships before being arrested for violation of US immigration laws. Later, he was admitted to psychiatric hospitals several different times.
Tsafendas was deported to Greece in 1947, when the Greek Civil War was raging. He joined the communist guerrillas and fought with them in the mountains around Athens and central Greece, and he later moved to the capital to work as an informant for the party.
Shortly before the Civil War ended in 1949, he moved to Portugal, where the authorities jailed him and tortured him because of his previous political activities. In 1951 Tsafendas attempted to travel to Mozambique but he was refused entry into the country because of his political activities.
He spent the next twelve years of his life roaming from country to country throughout Western Europe and the Middle East. He had managed to learn several languages during that time, and even worked as a teacher in Istanbul.
Return to South Africa
In 1963, Tsafendas returned to Mozambique, where he was finally allowed to enter the country. From there he illegally crossed over into South Africa. The native black population there, along with almost other people who were not white, were terribly oppressed by the strict apartheid regime.
Tsafendas was outraged at the political conditions in the country, and he decided to act. He got a job as a courier in the parliament with the intention of using his position to kill Verwoerd, who had enacted the most oppressive apartheid laws.
Tsafendas knew that he would most likely be killed for the murder, but his commitment was absolute. Yet, in the most unexpected twist of events, the South African courts found him not guilty of premeditated murder on the grounds of insanity.
According to Dousemetzis’ book, the killing of the country’s prime minister inside parliament made the South African state look incompetent at best. A well-known communist with a criminal record and a militant past had managed to murder the prime minister in front of their very eyes.
The author states that Verwoerd’s family also feared that Tsafendas would become a hero to other anti-apartheid activists, and that was why they decided to declare the killer insane in a fixed trial.
The authorities’ desire to present Tsafendas as insane is clearly shown by their refusal during his trial to present his twice-recorded statements that the Verwoerd assassination was a planned political act.
The South African attorney general lied, and hid all possible evidence in order to portray Tsafendas as an apolitical schizophrenic who had killed Verwoerd for no political reason.
“A Question of Madness”
Tsafendas was not executed for his crime, but he spent the rest of his life in prison. He was transferred to Pretoria Central Prison in a cell on death row which was specially built for him next to the execution chamber.
Unfortunately, his tortures and inhuman treatment continued throughout his imprisonment. In 1989, he was transferred to Zonderwater Prison. In 1994, he was transferred again, this time to the Sterkfontein psychiatric hospital outside Krugersdorp.
Despite the fact that the anti-apartheid movement was very active, especially in the 1980s, Tsafendas’ name was no more than a footnote in the history of the struggle. This is most likely because the South African state propaganda machine was very effective in making people believe that the killing of Verwoerd was indeed the act of a madman.
In 1999, South African filmmaker Liza Key was allowed to conduct two televised interviews with Tsafendas, for a documentary titled “A Question of Madness”. Key raised the possibility that Tsafendas’ act had not been the haphazard deed of an insane man but actually was a political assassination.
Dousemetzis’ new book presses the issue further, even showing sympathy for a man whom he describes as intelligent, altruistic and likable. The author presents a man who deserves to take a place among the fighters against apartheid, and perhaps might have done so.
But instead of taking the nonviolent approach of a Dr. Martin Luther King or a Nelson Mandela, he assassinated a prime minister in cold blood, and spent the rest of his life in anonymous ignominy.
Instead of garnering the support and respect of the entire world while unjustly incarcerated, as Mandela did, year after year of his life, Tsafos ended up accomplishing nothing for the cause that meant everything to him.