The Verwoerd Assassination

It was a crime that shocked all of South Africa.

On September 6, 1966, South African Prime Minister Hendrik Frensch Verwoerd entered the House of Assembly and prepared to take his seat. A parliamentary page named Dimitri Tsafendas quickly crossed the floor and approached him. As the Prime Minister looked up for the expected message, Tsafendas drew out a large sheathed knife, took off the sheath and stabbed the politician four times in the chest. A mob of nearby Members of Parliament quickly restrained Tsafendas while four others (who happened to be medical doctors) tried to help the Prime Minister. Despite their best efforts, Hendrik Verwoerd was declared dead on arrival at a nearby hospital.

As one of the chief architects of apartheid and Prime Minister during one of the most racially charged eras in South Africa’s history, Hendrik Verwoerd continues to be a controversial figure. A trained psychologist, Verwoerd was a professor at the University of Stellenbosch until entering politics. An outspoken advocate of Afrikaner nationalism, he helped draft and implement the various “Apartheid Acts” after becoming Prime Minister in 1958 and also led the country to independence in 1961. Verwoerd strengthened his hold on the black majority of the country by enacting various “pass laws" limiting educational and employment opportunities for non-whites, outlawing political organizations such as the African National Congress, jailing Nelson Mandela and other anti-apartheid activists, and banning interracial relationships to prevent “miscegenation”.

It was the anti-miscegenation statutes that likely sparked Dmitri Tsafendas’ murder plan. Born of a Greek father and Mozambiquan mother, Dimitri Tsafendas was legally classed as white despite his mixed race heritage. Shunned by most South Africans due to the dark complexion which made him either “too white” for some and “not white enough” for others, he spent most of his life abroad. Tsafendas drifted from country to country and spent considerable time in psychiatric hospitals in Germany, the UK and the United States.

After returning to South Africa in 1964, he fell in love with a “coloured” woman but the anti-miscegenation laws drafted by Verwoerd's party made this relationship impossible. Tsafendas even tried to have himself reclassified as “coloured” only to be refused by the bureaucracy (it was unheard of for a white to have himself declared non-white).

Not only was Tsafendras unable to marry his girlfriend but being seen in public with her would have earned him a prison sentence. She eventually married someone else and he was never the same afterward. As his mental health continued to deteriorate, he formed a plan to kill Verwoerd. He gained a job as a parliamentary messenger (a job that was only open to whites at the time) and spent two years planning the assassination.

Tsafendras cooperated fully with police and prosecutors after his arrest. His rationale for killing Verwoerd was certainly unique enough.  He claimed that he was acting on orders from a giant tapeworm living in his stomach. Whether this was a genuine delusion or an attempt to save himself from execution, the government was faced with a problem. Putting a white man on trial for killing the Prime Minister might have had unintended political consequences. Verwoerd was already being portrayed as a martyr by his party and there were fears that public sympathy for Tsafendras might have undermined the government apartheid policies.

Dmitri Tsafendras was declared not guilty by reason of insanity without ever going on trial. He was ordered detained "at the pleasure of the State President" and sent to Pretoria Central Prison. Instead, he was placed in a segregation cell on death row, right next to the gallows. For the next twenty-eight years of his life,  Tsafendras saw every prisoner facing execution being led past his cell. Since he was not serving a formal sentence, only an order from the Prime Minister could ever release him. According to reports, he was severely mistreated for years while in prison with frequent beatings, use of restraints, and verbal abuse.

And there he stayed until 1993 when Verwoerd's National Party handed over power to the the country's first multiracial government. Dmitri Tsafendras was then transferred to Sterkfontein Mental Hospital where he spent the rest of his life. While he was technically free to leave at any time (the detention order had been lifted by the new government), Tsafendras resisted any attempt at releasing him. His decades of incarceration had left him so institutionalized that he was unable to function in the community.

He had few visitors during his final years in the hospital and, following his death from pneumonia in 1999, Tsafendras was buried in an unmarked grave in Krugersdorp. It's debatable whether he was even considered a mental patient given that he wasn't on psychiatric medication at the time of his death. While he still mentioned his tapeworm at times (and requested a postmortem to verify that it was there), it's an open question whether his fragile mental state was due to his preexisting problems or his years of abuse.

Although Dmitri Tsafendas is considered a martyr in some circles, his impact on South Africa's history is debatable. Verwoerd  may have been a major force in apartheid but his death did little to change South Africa's racial policies. None of Verwoerd's political foes had any kind words for the "mad Greek" who killed the politician and Tsafendas was largely forgotten even before his death.

Hendrik Verwoerd's legacy still haunts the country (one of Nelson Mandela's first official acts as Prime Minister was to make a formal visit to Verwoerd's widow) but the assassin who killed him remains an enigma.


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