Oscar Van Heerden: Why Dimitri Tsafendas should be seen as a national hero

Harris Dousemetzis’ new book, The Man Who Killed Apartheid, offers a fresh and important take on the life of Dmitri Tsafendas – which contradicts the mainstream narrative of Hendrik Verwoerd’s assassin as nothing more than a madman.

When reading Harris Dousemetzis’ book on Tsafendas’ life, it struck me how history can be distorted by some: in this case, National Party officials and the South African security apparatus.

They would have us believe that Dmitri Tsafendas was a madman, psychologically unstable, and hence the murderous act that saw Tsafendas end the life of Verwoerd was not politically motivated at all but simply an insane act. And we swallowed that narrative hook, line and sinker for many decades, but no more – thanks to a well-researched book that took more than nine years to investigate and write.

Prime minister Hendrik Verwoerd, as you know, is regarded as the father of apartheid. In this sense, Tsafendas can be thought of as a low-level Che Guevara: a man that thought, “if only I can kill the father, perhaps then I will kill what he stood for and believed in”. It was a simple yet well thought-through plan.

First, Tsafendas had to role-play, in the sense that he needed to be accepted as one of them – a privileged white European, very comfortable with racism. This he did so well that Verwoerd’s assassination was the single biggest security breach in the history of the racist South African security apparatus.

The humiliation and embarrassment live on to this day: that a sitting head of state was assassinated on their watch, right under their noses and in the very chapel of apartheid at the time, the South African Parliament.

Contrary to popular belief, Tsafendas was a man of conviction and ideology. His guiding thought at the time was simply this:

Every day, you see a man you know committing a very serious crime for which millions of people suffer. You cannot take him to court or report him to the police because he is the law in the country. Would you remain silent and let him continue with his crime or would you do something to stop him? You are guilty not only when you commit a crime, but also when you do nothing to prevent it when you have a chance.” – Dimitri Tsafendas

Second, he had to put in place his plan, and so he set out on that fateful morning of 6 September 1966 in Cape Town to execute it. Tsafendas went to some local shops in order to purchase knives, but before then he took a taxi to the waterfront to enjoy what he knew would be his last sight and smell of the sea.

Writes Dousemetzis:

At 9.05am, Tsafendas entered City Guns, at 57 Hout Street, owned by Tony Harrison, and asked about the sheath knives in the window. Harrison placed two on the counter top. Glancing curiously at his first customer of the day, he thought he might be a fisherman or a merchant seaman. Tsafendas slipped one knife onto his belt and inside his trousers and moved around experimentally. He was comfortable with knives. The knife, priced at R3.30, less than US$5 at the time, was a regular, all purpose product, with a metal scabbard and a spring clip to keep the blade in place. Satisfied, Tsafendas nodded and paid with a R10 note from his wallet. A few metres down the street was Maurice Klein’s hardware store, William Rawbone and Co. Tsafendas wanted a backup knife in case something happened to the first, but he thought it best not to get both from the same source.”

I’m sure you will agree with me that this hardly seems like the work of an insane human being. On the contrary, Tsafendas intentionally and very carefully proceeded with his plan to assassinate the evil Verwoerd.

Once he was back inside Parliament, Tsafendas placed the knives in his locker and had to go about his job as a parliamentary messenger as usual.

The book tells us that one day Tsafendas was within a few metres from Verwoerd in the corridors of Parliament when it dawned on him that he could do something to advance the cause of the revolution.

When the time came on 6 September 1966, Tsafendas rushed back to his locker and opened a container of anti-rust solution, which he had brought from his tool box at home. He doused both blades in the liquid, which he hoped would infect Dr Verwoerd’s blood if he survived the stabbing.

Dousemetzis records:

He checked his watch. There was time. Tsafendas walked into the Parliamentary lobby where one hundred and sixty MPs were taking their places on the green benches of the debating chamber ahead of the 2.10pm bell, officials were rushing to their desks and the public galleries and diplomatic bays were filling up quickly. The prime minister made his appearance shortly after 2pm. He was an impressive figure by any standards: tall and broad shouldered, immaculately suited with his newly coiffed silver hair brushed carefully left to right, he dominated those around him. Blue eyed and with an upturned nose, he did not have the face of a Roman senator, but authority was evident in the severe set of the mouth and the questioning eyes. His public speeches were unhurried, intense and to the point, more the cerebral professor than the rabble-rousing orator. His two bodyguards escorted him to his front-bench place, then left for their usual seats in the public gallery, about 100 feet away. Tsafendas knew that this was the only time the prime minister was without guards.

As he reached his seat, Verwoerd looked towards the spectator’s gallery for his wife, but she was not in her usual place, delayed by a crowded elevator. He turned to acknowledge greetings from National Party MP’s around him. The prime minister was in high spirits, even jaunty, and with reason: the national economy was booming, thanks to cheap black labour, with the highest growth rate in the world after Japan. A few months earlier, his party had comfortably won a new term in office. Commanding the space around him, smiling, nodding, confident, he looked unassailable, a picture of total power.”

Then came the deed, writes Dousemetzis.

MP Aubrey Radford walked into the chamber some distance behind Verwoerd. As he did so, he was pushed violently from behind. Spectators saw a burly man in a messenger's uniform plunge past Radford towards the front bench, wrestling with his waist belt. Moving swiftly for a man of his size, Tsafendas strode the last few paces across the floor of the House to the front bench. The black forest knife was now free and he stood over the seated prime minister. Verwoerd was idly fingering a small scar on his jaw, a souvenir of Pratt’s bullets (a previous assassination attempt), when he became aware of the figure before him. Apparently thinking he was about to receive a message, he looked up inquiringly in time to see his assailant raise his right hand holding a knife. Verwoerd thrust up an arm to ward off the blow, but Tsafendas plunged the blade into the seated man’s chest, just left of centre. He pulled the knife out and struck again, into Verwoerd’s lung. He stabbed twice more, the heart and the neck. Verwoerd slummed forward with blood spurting from his neck and quickly forming a pool on the green carpet of the House.”

The deed was perfectly executed. For years the anti-apartheid forces such as the ANC, SACP and the liberation army (Umkhonto We Sizwe) wished they could achieve such a penetration into the heart of the apartheid system but it remained impregnable. Yet Tsafendas – a man with communist beliefs – infiltrated the system at the highest level as a mere messenger and executed the most heroic act, that of killing the architect of apartheid.

For nano-seconds, there was stunned silence. When MP’s realised what had happened, uproar broke out, ending the momentary parenthesis of silence. The minister of sports and tourism leapt forward at Tsafendas from his place behind the prime minister, getting him in a neck-lock, he pulled Tsafendas away from Verwoerd. Tsafendas slashed blindly with the blade, ripping through the minister's clothes, and somebody shouted, 'Get the knife'. MP’s formed a whirling scrum around Tsafendas, raining blows and kicking wildly,” Dousemetzis writes.

At 3.05 pm, Groote Schuur’s medical Superintendent, Dr JG Burger, declared that Verwoerd had probably died instantly, and official confirmation came at 3.30 pm in a statement that said the prime minister was dead on arrival at the hospital. Tsafendas was bundled into the back of a police van and on the orders of Captain Genis of the Security Police driven to Caledon Square police station, round the corner from Parliament.”

No wonder Tsafendas had to be declared insane, because it had to be emphasised by authorities that no rational person of sound mind could have executed such a plan. No sane person could wish to assassinate our beloved prime minister, to show the world that the apartheid system was wrong, and to demonstrate that there were white people in South Africa who did not agree with this racist, segregated evil system.

But Tsafendas did all that. He cut off the snake’s head, leaving the body in a state of complete shock.

In light of the new information Dousemetzis’ book gives us, I am left with so many questions.

Why did the ANC government under Nelson Mandela not acknowledge this great patriot? Why was he not released from prison or the psychiatric ward where his apartheid accusers had thrown him? What deal did Mandela and FW De Klerk make to further banish this Greek man to historic oblivion, I wonder.

In reading Dousemetzis’ book, you quickly come to the realisation that Tsafendas was anything but mad.

His life took him from the UK to Mozambique. In the details of his biography you see a Marxist revolutionary, going around the world in his own small way desperately trying to give his little bit to the struggles of the oppressed and down-trodden in these respective countries.

As an activist myself, I know that one’s contribution in the anti-apartheid struggle was never about recognition and accolades. But to allow this great revolutionary to remain in prison well into our new democracy, and furthermore to allow him to be buried in an unmarked grave, is embarrassing and disgraceful.

The ANC government is so obsessed with its reconciliation approach that South Africa regularly rolls out the red carpet in funerals for former apartheid politicians. Let us for once acknowledge this oversight in our history, and correct this embarrassing situation with regards to Dimitri Tsafendas.

Let us honour him posthumously with one of the highest honours in our government’s arsenal: the Order of Luthuli or the Order of Mendi for Bravery. Let us remember him in the ANC, and the SACP as well.

Allow me to conclude with one of Tsafendas’ favourite poems,

If I don’t burn, if you don’t burn, if we don’t burn,

How will the light vanquish the darkness? – Nazim Hikmet DM