The Man Who Killed Apartheid: The Life of Dimitri Tsafendas

Harris Dousemetzis with Gerry Loughran, The Man Who Killed Apartheid: The Life of Dimitri Tsafendas (Jacana, 2018)

EXACTLY who was Hendrik Verwoerd’s assassin? In this comprehensive, thoroughly researched account of the life of Dimitri Tsafendas, Harris Dousemetzis straightens out the historical record, but wisely leaves that question open. The more that is known about Tsafendas, the greater appears the conundrum, although he certainly did not ‘kill apartheid’ as the title of this book suggests.

After Verwoerd’s murder in the House of Assembly on 6 September 1966 it suited both the government and Tsafendas to portray him as insane. Minister of Police John Vorster and General Hendrik van den Bergh of special branch needed to conceal the extraordinary security lapses that had put Verwoerd in danger and to obscure any political motive for his murder. At least half a dozen officials had failed to make a connection with the Demetrio Tsafantakis (the Turkish form of the Greek surname used by his family) on the immigrant stop list.

For his part Tsafendas was well practised at feigning madness and used his intestinal tapeworm story to save him from the death penalty, although initially he was open about committing tyrannicide: he regarded Verwoerd as a racist and a student of Hitler. So, after a bizarre show trial in which the prosecution destroyed its own case, and a doctored commission of inquiry, he was illegally sent not to a psychiatric facility, but prison where he endured years of physical and psychological torture. He died in 1999, aged 81, at Sterkfontein mental institution.

There is another, entirely different Tsafendas who emerges from this book: perfectly sane, a dedicated anti-apartheid and anti-colonial revolutionary of high intelligence, well read and with a considerable facility for languages. In his teenage years he opposed Portuguese rule in his birthplace of Mozambique. A reluctant merchant seaman in World War II, he fought on the Communist side in the Greek civil war and was part of the anti-apartheid movement in Britain. Exiled from Mozambique and South Africa, where he was regarded as a mixed-race communist, he spent twenty years as a rolling stone and harbouring a burning desire to return to political activity in southern Africa. Many of Dousemetzis’ informants regarded him as a lovable and friendly man; others now want to elevate him posthumously to the status of freedom fighter and hero.

But a third Tsafendas raises doubts about this. He was a political agitator, not Dousemetzis’ activist; a garrulous and argumentative fantasist, and a liability to any disciplined organisation. He claimed to be a communist (and had been a member of the party in pre-war South Africa), but had close ties to a conservative Christian sect. Capable of generosity with his time and money, he was also a con man, faking mental illness (voices from radiators, the famous tapeworm and purporting to be St Peter) to find refuge in medical facilities and get out of detention. Exactly how he managed to deceive so many doctors in the hospitals of several countries is a mystery, but it was good practice for life in Pretoria Central where he had to maintain the fiction of insanity for years. He lied to his family for their assistance in returning to South Africa and placed them in danger.

He may indeed have been unbalanced, drawing attention to himself by applying for reclassification from white to coloured (he was of Cretan, Shangaan and German ancestry); hardly the behaviour of a determined revolutionary. Indeed, at the time of the assassination a deportation order had consequently been issued. His was the era of paper records and telegrams and his medical and travel saga, or the assassination, might not have been possible in a computerised society.

Dousemetzis does not mention the possibility that Tsafendas could have been the pawn of conspirators; but the reader is tempted to think of Lee Harvey Oswald. One fact is certain: Verwoerd, together with his National Party ideologues, was the madman.