Dimitri Tsafendas was the parliamentary messenger who assassinated Prime Minister Hendrik Verwoerd on 06 September 1966 by stabbing him four times with a dagger during a parliamentary session. Tsafendas was born to a Greek father, an engineer named Michalis Tsafandakis, and a Mozambican mixed-race mother, his housemaid, Amelia Williams, in Mozambique on 14 January 1918.
Aged three, Tsafendas was sent to live in Egypt with his paternal grandmother and aunt while his father sought a Greek wife. He returned to Mozambique, aged seven, and lived with his father, his step-mother, Maria, and step-siblings. The racial divides of the time prevented his parents from marrying and Tsafendas was led to understand that his step-mother was his birth mother. Physically, Tsafendas passed easily as white and was sent to a white boarding school in South Africa. However, he returned to Mozambique after two years due to his father experiencing financial difficulties.
Tsafendas’s father was a devout anarchist, while his ancestors in his wider family were famed Cretan rebels who had fought against the Ottomans during the Cretan War of Independence. Tsafendas was named Dmitri after an uncle, who was a widely-known independence hero. Tsafendas was deeply influenced by his father and the stories of his ancestors and grew up dreaming one day of becoming a rebel himself.
Back in Mozambique as a teenager, Tsafendas was listed as a Communist by the Portuguese colonial authorities after he was twice suspected of distributing Communist propaganda. PIDE, the Portuguese security police, opened a file on him in 1938 and kept him in their sights thereafter. Tsafendas entered South Africa illegally aged 20 and joined the South African Communist Party. He had already left for Canada as a seaman on a Greek freighter by the time the South African authorities learned of his illegal immigrant status.
Between 1942 and 1963, Tsafendas crewed US ships carrying materiel for the war effort, then travelled the world doing various jobs and becoming fluent in eight languages. Over the following years, he made many applications to be allowed to return to Mozambique and to South Africa, but all were turned down due to his listing as a Communist and his political activities in Mozambique and South Africa. In 1947, he was deported from the United States to Greece, which then was in the midst of a bloody Civil War. Tsafendas joined the Communists and fought with them in the mountains. In 1950, Tsafendas was arrested in Portugal and interrogated about his political activities in Mozambique in 1938. He was subsequently imprisoned for nine months, which he spent in the country’s two most notorious prisons for political offenders, the Barca d’Alva and the Aljuba Prison.
In 1951, Tsafendas entered Mozambique illegally but was arrested and exiled from the country of his birth and returned to Lisbon. Unable to return to Mozambique or to South Africa, where his family had relocated, and harassed constantly by the Portuguese police, Tsafendas spent the next 12 years travelling around Europe and the Middle East, always keeping abreast of affairs in South Africa and Mozambique. In London, he became a member of the anti-apartheid movement and the anti-slavery society and associated with several prominent activists of these movements such as Tennyson Makiwane, Father Canon Collins and Thomas Fox-Pit. He was in West Germany at the time of the 1960 Sharpeville massacre and it was then that he decided one day he would take violent action against the apartheid regime led by Verwoerd. In 1961, he worked in Istanbul as a teacher at the most prestigious private language college in Turkey, the Limasollu Naci. The following year, during a visit to Crete, the land of his ancestors, Tsafendas met former Greek partisans who had fought the Nazis during the Second World War; some of them had participated in the kidnapping of the Nazi general Heinrich Kreipe. As the ex-partisans taught him the art of bomb-making, Tsafendas pondered the possibility of kidnapping Verwoerd and exchanging him for political prisoners. In 1963, he persuaded the Portuguese to grant him amnesty, after he convinced them that he was not any longer a communist and anti-colonialist, so he was allowed back into Mozambique. From there, he made his way back into South Africa after his stepmother had notified him that his father had died. His wish was to visit his father’s grave, but he was still banned from entering South Africa, therefore his family bribed a South African immigration official in Mozambique to grant him a temporary visa.
On a visit back to Mozambique in 1964, Tsafendas fell foul of the colonial police again when he argued the case for Mozambican independence at public gatherings. Rejecting his claim that he was spreading the Christian message, as evidenced by the Bibles in his suitcase, the police noted that the case also contained anti-colonialist and Communist literature and accused him “of pretending to be a missionary spreading the word about religion,” but actually while in reality preaching “under the guise of religion in favour of Mozambique’s independence...”
Tsafendas told his PIDE interrogators that he had perpetrated no subversive activities in the struggle for Mozambique’s independence, but that as a native Mozambican he supported “the idea of Mozambique’s independence, governed by the natives of that Province, whether they are black or white.”
Tsafendas was subsequently imprisoned and interrogated. After three months in solitary confinement, he decided to embellish his claim to Christian adherence by declaring that he was Saint Peter himself. The prison authorities sent him to a hospital where Tsafendas convinced the doctors that he really did believe he was Saint Peter. He was therefore declared insane, set free from the prison and soon afterwards released from the hospital.
Throughout his travels, there were many accounts of hospitalizations, mostly self-admittance to secure access to food and lodgings, with insanity cited as the reason for hospitalization. Tsafendas reportedly sought to protect himself from torture in prisons and detention facilities around Europe by pretending to be mad. However, his efforts were not always successful until he met a schizophrenic patient in an American hospital who claimed to have a tapeworm in his stomach which needed constant feeding. This became Tsafendas’s winning act, which he later used to escape prosecution for stabbing Verwoerd.
The assassination and arrest
In July 1966, Tsafendas was hired as a temporary messenger in the South African Parliament in Cape Town. It was while working there and seeing Verwoerd frequently in person that he decided to kill him. His original idea to kidnap him and exchange him for political prisoners had died long ago when he could not find anyone to join with him. Now he decided he would shoot Verwoerd from close range at a social function and escape in the subsequent confusion, if necessary by shooting his way out. However, he was unable to buy a suitable firearm and fearing he would lose his current access, he decided to kill Verwoerd with a knife. Tsafendas considered such an act was necessary because he had the opportunity and because Verwoerd was a “dictator” and a “tyrant”. In later years, he gave his reasons to two priests who visited him in hospital in these terms: “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 the chance.”
On 06 September 1966, Tsafendas followed Verwoerd into the debating chamber of the House of Assembly and pulled a sheath knife from under his clothing and stabbed Verwoerd four times. The prime minister died within minutes. Chaos erupted, and Tsafendas was pulled away from Verwoerd and placed in police custody. While in custody he was severely tortured with beatings, electric shocks and mock hangings. During his interrogation, he admitted to some of his past political activities and gave clear political reasons for killing Verwoerd. He told his interrogators “I did not care about the consequences for what would happened to me afterwards. I was so disgusted with the racial policy that I went through with my plans to kill the Prime Minister.”
A massive investigation into Tsafendas’s past was launched by the South African security authorities, a task that was not facilitated by the dishonesty of the Portuguese security police, who downplayed or ignored some of Tsafendas’s political activities. Unwilling to admit that Tsafendas had fooled the authorities into giving him amnesty, the Chief Inspector of PIDE in Lisbon instructed his counterparts in Mozambique to withhold from the South African authorities “any information indicating Tsafendas as a partisan for the independence of your province [country]”. The Mozambique office acted as instructed, diluting the scope of Tsafendas’s activities in its communications to the South African police.
From many other sources, however, it quickly became evident to the South African investigators that Tsafendas was a passionately dedicated Communist, an activist since his teenage years, and an intelligent man who made no secret of his political convictions as he travelled through Europe, North America and the Middle East over many years. Taking a close look at their own records – the South African security police alone held four files on him – detectives noted that two sources had reported him to the police a year before the assassination as a “dangerous Communist,” while Edward Furness, a South African in London, testified to Tsafendas’s participation in the anti-apartheid movement there. Furness also testified that Tsafendas told him at one point that he was willing to do “anything that would get the South African regime out of power.” Evidence was also submitted to the Commission of Enquiry into Verwoerd’s death that while in London, Tsafendas had attempted to “recruit people to take part in an uprising in South Africa.”
After a three-day summary hearing, Tsafendas was found unfit to stand trial, thus not guilty of Verwoerd’s murder by reason of insanity. Police and the defence legal team alike testified to his insanity and corroborated a diagnosis of schizophrenia by confirming that he had claimed to have a giant tapeworm in his stomach that controlled his life. Each of the medical experts spent four and a half hours with Tsafendas and were given no outside information about him, such as historical medical reports or statements by people who knew him. Thus they formed their diagnoses entirely on what they heard from Tsafendas himself. Also unmentioned during the trial were his political opinions and activities, including his open avowal of the reason he killed Verwoerd as he volunteered to the police – that he was a tyrant and that to kill him might lead to a change in the policy of apartheid. Instead, he was depicted as a wandering schizophrenic who killed the prime minister because of a tapeworm.
Tsafendas was ordered to be detained “at the pleasure of the State President,” and spent four months on Robben Island before being transferred to a cell built specially for him on death throw in Pretoria Central Prison. This cell was positioned next to and within earshot of the execution chamber, where condemned men were hanged on a regular basis. Throughout most of his 23-year incarceration in the Pretoria prison, Tsafendas was subjected to cruel and inhumane torture by malicious warders. In 1989, by then aged 71, Tsafendas was transferred to Zonderwater Prison, and eventually, as democracy dawned in South Africa and the death row was abolished, to a psychiatric hospital.
Dimitri Tsafendas died from pneumonia at the age of 81 on 07 October 1999 at Sterkfontein mental hospital in Krugersdorp, and was buried in an unmarked grave in the cemetery next to the hospital.
In April 2018, a document entitled “Report to the Minister of Justice, advocate Tshilio Michael Masutha, in the Matter of Dr Verwoerd’s Assassination” was submitted to the Minister of Justice of South Africa. The Report was written by Harris Dousemetzis, a tutor at Durham University, UK, and consisted of three hardback volumes totalling 2,192 pages and 861,803 words. It was accompanied by a 16GB USB that contained all the evidence gathered by the author for this research, including some 12,000 pages of documents found in the National Archives of South Africa, Portugal and England, 137 interviews, including 69 with people who knew Tsafendas personally, some of them closely and some even as a child. There were also thousands of newspaper articles. The Report and the evidence were accompanied by a letter/request by Advocate George Bizos, Professor John Dugard, former KwaZulu-Natal state attorney Krish Govender, Advocate Dumisa Ntsebeza and Judge Zak Yacoob. The five jurists, who had collaborated with Dousemetzis in the research and the evaluation of the evidence, wrote in their letter that the report and the new evidence:
“shows convincingly that Mr Tsafendas was not a schizophrenic who believed that his actions were determined by a tapeworm. In fact, the study compellingly demonstrates that he was a man with a deep social conscience who was bitterly opposed to apartheid and viewed Verwoerd as the prime architect of this policy. Tsafendas told the police after the assassination that he killed Dr Verwoerd because he was ‘disgusted with his racial policies’ and hoped that ‘a change of policy would take place’. The killing of Verwoerd was therefore a political assassination and not the act of an insane man.”
The jurists concluded in their letter that:
“At present, South African history records Tsafendas as the insane killer of Dr Verwoerd who had no political motive for his act. This is as inadequate as it is incorrect and this is borne out by the study.
South African history, in proper recognition of the generations who preceded us as well as those to come, should record in its annals an accurate account of the killing of Dr Verwoerd which recognises that Tsafendas was motivated to kill him by reason of his deep opposition to apartheid and was indeed a freedom fighter and a hero. This must be acknowledged by a revision and a correction of this event in history. This is necessary in order that what occurred is properly recorded and that the distortion of it by the apartheid government is laid bare. It is not about being vindictive or vengeful but simply about recording our painful history with the accuracy that our commitment to the truth and reconciliation requires.
In our submission the study is so thoroughly and painstakingly done that we would have no hesitation in recommending that the minister may well accept its findings and conclusions and act thereon. On the other hand, we fully accept and understand that the minister may wish to subject the study to an independent assessment. We hardly seek to be prescriptive in this regard. What is of interest to us is the course of action that the South African government, once it is satisfied with regard to the study and its findings, may elect to take. Again this area falls squarely within the discretion of the government as advised by the minister but may we suggest a few options for consideration and they would include:
a. a public acknowledgement of the acceptance of the study and its findings; and
b. the appropriate steps to revise the curriculum of schools and other institutions of learning to correct the teaching and learning of the killing
Advocate George Bizos characterized the Report as “monumental” and described it as “the most comprehensive study of apartheid and how it operated that I have ever seen.” Advocate Bizos believes that this report is “of major historical importance for South Africa and as to our understanding of Verwoerd’s assassination.” He described the evidence gathered and presented by this Report, proving that Tsafendas was not insane but politically motivated in killing Dr. Verwoerd, as “overwhelming and unquestionable.”
Professor John Dugard stated concerning the Report that it:
“confirms that there was a cover-up. It shows convincingly that Tsafendas was a political revolutionary, whose assassination of Dr. Verwoerd was motivated by a hatred of Dr. Verwoerd and all he stood for. He was not an insane killer but a political assassin determined to rid South Africa of the architect of apartheid. Political assassinations seldom achieve their goal and this was no exception. But at least South African history should know the truth about Tsafendas. Dousemetzis has done South Africa a service by correcting the historical record.”
Justice Zak Yacoob said he agreed “100 per cent” with all of the report’s findings and added:
“The historical record shows that comrade Tsafendas killed Verwoerd, that he pleaded insanity at the trial, his plea was upheld and he was, consequent to his plea, confined at the pleasure of the relevant authority. If he had spoken the truth, he would have been sentenced to death, so the tactic was a very good one in the circumstances. History does not record that he pretended to be insane to save his life. This is well brought out in the research. The research shows conclusively that he did a deliberate courageous anti-apartheid act but pretended insanity at the trial; understandably so. I think the research speaks for itself.”
- The spear of the nation by Harris Dousemetzis