The Guardian, Monday 11 October 1999
The tragedy of apartheid finds expression in many forms, one of the most painful of which was the life story of an 81-year-old man who died last week in a mental institution outside Krugersdorp after spending much of his life on South Africa’s death row.
Dimitri Tsafendas arguably changed the course of post-war South African history more than any other individual when, in a brief moment of frenzy, he stabbed to death the “architect of apartheid”, prime minister Dr Hendrik Verwoerd, in the Cape Town parliament in 1966. He was found unfit to stand trial for the murder by reason of insanity, the judge president of the Cape, Mr Justice Beyers, observing at the time: “I can as little try a man who has not at least the makings of a rational mind as I could try a dog or an inert implement. He is a meaningless creature!”
Tsafendas was committed as a “state president’s patient”. This normally means detention in a secure mental institution. But the government of the day, judging that Tsafendas had not paid enough for his actions, chose instead to exploit a loophole in the law making it possible to hold him on death row. There he spent nearly a quarter of a century, subjected to the terrible sounds and sights of weekly state executions and apparently used as a human punch-bag by sadistic warders. He was finally moved out of prison to Sterkfontein mental asylum after the arrival of black majority rule in 1994.
He was befriended at Sterkfontein by a South African film producer, Liza Key. A schoolgirl at the time of Verwoerd’s death, Ms Key held popular assumptions about the assassination – believing, along with most South Africans, that the prime minister had been killed by a white parliamentary messenger of Greek nationality who had no political motivation, but believed that he was acting on the orders of a giant tapeworm infesting his stomach.
Researching his life for a documentary, Key was startled to find a very different story. She was not much helped in this by Tsafendas himself, who – whatever his state of mind at the time of the assassination – had seemingly had his sanity seriously disturbed by his experiences on death row.
But, digging into state records and interviewing family, officials and others involved in the events surrounding the assassination, she found that Tsafendas had been both politically sophisticated – at one time having been a paid-up member of the Communist party – and a classic victim of the racial prejudices that Verwoerd exploited to try to entrench white rule on the subcontinent.
It transpired that he was in fact born in Mozambique, the illegitimate son of a Greek father and a black mother. Victimised at school for his mixed blood (he was given the nickname “blackie”), he left Mozambique to wander the world as a merchant seaman. Accounts of his travels, pulled together by state investigators in the immediate aftermath of the assassination, provide a tantalisingly incomplete picture. At times he seems to have been little more than an international tramp, bouncing not so much from city to city as from asylum to asylum, only to pop up on occasion as a man of some substance but with a mysterious background.
He returned to South Africa in 1964, fluent in eight languages, and somehow – despite his mixed parentage, status as an illegal immigrant and history of mental instability – secured a post in the whites-only parliament as a messenger, exploiting his privileged position to stab the prime minister to death. Shortly before the assassination he applied for reclassification from white to “coloured”. Although there were attempts by police, during interrogation, to suggest to him that he believed a tapeworm had “ordered” him to carry out the killing, he never seems to have made the claim himself.
Dimitri Tsafendas, parliamentary messenger, born 1918; died October 7 1999