Hendrik Verwoerd PDF Print E-mail
Friday, 24 October 2008 11:08

Hendrik Frensch Verwoerd

Hendrik Frensch Verwoerd

Born: Amsterdam, 8 September 1901

Died: Cape Town, 6 September 1966

Age: 64

Cause of death: Assassination by stabbing

Notable because: Considered a prime architect of apartheid. Killed in the house of assembly by Parliamentary messenger Dimitri Tsafendas, who escaped the death penalty by using the old 'stomach worm' defence. 'A worm in my stomach made me do it' your honor, and despite being declared mentally unfit, was sent to death row, to spend  nearly a quarter of a century subjected to the terrible sounds and sights of weekly state executions whilst, apparently being used as a human punch-bag by sadistic warders.


Verwoerd was Prime Minister of South Africa from 1958 until his assassination in 1966. Unlike his predecessors, Verwoerd was not born in South Africa, but immigrated at age two with his parents from the Netherlands.

A polarizing figure, he is considered to be the primary architect of apartheid (the foundations of which were laid earlier), and was Prime Minister during the Sharpeville Massacre, the banning of the African National Congress and Pan Africanist Congress, and the Rivonia Trial. He also presided over the establishment of a republic through a referendum.

Numerous major roads in towns and cities in South Africa are named after Verwoerd, although almost all of them have now been renamed. The Gariep Dam in the Free State, and Port Elizabeth Airport in the eastern Cape were formerly named H. F. Verwoerd, as was the town of Verwoerdburg (now Centurion) and H.F. Verwoerd Hospital (now Pretoria Academic Hospital). Hendrik Verwoerd Drive, in Randburg, was renamed Bram Fischer Drive at the end of September 2007.

In a controversial 2004 poll by the South African Broadcasting Corporation that asked South Africans to name the top 100 South Africans of all time, he was voted 19th.

In 1925, he obtained a doctorate at Stellenbosch University and then went to America and Europe, where he did post-graduate studies at a number of universities, including Hamburg and Berlin. In 1928, he returned to South Africa and was appointed Professor of Applied Psychology and Sociology at Stellenbosch University.

In 1936, he joined a deputation of six professors in protesting against the admission to South Africa of Jewish refugees from Nazi Germany. From that year on, Dr Verwoerd was destined to be surrounded by controversy.

In 1937, he became the first editor of Die Transvaler, the National Party newspaper in Johannesburg. Under his editorship, Die Transvaler became an extremist organ, strenuously voicing its opposition to the Hertzog-Smuts alliance and to South Africa's involvement in World War II. A Supreme Court judgment against Verwoerd would later hold that Die Transvaler made a tool of the Nazis in South Africa; and he knew it.

In 1948, the National Party swept to power in the general election. Dr Verwoerd's contribution to the party's success was clearly recognized and he was elected to the Senate, where he became the leader of the ruling party. Two years later, he entered the Cabinet and was appointed Minister of Native Affairs. It was shortly after this appointment that Dr Verwoerd declared that the National Party had developed a policy '... which grants to others what it claims for itself and which is calculated to provide the same opportunities to everyone within his own race group. That is the policy of apartheid.’

On 2 September 1958, after the death of J.G. Striidom, Dr Verwoerd become Prime Minister. The year 1960 was a dramatic one for South African politics and for Verwoerd personally. In January, he announced that a referendum would be called to determine the Republican Issue; the object would be a republic within the British Commonwealth. Two weeks later, Harold Macmillan, the then British Prime Minister, visited South Africa. In an address to both Houses of Parliament he made his famous 'winds of change' speech and criticised apartheid. On 21 March 1960, there was the Sharpeville massacre. Then, less than a month later, the first attempt to assassinate Dr Verwoerd almost succeeded.

On 9 April 1960, Dr Verwoerd opened the Union Exposition on the Witwatersrand to mark the jubilee of the Union of South Africa. Having made his opening speech, he took his seat. Shortly afterwards, a fifty-two year-old farmer, David Pratt, walked up to him and fired two shots into his face. The police later gave the following account of the incident:

'After Verwoerd had made his opening speech, a man stepped up near to the front row of seats in which the Prime Minister was sitting. Some versions are that the man drew attention to himself by calling out, 'Dr Verwoerd'. Other onlookers did not hear the Prime Minister's name being called. A shot was fired at virtually point-blank range into Dr Verwoerd's right cheek from a .22 automatic pistol. A second shot was fired into his right ear. Colonel G.M. Harrison, president of the Witwatersrand Agricultural Society, leapt up and knocked the pistol from the gunman's hand. After the pistol fell to the floor, Colonel Harrison, with the help of Major (Carl) Richter (the Prime Minister's personal bodyguard), civilians and another policemen overpowered the gunman and hustled him to the show grounds Police Station. The arrest was made so quickly and the removal was done so quickly that an angry section of the crowd was frustrated from assaulting the detainee. The detainee, David Pratt, was soon thereafter hurried to Marshall Square [police station].’

Within minutes of the assassination attempt, Dr Verwoerd was rushed - still conscious - to the Pretoria Hospital. Two days later, the hospital issued a statement which described his condition as 'indeed satisfactory - further examinations were carried out today and they confirm good expectations. Dr Verwoerd at present is restful. There is no need for any immediate operation.' The surgeons who worked on Dr Verwoerd would later claim that his escape had been 'absolutely miraculous'. One specialist declared that the firearm used ‘…could not have been anything bigger than a .22 bullet without causing very much more damage.'

Other physicians agreed that if a larger calibre gun had been used, the bullet would probably have penetrated his temple bone and lodged in the brain with extremely serious consequences.

Specialist surgeons were called in to remove the bullets. At first, there was speculation that Dr Verwoerd would lose his hearing and sense of balance, but these fears were to prove groundless. He returned to public life on 29 May, less than two months after the shooting.

David Pratt, Dr Verwoerd's would-be assassin, appeared in the Johannesburg Magistrates' Court on 11 April. Pratt was a father of three who had suffered from epilepsy for a number of years. He was described as a 'socialite and farmer'. He was a respected member of the Witwatersrand Agricultural Society and had been close to Dr Verwoerd on a number of occasions prior to the shooting. In fact, it was later revealed that Pratt had been one of the VIPs sitting next to Dr Verwoerd during the opening of the exposition.

David Pratt, who claimed he had been shooting 'the epitome of apartheid', was eventually declared ‘mentally disordered and epileptic'. On 26 September 1960, he was committed to Pretoria Central Prison to 'await indication of the Governor General's pleasure'. On 1 October 1961, he hanged himself at Bloeinfontein Mental Hospital.

Dr Verwoerd had escaped death by a hair's breadth. Six years later, he would not be so fortunate.

On 6 September 1966, an air of expectancy hung over Parliament. Three days earlier, Dr Verwoerd had held historic talks with the Prime Minister of Lesotho, Chief Leabua Johnathon, at the Union Buildings in Pretoria. It was the first meeting on South African soil between the premier of South Africa and the leader of a black state. Following the meeting, a joint communique was issued by the two governments with special emphasis on co-operation without interference in each others' internal affairs. Against this background, the South African Prime Minister was expected to make an important policy statement at the parliamentary session on 6 September.

Dr Verwoerd entered the House of Assembly that day at 2.15 p.m. As he made his way to the front bench, he exchanged greetings with those around him. Just as he was taking his seat, a uniformed parliamentary messenger, Dimitri Tsafendas, walked briskly across the floor from the lobby entrance. Without warning, Tsafendas drew a sheath knife from under his clothing. He bent over Dr Verwoerd and raised his right hand high into the air. With his left hand, he plucked off the sheath and then stabbed Dr Verwoerd four times in the chest. Seconds later, a number of Members of Parliament rushed forward and pulled Tsafendas away from the Prime Minister. After a violent struggle, the court messenger was finally subdued.

Four Members of Parliament who were medical doctors rushed to the Prime Minister's aid and one gave him the kiss-of-life. Mrs Verwoerd also ran down to the chamber from the wives' gallery. She kissed her husband as the doctors battled to save his life. The Prime Minister was rushed to Groote Schuur Hospital where he was certified dead on arrival.

On 17 October 1966, a summary trial for Tsafendas began. It ended three days later, with the declaration by Justice Beyers that Tsafendas was 'insane and unfit to stand trial'. Beyers ordered that Tsafendas 'be kept in a place of safety where he will be away from society' and he was confined to Pretoria Central Prison.

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.

Tsafendas, who was 48 years-old at the time of the assassination, was the son of a Cypriot father and a black Mozambique mother, but was classified as white. Tsafendos had a history of mental illness which went back to 1 935. He had been diagnosed as suffering from paranoid schizophrenic, in particular, a persistent delusion that a giant tapeworm is eating him up from inside. 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. 

Only one interview with Tsafendas has ever been published: it appeared in The Citizen newspaper in 1976. In it, Tsafendas maintained that he was being well treated in prison and was receiving regular psychiatric treatment. He also pointed out that he was allowed extra helpings of carrots, since that particular vegetable helped with the tapeworm. This interview however almost certainly had no connection to Tsafendas, but was written to deflect attention from his mistreatment.

Dimitri Tsafendas, parliamentary messenger, born 1918; died October 7 1999



Last Updated on Tuesday, 02 December 2008 15:50

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