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Apartheid and the tapeworm - the assassination of Dr Verwoerd
“Where were you...?”
I was standing in a bookshop in the university town of Stellenbosch one early spring afternoon in 1966 browsing through some books when the news flash came over the radio playing softly in the store – South African Prime Minister Hendrik Frensch Verwoerd had just been assassinated in Parliament.
It is said that everyone who was alive at the time can remember exactly where they were and what they were doing when John F Kennedy was assassinated that fateful Friday in Dallas, just three years before. It is much the same for those of us who were alive that afternoon when the “architect of apartheid” was stabbed to death as he was about to make his first major speech of the Parliamentary session.
I recall that Stellenbosch went very, very quiet that afternoon – nothing like this had happened in the country before, although an attempt had been made on his life in April 1960 when a wealthy farmer had shot Verwoerd with a small-calibre pistol at an agricultural show in Johannesburg. Verwoerd survived, “miraculously”, he would claim, as the bullets had missed any vital points and he was back in public life in late May that year.
His would-be assassin, David Pratt, was not so lucky. He was quickly arrested and sent, after being found incompetent to stand trial, to a mental hospital in Bloemfontein, where he committed suicide the following year.
My emotions that afternoon of 6 September 1966 were confused – I hated apartheid and all that it meant, I had a powerful antipathy toward the man who had done so much to bring apartheid to the pitch that it then was at, but I did not like violence and I was fearful of what the consequences of the assassination might be.
Stellenbosch is a lovely town at any time of the year, but spring is perhaps its most attractive time – the oaks which line many of the streets are starting to bud, arum lilies start to bloom along the banks of the Eerste River which runs through the town, and the days are balmy and bathed in the lovely light which also characterises the town.
In that atmosphere it was difficult to get come to terms with the horror of the news, with the dark fears that accompanied it, which seemed so unreal in the calm sunlight filtering through the oak leaves.
Architect of apartheid
"... I cannot conclude that he was an evil man. I conclude rather that his passions ruled his life, and that his intellect was the servant of his passions. That he was arrogant in his self-certitude, I have no doubt. But I conclude that he deceived himself. He believed that he had solutions for the problems of South Africa when he had not. What is more, in his search for these solutions, he had one overruling principle, and that was the safety and the security of the Afrikaner volk. That he had other principles one cannot doubt, but they were all subordinate to the well-being and continuance of Afrikanerdom." - Alan Paton in the second part of his autobiography, Journey Continued (David Philip, 1988).
The man who had died in a pool of blood that afternoon in the normally staid Lower Chamber of the Houses of Parliament in Cape Town had been born in Amsterdam, Holland, 65 years before. He was brought with his parents to South Africa at the age of two and was brought up to identify with the Afrikaner people of the country, and especially their republican dreams.
Verwoerd went to English-language schools and was a brilliant scholar. After matriculation he went to the University of Stellenbosch where he majored in psychology and philosophy, gaining his master's and doctor's degrees cum laude . He then went to Germany where he studied at the universities in Hamburg, Berlin and Leipzig during 1925 and 1926.
In 1927 Verwoerd married his South African fiancé Betsie in Hamburg after which he went to Britain and the United States to continue his studies, finally returning to South Africa with his new wife in 1928.
After some years in academia he accepted a position as Editor-in-Chief of the newly-established newspaper in the then-Transvaal, called Die Transvaler (The Transvaler). With no journalistic training or experience he set about creating the paper as a propaganda tool for the Nationalist Party and for furthering the goal of the creation of a republic in South Africa along the lines of the republics set up by the Voortrekkers in the 19th Century.
Verwoerd's nationalism was so exclusive that when the British royal family visited South Africa in 1947 at the invitation of the then Prime Minister Jan Smuts, Die Transvaler managed to ignore the visit entirely, placing not a single word about the visit. Even when traffic disruptions occurred as a result of the royal family's processions these were reported in the paper without ever alluding to the cause of the disruptions.
After the 1948 elections in which the Nationalist Party under Dr D.F. Malan came into power he was given a seat in the Senate.
At this stage republicanism and a highly exclusive Afrikaner nationalism were the main motivations of the man who would turn the policy of segregation into the ideology of apartheid.
Verwoerd became Prime Minister in 1958 after the death of his friend and colleague J.G. Strijdom and set about almost immediately to re-create South Africa according to the dictates of the apartheid ideology which he developed almost simultaneously.
During his Prime Ministership a number of Acts were promulgated which progressively reduced the freedoms of black South Africans and placed limits on their citizenship, among them:
Promotion of Bantu Self-Government Act No. 46 of 1959 which abolished the already small representation of black Africans in the country's Parliament and ensured that black Africans entered “white” South Africa as migrant labourers only.
Bantu Investment Corporation Act No 34 of 1959 which provided for the establishment of a corporate body to promote and encourage the development of black enterprise in the reserves. The Board of Directors of this corporation was appointed by the Minister of Bantu Administration and Development. Unsurprisingly the board appointed consisted of white men only.
Extension of University Education Act No 45 of 1959 which prohibited the attendance at “white” universities of black students and set up separate university colleges for blacks according to “tribal” lines, each college having a Council and Senate of whites with advisory bodies made up of blacks.
Apartheid has often been compared with Nazism, with good reason. And during World War II many leading Afrikaner nationalists openly supported Hitler. Verwoerd explicitly rejected Nazism, not on moral grounds, but on the basis that every nation has its own character and the Afrikaner character, according to him, was essentially democratic while Nazism was despotic.
Verwoerd did have anti-Semitic leanings and referred quite often in his writings to “British-Jewish sham democracy” - his description of the government of Smuts. He even allegedly made a remark in a Nationalist Party caucus that one of the reasons white capital should be kept out of the areas reserved for blacks was because “it would keep the Jews out.” Before the war he had campaigned vigorously to keep Jewish refugees out of South Africa.
In 1961 Verwoerd led his people into a newly-established republic and out of the British Commonwealth of Nations, beginning the isolation from the rest of the world that would characterise South Africa for the next 34 years.
The tapeworm strikes
At the time Verwoerd was preparing himself for the matriculation examination in South Africa a child was born in Maputo (then Lourenço Marques) in Mozambique, a child whose life was to intersect with Verwoerd's in the most dramatic way.
A young Greek man from the island of Crete, Michaelis Tsafendas, was working in Maputo for a firm of marine engineers. He lived in a semi-detached house on the Rua Andrade Corvo where he employed two black maids, one of whom shared his bed. This was the 17-year-old Amelia Williams, who became pregnant with Michaelis's child. The child was duly born 14 January 1918 and named Demitrios. Amelia left soon afterwards, leaving Michaelis to look after his son.
Michaelis was hoping to marry a nice young Greek girl and so a half-caste child was not what he needed in his life at that moment. He sent the child to be looked after by Katerina Tsafandakis, Michaelis's mother, who lived in Alexandria, Egypt.
It was the first of many rejections Demitrios would endure, rejections based mostly on the colour of his skin, his legacy from his mother.
After Michaelis had married his “nice Greek girl” called Marika, with whom he had three children, Demitrios came back to Maputo but found Marika rather less than welcoming. He was packed off to a school in South Africa where he managed to survive racist tauntings from his fellow-pupils until he had completed sixth grade.
Then began a long time of seemingly directionless wanderings in South Africa, where he learned a trade, and then Europe and North America, in all of which places he experienced rejection in one way or another.
One constant, one factor that travelled with him wherever he went, was the turmoil in his stomach, which he attributed to a giant tapeworm. While he was still a teenager in Maputo a doctor had diagnosed a tapeworm and had given his step-mother Marika medicine to eliminate it, with instructions that she should bring any evidence of tapeworm back to him to check.
Unfortunately Marika flushed the evidence down the toilet and Demitrios spent the rest of his life attributing many of the difficulties he faced to the tapeworm.
He was hospitalized in the United States and in Germany in psychiatric hospitals where he was variously diagnosed as schizoid and bi-polar.
Demitrios ended up in Greece just after the war where he became involved with the group known as “2X2s” and was baptised with the name James.
He finally made it back to South Africa in 1963 and drifted down to Cape Town where he made contact with the local 2X2s. In Cape Town he survived by doing odd jobs until in early 1966 he was given a job as a messenger in the Houses of Parliament. How he made it past the security checks for the position is unknown, but that is how he found himself rubbing shoulders with the most powerful people in the country.
His mental stability was not improved and before the fateful day he already began making plans for the assassination. He bought a small gun which he later discarded in favour of a large knife.
On 6 September he arrived early for work and spent time reading the newspapers. He was sent out on some trivial errands which he managed to mess up.
The session of the House started after lunch and he went into the Chamber and walked over to Verwoerd who was sitting in the front row of the Government benches preparing to make an important speech. Demitrios bent over Verwoerd, leading others to believe he was delivering a message to the Prime Minister. Instead of a message (or perhaps the most powerful message one can imagine?) he plunged his dagger into the Prime Minister's chest four times. Verwoerd fell to the floor, bleeding profusely, amid a hubbub.
Demitrios was punched, thrown to the floor and disarmed while medical doctors, members of the House, attempted to revive Verwoerd, without success. The Prime Minister was rushed to Grootte Schuur Hospital where he was pronounced dead on arrival.
Verwoerd was buried as a national hero. The funeral was attended by 250000 people at the Union Buildings in Pretoria and buried in the Hero's Acre in Church Street, Pretoria, not far from the home of that other Afrikaner icon, Paul Kruger. The blood-stained carpet on which he had fallen stayed in its place in the House until finally removed when alterations were made to the Chamber in 2004.
Tsafendas was found not guilty by reason of insanity and confined to Pretoria Central Prison for many years. He was transferred later to another prison and then in 1994 to Sterkfontein Psychiatric Hospital in Krugersdorp on the West Rand where he died on 7 October 1999, a sad and forgotten man. He was buried with Orthodox rites and a small number of people watched. His grave is unmarked. When his coffin was lowered into it a plaque was placed on the coffin reading: "Displaced person, sailor, Christian, communist, liberation fighter, political prisoner, hero. Remembered by your friends."
South African born Henk van Woerden has written a beautiful account of Demitrios's life, called in other countries A Mouthful of Glass and in the US as THE ASSASSIN - A Story of Race and Rage in the Land of Apartheid.
Van Woerden wrote that the story of Demitrios encapsulates the South African tragedy, and that writing his biography “is a cautious attempt to achieve an anamnesis – a bringing back to memory of that which has been forgotten.”
Van Woerden likens the turmoil in Demitrios's stomach to the turmoil inflicted on South Africa by apartheid, and in particular by Dr Hendrik Frensch Verwoerd. He wrote: “To try to recall the prior history of someone's illness is not the same thing as giving a diagnosis of it.”
Kenney, Henry: Architect of Apartheid: H.F. Verwoerd - an appraisal. Johannesburg: Jonathan Ball, 1980.
Paton, Alan: Journey Continued. Cape Town: David Philip, 1988.
Woerden, Henk van: A Mouthful of Glass - the man who killed the father of apartheid. Johannesburg: Jonathan Ball, 2006.
The text and all images on this page, unless otherwise indicated, are by Tony McGregor who hereby asserts his copyright on the material. Should you wish to use any of the text or images feel free to do so with proper attribution and, if possible, a link back to this page. Thank you.
© Tony McGregor 2011