Dimitri Tsafendas, parliamentary messenger, born 1918; died October 7 1999
|Friday, 24 October 2008 11:55|
Born: 14 January 1918 in Maputo, Portuguese East Africa (now Mozambique)
Died: 7 October 1999 outside of Krugersdorp, Gauteng
Notable because: Assassinated the architect of Apartheid - Verwoerd and was then cruelly incarcerated, 23 years on death row listening to up to 7 men a day die. The tapeworm that was the basis of his defense at the murder trial was there till the end of his life. In his will he requested a post mortem to establish its presence.
Dimitri Tsafendas assassinated South African Prime Minister Hendrik Verwoerd on 6 September 1966. Tsafendas, working as a parliamentary messenger, stabbed Verwoerd with a dagger during a parliamentary session.
Tsafendas, at his trial, was found not guilty of murder by reason of insanity. He suffered from schizophrenia and claimed, or it is said that he claimed, that he had a giant tapeworm inside him, which spoke to him. The court ordered that he be detained "at the pleasure of the State President", which meant that only the South African State President had the authority to release him. He was never released.
Tsafendas was at first given a cell on death row in Pretoria Central Prison, next to the room in which men were hanged, sometimes seven at a time. After he had been certified as insane he was incarcerated at Weskoppies, a psychiatric hospital. He remained there for nearly thirty years and died at the age of 81.
Dr Verwoerd entered the House of Assembly on 6 September 1966 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 was 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. Tsafendas had a history of mental illness which went back to 1935. 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.
DEAN KALIMNIOU writes:
The tragedy of apartheid finds expression in many forms, one of the most painful of which was the life story of an 81-year-old man who died ten years ago in a mental institution outside Krugersdorp after spending much of his life on South Africa's death row.
Dimitri Tsafendas arguably changed the course of post-war South African history more than any other individual when, in a brief moment of frenzy, he stabbed to death the "architect of apartheid", prime minister Dr Hendrik Verwoerd, in the Cape Town parliament in 1966. Verwoerd, grand wizard of white supremacy, died from a punctured lung and heart. The news electrifies the nation's black and white communities. If Kennedy's assassination, which occurred three years earlier spawned whole libraries of speculation, the Verwoerd case was quickly sealed. Dimitri Tsafendas was a ''mad Greek'' who followed instructions from a giant tapeworm. An insane act by an insane man. Case closed. Even Nelson Mandela dismissed Tsafendas as an ''obscure white messenger.'' He was found unfit to stand trial for the murder by reason of insanity, the judge president of the Cape, Mr Justice Beyers, observing at the time: "I can as little try a man who has not at least the makings of a rational mind as I could try a dog or an inert implement. He is a meaningless creature!"
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 and the end of apartheid in 1994.
During his incarceration, he was befriended at Sterkfontein by a South African film producer, Liza Key. A schoolgirl at the time of Verwoerd's death, Ms Key held popular assumptions about the assassination - believing, along with most South Africans, that the prime minister had been killed by a white parliamentary messenger of Greek nationality who had no political motivation, but believed that he was acting on the orders of a giant tapeworm infesting his stomach.
Researching his life for a documentary, Key was startled to find a very different story. She was not much helped in this by Tsafendas himself, who - whatever his state of mind at the time of the assassination - had seemingly had his sanity seriously disturbed by his experiences on death row.
But, digging into state records and interviewing family, officials and others involved in the events surrounding the assassination, she found that Tsafendas had been both politically sophisticated - at one time having been a paid-up member of the Communist party - and a classic victim of the racial prejudices that Verwoerd exploited to try to entrench white rule on the subcontinent. Similarly, in ''The Assassin,'' the first biography of Tsafendas, Henk Van Woerden rescued this ''mad Greek'' from obscurity, whiteness and insanity. Van Woerden, a Dutch writer who spent his youth in South Africa, interviewed Tsafendas in the mental institution where he died in 1999. From these interviews, through creative sleuthing and from files in South Africa's state archives, Van Woerden was able to piece together a politics and a history for a man permitted neither.
It emerges that Tsafendas, lived as an illegitimate from conception to coffin. His Crete-born father, Michaelis, emigrated to Portuguese East Africa, later Mozambique, where he kept a mixed-race maid, Amelia Williams, who was also his concubine. When Williams gave birth to Tsafendas, the child threatened to become a scandal. Michaelis dismissed the mother and she disappeared. His father sent the boy to Alexandria, Egypt, to be reared by a grandmother. When she grew frail Dimitri returned to his father. Victimised at school for his mixed blood (he was given the nickname "blackie"), Tsafendas was not to learn of his origins until he turned eighteen. They explained a lot: his rejection by his father and Greek stepmother; family-condoned sexual abuse; the racial tauntings he endured when sent away to a white South African boarding school. Unable to cope with his environment or himself, Tsafendas 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. Before gripping his assassin's knife, this racial and familial outcast 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 was deported from or refused entry into the United States, Britain, Canada, Israel, Rhodesia, Portugal and Spain. South Africa denied him entry eight times; Greece and Portugal refused him passports. Eight countries detained Tsafendas in mental institutions or prisons. The man became a cosmopolitan untouchable, with a knowledge of Greek, English, Portuguese, Shangaan (a local African language), Spanish, Arabic, German, Italian, Hebrew, Turkish and Afrikaans too.
He returned to South Africa in 1964, 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. Van Woerden's the ''The Assassin'' takes shape as a book about two immigrants and two rival visions of madness. Verwoerd the South African Prime Minister, born in the Netherlands, was an outsider who sought to define in blood the limits of true belonging. How do we disentangle his obsession with racial purity from his immigrant paranoia?
By the time he assassinated Verwoerd, Tsafendas was an unbalanced man. But he'd been raging publicly for years against apartheid's chief architect. Tsafendas yearned, he told acquaintances, for a ''rainbow nation.'' He abhorred the laws that forbade sex across the colour bar. A few weeks before stabbing Verwoerd, Tsafendas had filed to be reclassified from white to coloured, hoping to live legally with the mixed-race woman he loved. ''Which of the two,'' Van Woerden asks, ''was more truly crazy: Verwoerd or Tsafendas?''
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. Alexander Moumbaris visited him as he languished in prison: "For four years he had been tortured seven times a day... I met him in 1972, he was in the next cell at the Pretoria prison known as "Maximum" or "Berverly Hills". This is where the hangings took place. He was detained as the "State President's patient", which meant complete isolation. I don't believe that he was really insane. Rather, he let himself be considered insane to save his life. But at a moment of confidence, when the guards were at some distance, he told me in Greek with a little smile of pride and triumph: "I got their tough guy". During the great demonstrations that rocked South Africa during the 1976 Soweto uprising, Tsafendas was used, if only briefly, as a rallying point for aggrieved and oppressed black students. They took to the streets chanting: "Tsafendas Inyanga Yezizwe." (Tsafendas healer of the nation.) However, he once more languished back into obscurity, his plight having slipped the notice of the new ANC dominated government.
Moumbaris continues: "I saw Tsafendas again in 1996,by which time he was an old man. He was still behing bars, and I imagine this is where he stayed until the end. When I saw him with my wife, we talked in French, Greek, English and Arabic. Heseemed lucid and not at all insane.When we saw him, we asked him whether he wanted anything. He answered "I want my freedom!" I regret not having done anything for him to get out of there. He deserved a better fate than the one he got."
Notably, the events of Tsafendas' life are explored in a play by Anton Robert Krueger entitled: "Living in Strange Lands - The testimony of Dimitri Tsafendas." It is remarkable not only for its exploration of Tsafendas' character and motivation, but also how his conception of his Greek identity, being one that demands total adherence to prerequisites, was the fatal flaw that led to his ultimate tragedy. "So anyway, I thought I was Greek but one day I was over at Mrts Takalou's house and I saw a guitar on the floor.and was drain to it. And then I here Mrs Tsakalous screaming in my ear: "Leave it alone. You're just like that mulatto mother of yours! Stupid!" As he confesses in the play, in a manner that would strike a chord with many Australian born Greeks: "I've sometimes looked like a different race in a different part of my life, in different parts of the world. .. Now neither the whites nor the blacks want anything to do to me, because I'm not in their group. I'm not one of "their people," you know? It's this bloody group nonsense. Why must it always be about group? Why, why does it matter?"
Whether viewed as a modern day Harmodius and Aristogeiton, doing away with the tyranny of the Peisistratids, or just a Tsafendas' pathetic and ultimately tragic life offers a brilliant chronicle of what it means to be unwanted from birth. Tsafendas lived unsupported by the paper identities (passports, visas, work permits, birth certificates) that sustain most of us invisibly. To explore his story is to embark upon a transforming journey through the illegal immigrant's plight, the cost of race thinking and the way the label ''mad'' is used to suppress stories too dangerous or unbearable to hear. Soren Kierkegaard, in his Two Ages, opined: "A person experiencing passion forgets the externality of the object of his passion." As such, Tsafendas will always remain, a heart-wrenching symbol of eloquent humanity and understated rage.
-----------Alexander Moumbaris, a former political prisoner in Pretoria recalls: (And this may not be entirely reliable but is included for interest.)
'For four years he had been tortured seven times a day. I met him in 1972, he was in the next cell at the Pretoria prison known as "Maximum" or "Beverly Hills". This is where the hangings took place. He was detained as the "State President's patient", which meant complete isolation.
Jon Robins writes:
Tsafendas was born in Mozambique in 1918, the son of a Greek engineer, and moved to the Transvaal at the age of ten. On account of his dark complexion, he was taunted and nicknamed "Blackie". Four years later, when he returned to Mozambique, the Tsafendas family secret was revealed: he was the illegitimate son of a Mozambican woman - and thus "coloured", not "white" as many still believe. He returned to South Africa in 1936 and, a year later, the tapeworm made its first appearance. He complained that it gave him stomach-ache and that he could hear it moving. Two demons - race and madness - began gnawing at his psyche. They would never leave him.
In 1941, he joined the merchant navy and began a bizarre odyssey that was to last almost a quarter of a century. Key, in a submission she made to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission tracked this journey. The itinerant Tsafendas picked up odd jobs and settled fleetingly in various countries, but ended up either in psychiatric care or being deported. At one point, he crossed the frozen St Croix river from Canada to the US. On another occasion, he presented himself at the Mandelbaum Gate demanding entry from Israel to Jordan. He spent six months on New York's Ellis Island; received shock treatment in a German asylum; was certified insane in England; baptised on a beach in Greece; received more shock treatment in Germany; and passed through France as a refugee under the auspices of the Red Cross.
His moments of madness are chronicled in an inquiry made after the trial. A US psychiatric report in 1946 describes how he complained of voices in radiators and smeared his excrement on the hospital walls. The report is one of many findings of schizophrenia. It also reveals his grievances about the race politics of South Africa. Tsafendas was pining for a South African girlfriend, but he feared that their offspring would be black.
Those grievances take on political expression. Allegations of subversive behaviour and flirtations with communism followed him around the world. He was particularly concerned with the fight for independence in his homeland, Mozambique. The inquiry unearthed a startling internal memo from the Mozambican security police. Tsafendas "of mixed blood (a coloured)", it reported, was spotted consorting with "persons of the negro race (blacks)" in a hotel bar.
In 1964, Tsafendas was back in South Africa and - in spite of mixed parentage, communism and periods of insanity - landed himself a job as a messenger in the whites-only parliament, within reach of Verwoerd. Shortly before the assassination, he applied for reclassification from "white" to "coloured". Six days after the assassination, Tsafendas told the police that he had killed Verwoerd because he was "so disgusted with the racial policy".
The leaders of the new South Africa remain reluctant to talk about the man who delivered one of the most profound blows against apartheid. Nelson Mandela in his autobiography, A Long Walk to Freedom, deftly sidesteps him. Political assassination is not a strategy that the ANC supports, he wrote. In his memoirs, Mandela does not even name the man who felled the despot, but he describes him as an "obscure white messenger". Again, it is the story of the mad Greek who turned on his own for no reason. Today, neither the Pan-Africanist Congress nor the South African Communist Party acknowledges the man. Indeed, the latter - in a display of uncomradely pique - insists that he was never a member, despite evidence that he was.
Songezo Mjongile, a national executive member of the ANC Youth League, says: "We simply note his action as an isolated incident informed by the context in which [the killing] took place." And what was the context? A society that viewed Tsafendas as "this white who is black . . . or a black man in a white skin" which led to the assassin forming his own agenda. Mjongile rules out any suggestion that any form of political conviction inspired Tsafendas's act. Even posthumously, Tsafendas is the outsider, excluded from the liberation movement because his battle was seen as personal rather than political. Mandela ordered him to be moved to the Sterkfontein mental hospital in 1994. But, by then, prison had done a good job in destroying whatever was left of the man's sanity.
Sadistic warders are reported to have urinated in his food, trussed him up in a straitjacket and beat the living daylights out of him. His cell was situated next to a brutal symbol of the old politics of hate: the prison gallows. Three ropes hung over a gate in the floor, and on each rope were tied two nooses to accommodate the regular executions.
The South African-born novelist and painter Henk Van Woerd befriended Tsafendas in the hospital. He avoids the "hero or villain" analysis of Tsafendas, but says that his life was indicative of the trauma that beset South Africa. To dismiss the man as mad is to be unfair both to the man and his deed. The assassination was a rational act in a country gone mad, Van Woerd reckons.
In her A Question of Madness, Key captures Tsafendas talking movingly of a moment of kindness 70 years ago by a fellow pupil defending him from the racial taunts of the headmaster's son. "These blond people gave me an insecurity complex," he remembers.
The tapeworm was there until the end. Tsafendas, in his will, requested a postmortem to decide the issue, but the authorities never honoured his wish.
Now that he is dead, South Africa has found a place for the misfit assassin. Just as Tsafendas resisted being defined under the dehumanising race laws, so he still evades classification today. He was neither black nor white, and neither sane nor totally insane. He was not a freedom fighter and he certainly was not a "meaningless creature". So where do you put him?
He was laid to rest in an unmarked grave in Krugersdorp.
|Last Updated on Monday, 11 June 2012 09:52|