May 21, 2019

Long-overdue Parliament myth at last put to rest

If there remains anyone out there who still buys into the elaborately crafted apartheid lie about the alleged insanity of Dimitri Tsafendas, the man who assassinated Hendrick Verwoerd, this thoroughly researched book will at last set the record straight.

Author Harris Dousemetzis devoted 10 years to researching the story of Tsafendas. He interviewed 137 people who knew the man, 69 of whom regarded him as a friend, and none of whom thought him insane; he found more than 100 police statements in South Africa’s national archives that provide the cogent and coherent evidence of a man who knowingly and purposefully performed a politically-inspired assassination; he perused medical records, including hospital reports which revealed that Tsafendas had faked mental illness before and got away with it; he contacted five prominent psychiatrists in South Africa and the US to assess his findings; he read 120 newspapers that covered the assassination from countries across the globe. In all, he tracked down 12,000 pages of documents, including some lodged in the British National Archives and others compiled by the Portuguese security police, PIDE.

The indisputable conclusion Dousemetzis comes to was one that many have long suspected, and that has for years been whispered in the public domain; Dimitri Tsafendas, a committed life-long Communist and activist, stabbed Dr Verwoerd to death in the parliamentary chamber in 1966 to register his revulsion at the concept of apartheid, and his hope was that in killing the “father of apartheid” he could possibly bring this appalling system to an end.

'I was so disgusted by the racial policy that I went through with my plans to kill the prime minister...I wanted to see a government representing all the South African people.'

The author sums it up thus: My aim in writing The Man Who Killed Apartheid was to “hopefully lead to the eventual correction of a long-standing injustice”. He wanted South Africa and the world to know the truth, that “this was a duplicitous act of mis-government” and that the “execution”, as Tsafendas called it, was “rooted in the belief, in his own words, that he could not ‘remain silent’ in the face of apartheid’s crimes. My hope is that the book will finally kill a shabby, old lie from South Africa’s darkest time in history.”

The author can rest assured that no reader of this detailed and comprehensive account of the life of Tsafendis could possibly complete this 400-plus volume and still defend the narratives concocted at the time by the likes of security chief General van den Bergh, John Vorster, the then Minister of Justice who replaced Verwoerd as Prime Minister, and Major Daniel Rossouw, head of the Cape Town Security Police, who interrogated Tsafendas hours after the assassination.

The embarrassment would be too much; here was an individual who had been arrested and interrogated by PIDE when he had lived in Mozambique where he openly declared his support for independence and majority black rule. Banished from Mozambique, he was prevented from entering Portugal and black-listed by South Africa because of his outspoken support for Communism and his hatred of apartheid. Yet this man had illegally slipped into the country and somehow landed a job as a messenger in parliament where he was easily able to enter the Chamber, carrying two knives, and get close enough to the Prime Minister to plunge a knife repeatedly into his heart.

There was also the pressing need to dismiss the idea that any person would do this, especially a white person (although at that time Tsafendas, who had traced his maternal roots to his father’s maid, was openly applying to be registered and legally recognised as a second-class ‘coloured’ person, in an act of open hostility to white privilege). That someone could brazenly challenge Verwoerd, God of all whites, who protected them from the swart gevaar, and would drive all black South Africans to the margins of society where they would take their place as servants of the whites, was just too much. It could never be revealed in an open court.

The book makes the point that a politically motivated murder of Verwoerd threatened to call into question the very rationale behind apartheid and bring down the scaffolding propping up a system that was roundly rejected by most of the rest of the world.

The importance of this book is that it finally lays to rest the lies, or even lingering doubts, constructed by the apartheid narrative. The author’s meticulous research demonstrates that the unlikely tape worm fable came from Tsafendas himself. He had first heard a fabulous tale of an all-powerful tape worm claimed by a friend who had successfully used it to avoid the draft.

Tsafendas tried out a pretence at insanity himself, and found it worked. While serving in the navy during World War Two he developed a deep fear of being torpedoed by U-boats, and by claiming to be the bearer of a giant tapeworm he spent most of the war safely on land, in a range of hospital and mental health facilities.

Tsafendas decided to avoid the gallows by resuscitating the tale of the tape worm. This after unrelenting torture – naked, shackled and handcuffed, he was repeatedly electrocuted, beaten viciously, held upside down out of the window of a high-rise and subjected to all of the now well-known gamut of psychotically violent apartheid security forces tactics.

Tsafendas made it clear that at no point did he attribute the decision to kill Verwoerd to the tape worm. To the end he insisted that that decision was his own. But he tried out the story on his interrogators, and it turned out to be exactly what they had been looking for. The security forces had to come up with something to explain the assassination of Verwoerd and herein lies the origin of the enduring myth of a madman, driven to a dastardly deed on the instructions of a giant tapeworm lodged within his body.

His coherent, lucid police statements that he had given repeatedly to his team of interrogators confirmed “I did set myself the task of destroying the prime minister...I did not care about the consequences... I was so disgusted by the racial policy that I went through with my plans to kill the prime minister...I wanted to see a government representing all the South African people”. Yet these were never brought up in his trial and languished in the state archives until uncovered by Lisa Key, a filmmaker who produced a documentary on Tsafendas.

Tsafendas was declared insane and incarcerated as a patient of the state president. Yet unknown to the public he was not admitted to an asylum and received no treatment. He was sent to Robben Island – the first and only white political prisoner held there ‑ and incarcerated in the punishment wing, which meant solitary confinement. After three months he was transferred to Pretoria Central Prison and held in a purpose-built cell on death row where he spent years listening to the last singing of men sentenced to death and regularly heard the operating of the gallows at work.

Herein lies the real value of this book. It reveals material not exposed before. It is not known that Tsafendas’s torture did not end with his sentencing. According to the author, Tsenfendas could well be apartheid’s most badly treated political prisoner – his jailers never forgot that it he who killed Verwoerd, and they never forgave him. The daily beatings continued for most of his imprisonment. According to the author he was treated as “a punching bag”, often while tied up in a straitjacket; guards relished urinating or spitting into his single meal a day; he had almost no visitors and was denied contact with other prisoners. With reading materials denied and one hour of solitary exercise a day, he kept sane by devising mental challenges to keep his brain active. Tsafendas holds the record of being apartheid’s longest-held prisoner – he was incarcerated for a total of 28 years followed by many more in Sterkfontein asylum for the insane until his death in 1999.

There is more, and it gets even worse. After apartheid, despite unrelenting efforts by figures like Judge Jody Kollapen and Krish Govender, the democratic government did not pardon him, free him, or even offer him amnesty (which he said he would have rejected on the grounds that it would put him in the same category as apartheid murderers). During a visit by former political prisoner Alexander Moumbaris who asked if there was anything he wanted, he simply replied that all he needed was “his liberty”.

How does democratic South Africa justify how this man today lies in an unmarked grave somewhere in Gauteng, and ten years after his lonely death, he remains publicly unacknowledged for the role he played as a hero and a freedom fighter whose legacy belongs in the proud history of the fight that finally did kill apartheid.

Moira Levy

Last modified on Wednesday, 08 May 2019 22:11

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Notes from the House is an independent weekly email newsletter that tracks and monitors Parliament in its role of holding government to account and passing legislation to improve people’s lives. It aims to bring you the news from Parliament that you don’t get elsewhere. Published by Moira Levy with the support of the Claude Leon Foundation.

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