Growing up in Maputo (then Lourenço Marques) in the 1920s and 1930s, Dimitri Tsafendas would play sword-fight with his friends.
While they would imagine being Robin Hood or D’Artagnan from Alexandre Dumas’s The Three Musketeers, Tsafendas pretended he was Simón Bolívar, the 18th century Venezuelan revolutionary, “El Libertador”, of various South American countries from Spanish colonial rule.
From a young age, the man who, on 6 September 1966 assassinated the “architect of grand apartheid”, National Party leader and prime minister of South Africa Hendrik Verwoerd, appeared to be fired up by a sense of social justice and strong anti-imperialist and anti-fascist views.
Sensibilities sharpened by his father’s own political interest and the books Tsafendas devoured voraciously: from the antislavery novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin, through Charles Dickens’s critiques of the industrial revolution, to Emile Zola’s story of the atrocious conditions that French coal miners experienced, Germinal.
The son of an anarchist of Greek extraction, Michalis Tsafendas, and a Mozambican domestic worker, Amelia Williams, Dimitri’s heritage was only revealed to him in adulthood. He had grown up believing he was the son of Michalis and the woman he married years after Dimitri’s birth, Marika.
Yet, by then, his empathy for the oppressed was already being refined. At 18, Tsafendas was discussing the work of anarchists such as Mikhail Bakunin and Emma Goldman with his father. An early favourite for the youngster was the writing of American-Italian anarchist Luigi Galleani, who justified the use of violence and murder to remove tyrants.
A radical, not a mad man
All this detail, and much more, is contained in a research submission made to the Department of Justice and Constitutional Development in April this year by Harris Dousemetzis, who has recently completed a doctorate at Durham University in the UK. The submission is accompanied by a petition from human rights lawyer George Bizos, former Truth and Reconciliation Commissioner Dumisa Ntsebeza, former KwaZulu-Natal state attorney Krish Govender, retired Constitutional Court judge Zak Yacoob and legal academic John Dugard.
They argue that, rather than a madman driven to kill Verwoerd because of a talking tapeworm – as apartheid mythology would hold – Tsafendas was “a man with a deep social conscience who was bitterly opposed to apartheid and viewed Verwoerd as the prime architect of this policy”, and that his decision to assassinate Verwoerd was political.
As such, their letter urges government to publicly acknowledge and accept Dousemetzis’s research and “take appropriate steps to revise the curriculum of schools and other institutions of learning to correct the teaching and learning of the killing of Verwoerd”.
The department’s spokesperson, Mukhoni Ratshitanga, says Justice Minister Michael Masutha is still studying the submissions and “will make a determination as soon as he is done”.
Footnoted extensively, Dousemetzis’s submission runs to more than 2000 pages and includes painstaking research into state files and intelligence reports by the secret security police of the South African and Portuguese governments – then the colonial ruler of Mozambique. He also interviewed 137 people, 69 of whom knew Tsafendas personally (including siblings, childhood friends, various contemporaries and priests from Mozambique and Turkey), and trawled through the records of the commission of enquiry set up to investigate Verwoerd’s assassination.
Dousemetzis says his interviews complement his archival research and confirm Tsafendas’s deep-seated left-wing politics. He became intrigued by Tsafendas when reading his obituary in 1999. By 2009, his curiosity led to a “positive obsession to correct the historical records” by writing a book about Tsafendas. His research began in earnest soon after.
His initial enquiries led to four Greek Orthodox clerics who had known Tsafendas through various stages of his life. “To a man, they swore that Tsafendas was perfectly sane and had pretended insanity only to avoid the gallows and that he had killed Verwoerd for purely political reasons,” says Dousemetzis.
“What surprised me was that every one of them … spoke of Tsafendas with unbounded admiration, something I believe would be rare among any random group … commenting on another [person]. Clearly all of these men … held Verwoerd’s assassin in the highest esteem and invariably spoke fondly of him – not of his deed, but his character.”
One of those priests, Bishop Ioannis Tsaftaridis of the Greek Orthodox Church of Mozambique, described Tsafendas at a 2015 memorial as a “revolutionary and a South African hero who opened the door to the fall of apartheid”.
Family and friends describe Tsafendas as a charismatic, yet enigmatic, figure in their lives. Someone who was deeply respectful of women and the elderly, loved family, believed education was important enough to teach local children history and English wherever his itinerant life took him, and was “like a lending library” with his collection of books.
Yet Tsafendas was also someone who could not be dissuaded from arguing with customers at the bookshop owned by a left-wing friend of his father, where he worked for a while; or random people he would overhear expressing “fascist” views. He also began advocating, quite loudly, for the independence of Mozambique from colonial rule and got into brawls with the fascist Ossewabrandwag when he lived in South Africa. His travels, which took him across Europe, the Middle-East and the United States, saw him join the nascent anti-apartheid movement in England and befriend Tennyson Makiwane, the ANC’s representative there.
Tsafendas was a communist from a young age, leading to Portugal’s International and State Defence Police (PIDE) opening a file on him in 1938. The day after Verwoerd’s assassination, the PIDE’s director in Lisbon asked his Mozambican counterpart to “not reveal to the South African authorities any information indicating Tsafendas as a partisan of your province”.
Not that this would have mattered much to the National Party. The apartheid state, embarrassed, discomfited and wary of how Verwoerd’s assassination disrupted its white supremacist narrative, would rather the story of insanity prevail over a tale of political agency.
When ruling that Tsafendas was insane and unfit to stand trial Judge Andries Beyers noted: “I can as little try a man who has not in the least the makings of a rational mind as I could try a dog or an inert implement. He is a meaningless creature.”
Yet Tsafendas, who, following Beyers’s judgment, avoided the death penalty but was detained on death row until 1994 when he was moved to a mental institution, had made a most meaningful contribution to the beginning of the end of apartheid.
This is the first in a two-part series on Tsafendas. Read part two here: Tsafendas and the tapeworm
* South African History Online intends publishing all state documents related to Tsafendas. Visit https://www.sahistory.org.za for more information.