The madness of Demitrio Tsafendas
Thirty-one years on, David Beresford meets the man who assassinated Verwoerd
He is to be found sitting in an armchair on an enclosed verandah at Sterkfontein mental hospital outside Krugersdorp. Dressed in a maroon tracksuit and towelled slippers, he gazes past the eucalyptus trees across the hospital grounds. A pyjamad youth ambles across, his body stiffening like a hunting dog’s at the sight of a pheasant as he spots the chocolate. Accepting a piece he strolls away, munching, circles and then returns, going rigid again as he peers once more into the plastic bag. The assassin stirs and reaches possessively for the chocolate.
The others, a multi-racial audience in this rainbow bedlam, watch with an intent air of incomprehension before busying themselves with obscure inconsequentialities; a ballet of the mind played out in slow motion, choreographed by the pills handed out from the trolley which can be heard rattling its familiar way around the corridors on its mission of tranquillisation.
Demitrio Tsafendas is mad. There may be argument about degrees of madness. And, more importantly, the dates of his madness. But the official record shows that he has been mad since he was defined, declared and condemned as such 31 years ago by Judge Beyers a little more than a month after that moment of bloody violence when he stabbed to death the Honourable Dr Hendrik Frensch Verwoerd on the floor of Parliament.
In fact Judge Beyers put it a bit more trenchantly than that, when he consigned Tsafendas to the dustbins of society and of history. The judge president of the Cape prided himself on being a straight-talking man; he was known to bring barristers close to tears, never mind the helpless wretches he routinely savaged in the dock. And the words he used on October 20 1966 were as pitiless and dismissive of a man’s humanity as if he had delivered them with the black cap on his Minotaur’s head. “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 !”
At one level, at least, hindsight says Judge Beyers was wrong. That right hand which now fumbles to find his mouth, smearing chocolate across his chin, earned Tsafendas an unchallengeable place in the history books at 2.10pm on the afternoon of September 6 1966. Which was when, dressed in his parliamentary messenger’s uniform, he strode between the green leather benches, shouldered aside a cabinet minister and plunged the knife four times into the prime minister with such precision that conspiracy theorists would say the wounds could only have been made with training.
It is a matter of record that Verwoerd was succeeded by John Vorster - a prime minister who, whatever his other sins, began the process of reform in South Africa which was carried on, however falteringly, by PW Botha and brought to fruition, however unintentionally, by FW de Klerk. Whatever the motivation, when that hand stilled the heart of the Hollander it can be said to have set in motion the retreat from ideological racism and set the country on the road which led directly to that moment, more than quarter of a century later, when Nelson Mandela walked out of the gates of Victor Verster Prison to the adulation of an adoring world. Meaningless he was not, in the historical sense.
But it is, perhaps, more in the attempt by Judge Beyers to rob his life of personal meaning that the significance of this story of madness lies.
It is supper time at Sterkfontein and I help an orderly shovel Tsafendas into a wheelchair for the procession to the dining room. He dribbles mashed potato onto the formica table-top and, mechanically, I wipe his mouth.
“Did you kill Verwoerd?” I scribble on a piece of paper. “I killed Verwoerd,” he affirms in a stentorian tone of absent- mindedness. “Why?” I write. He studies it for a few moments then nods solemnly.
The court established his madness, of course, by scientific means. “He showed me eyes where I couldn’t possibly see eyes and a nose and a mouth which were just not there !” indignantly complained clinical psychiatrist Johannes van Zyl of Tsafendas’s performance on his precious Rorschach ink- blot tests. “Modern paintings ?” inquired Judge Beyers from the bench to dutiful smiles around the court after the psychologist had explained the significance of his blobs.
The mind doctors did not come out of it too well. Van Zyl had already had some trouble explaining why there was a need for “the New South African standardisation of the Wechsler Bellevue Aut Intelligence Test (it is standardised for white people and there are separate tests for coloureds).” And, hanging over proceedings, was a blunder by Dr Ralph Kossew, Cape Town’s district surgeon, who happened to examine the “mad knife man” for a disability grant three months before the assassination, finding him “schizophrenic in the highest class” ... but not certifiable.
But it was from his own mouth that he condemned himself as mad, at least as relayed by the mouths of others. “I don’t think I will be able to live in Cape Town after this, because of public opinion, you know,” one psychiatrist quoted him as saying in the immediate aftermath of the assassination. “If I was ever offered a job in the House of Assembly again I do not think I would be able to face up to it !”
“There is an instance now where one hot day he tried to cool the fowls off, which proves to me he was also mentally deranged,” recounted Peter Daniels of the infamous lodger who came to stay with them for a few weeks in 1965. “He got hold of the hosepipe and tried to cool the fowls down, because he thought they were hot too!”
And then there was the worm. It is an article of faith among most South Africans that a imaginary tape worm ordered him to assassinate Verwoerd. Except it did exist and it never gave him “orders”. He seems to have had a tape worm in his youth and a delusion about its survival appears to have haunted his later life - he has left instructions in his will for a post-mortem to settle the issue. But police interrogators, try though they did, never managed to get his admission that the worm talked to him, much less ordered the murder of the prime minister of the Republic of South Africa.
The fact is, however, that Judge beyers, on the best psychiatric advice of the day, found Tsafendas insane and, whatever the truth of the worm, there is no reason to dispute it.
Madness, of course, takes may guises. There are some who have said that Verwoerd was mad. An Opposition MP, Major Piet Van der Byl, told him so to his face. Ordered by the Speaker to withdraw his description of the prime minister as a “paranoiac” the major said: “I cannot withdraw it; it is true. It is my duty to the country to say this.” Whether, or not he heard voices, Verwoerd did consider himself on personal terms with the Almighty. He believed that he survived an earlier assassination attempt by virtue of divine intervention.
And was South Africa not a society gone mad ? Listen to the Rev. James Johnston, testifying to Judge Judge beyers on Tsafendas’s insanity: “I went to see him chiefly in connection with his racial status…. I asked him whether he was a European or whether he was a coloured man. The reason why I asked him that was because I was concerned about him being a foreigner and if he was a coloured man it was quite right for him to stay in a coloured home as well as going to services in a coloured home. But if he was a European, or a white man I would ask him to go along to services that were held in a white home…. I must say I found him rather strange, or odd…...”
Tsafendas was not white. He was not a member of the chosen race turning madly on his own - a white messenger in a white parliament killing a white prime minister. There the watch-dogs of racial purity at the very heart of the apartheid state got it wrong. And nor was he “a dog”, or an “inert implement”. Evidence to the contrary has always been there….
Within the hours of that bloody confrontation on the floor of the National Assembly, TE Donges - hurriedly made acting- prime minister - was on the air, crackling and squawking to the nation over the valve radios of the day. “The Cabinet will leave no stone unturned to get behind the reasons for this dreadful act,” he declared. “This is not the time for rumours, or speculation and still less for people to lose their heads.” As he spoke orders were already going out to government agencies and the first of thousands of pages of reports were beginning to pour in from departments of state, the police and security services round the world, anxious to deal with the spectre of the assassin which haunts them all. They were recently released by Pretoria’s state archives under the 30-year rule.
Demitrio Tsafendas was born in Mozambique, in January 1918, the son of a marine engineer of Greek extraction and a mother who was a servant of mixed race. Tsafendas does not appear to have known his mother, Amelia. He was farmed out, for his early years, with his grandmother who lived in Alexandria, Egypt. When Tsafendas was six his grandmother fell ill and he returned to Mozambique. His father, by this time, had married a Greek woman. At the age of 10 he was shipped off again, this time to boarding school at Middleburg, in the Transvaal. There he seems to have fallen victim to an early dose of racial prejudice, suffering the nickname “Blackie.”
When he was 14 his father went bankrupt and Tsafendas returned to Mozambique to attend a church school. He seems to have been something of a solitary and, to his father, difficult boy. His step-mother was later to recount of this time: “He was difficult to control and his father often had to punish him in order to get him disciplined. His association with other children at this stage was, however, good,” she said. “He showed a particular interest in the use of gun-powder and explosives and at one stage nearly blew up our house. Also at this stage I often found him gazing in space and when I asked him what he was doing his reply was that he was thinking…..” It was at about this time that the skeleton of his own birth came tumbling out of the family cupboard, when he was told he was “coloured” and illegitimate.
Psychology tests later gave him an IQ of 125. But he left school at the age of about 16, refusing to study further, and started work as a shop assistant, taking up boxing in is spare time. “He became a particularly good boxer and took part in many tournaments,” testified his step-mother.
In 1936 he moved to South Africa, working for a while at a munitions factory. It was about this time that he apparently fell victim to the tape worm, about which he was to develop his obsession. In 1941 he joined the Merchant Navy and began life as a wanderer. It was during his foreign adventures that his mental instability became apparent. His travels are sign-posted by a litany of deportation orders and psychiatric reports from institutions he found himself in around the world. At one stage he walked across the frozen St Croix River from Canada into the United States. At another he presented himself at the Mandelbaum Gate, demanding entry to Israel from Jordan. He was detained for six months on New York’s Ellis Island, given shock treatment in Portugal, certified insane in England, baptised on a beach in Greece, given more shock treatment in a German asylum, passed through France as a refugee under the auspices of the Red Cross and, finally, in 1964, returned to South Africa.
His mental disturbance appear to have been acute. One psychiatric report, for example, from the North Grafton State Hospital in the United States, speaks of him hearing voices from radiators and smearing faeces on the wall. But his racial history was integral to his condition. The same report quotes him as saying he had loved a girl in South Africa, but would not marry her, because he feared that he would produce a black child - a throw-back. The report also says that he left South Africa, because the CID was pursuing him as a communist.
He was, before the war, a paid-up member of what was then the Communist Party of South Africa. And he did have a pronounced social and political conscience. Among the records of the investigation into his background, conducted after the assassination, is a copy of an internal memorandum of the Mozambican security police stating: “Demitrio Tsafendas, of mixed blood (a coloured) was recently in the company of persons of the Negro race (blacks) in the bar of the hotel of Gondola accompanied by other persons of the Negro race and was heard to say the following phrases of a subversive character, including the following: “This country is not called Portugal, it is called the United State of Mozambique. Its flag is of a blue colour, with a rainbow, that rainbow represents all the colours. We already have money and any day now all this will come to an end, because what is necessary is not to be fooled into saying that we are Portuguese, because we are Africans. Long live our country, the United States of Mozambique.”
He, himself, offered the racial issue as a motivating factor in the murder of Dr Verwoerd. A few days after the assassination he told an interrogator: “I was so disgusted by the racial policy that I went through with my plan to kill the prime minister.” Shortly before the assassination, Tsafendas - who had somehow landed up with documents defining him as “white” - applied for reclassification as a “coloured’.
Despite his record of mental instability, many who met Tsafendas on his travels were impressed by him. The personnel officer at a German engineering firm recalls, for example: “He drove up here in a big, battered American car, dressed and well- mannered, he was extremely courteous - a very pleasant man. He looked like a satisfied, successful businessman.”
He was also a considerable linguist. A measure of that talent was provided by a priest of German extraction, Father Hanno Probst, recounting a meeting he had with him in Manzini where Tsafendas was working in a sugar mill: “He told me that he could speak eight languages. I tried him with a few languages and I found that he spoke them all perfectly. He asked me where I was born. I said I was born near Munich in Germany. He then started to talk in Munich dialect. I then tried him in Spanish, Italian, German, tried a few words in Czech and he answered me in Czech.” The exchange ended on a chilly note, a squabble developing between the two men over the role of the Catholic Church in Africa. The father denounced Tsafendas as a communist and rushed off to report him to security at the mill.
A man who did not have the makings of a
rational mind ? A man who was “no more than a dog, or an inert implement”. There is an affidavit among those government files, taken in what was then Lourenco Marques by one Anthony Maw, a neighbour of Tsafendas’s father. It records that, two or three years before the assassination, Tsafendas called unexpectedly at his office. He told Maw he had been all over world and was in Lourenco Marques on a passenger steamer, trying to identify his mother and locate her grave. Is there an image more redolent of humanity than that of a son seeking to mourn a mother he never knew?
Dinner is over at Sterkfontein and an orderly politely informs Tsafendas it is time for bed. He is wheeled away in his armchair, clutching his bag of sweets and magazines.
If he had not been insane when he appeared before Judge Judge beyers, the State did its best to make sure he became mad in the years that followed. When the judge found Tsafendas unfit to stand trial and committed him as a state president’s patient the expectation was that he would be held in a mental hospital. Instead the National Party government exploited a loophole in the law to place him on death row in what can only be described as a living hell.
As well as suffering personal abuse at the hands of warders - who are alleged to have made a practice of urinating in his food and beating him up while trussed in a straight- jacket - he was subjected to the sounds of the weekly proceedings in the human abattoir which was the gallows: The singing, the crying and the thump of the trapdoor as the hangman strangled his fellow prisoners in batches of up to seven at a time. The sounds left him, on occasion, “howling like a dog.” The nightmare was to last nearly quarter of a century, until he was moved to a lower- security prison in 1989 and to Sterkfontein in July 1994.
But that has no bearing on the central question posed by the story of Tsafendas: Why did he kill Verwoerd ? Was it an act of mindlessness, or that of a man driven to insanity by the racism which dogged his life ? Was it just a coincidence that a boy tormented at school by the chant of “Blackie’ was the man who plunged a dagger into the heart of a head of state who is remembered as “the architect of apartheid” ?
Dredging through the State documents which tell the story of the events leading up to that pivotal moment in South African history the analogy which comes to mind is of a cruise missile. One can only guess at the formative experiences which effectively punched the fatal co-ordinates into the biological computer which is his brain. But it was with a sense of inevitability, almost of purpose that he moved ever closer to the Mother City until he struck with such explosive effect.
Some even believe the missile was primed. Right wing extremists mutter darkly that John Vorster, who was in parliament that day, seemed strangely calm for a police minister when his prime minister was being murdered in front of him. And there are some puzzling details among those documents in the state archives. Take that exchange with Father Probst in Manzini all those years ago, when the priest asked Tsafendas where he learned so many languages. Tsafendas, according to the cleric, “told me that he was in Russia and that he had learned these languages in a training school in Russia.” Tsafendas, who took pride in his linguistic ability, has denied speaking Russian. Which is curious, because there is a document on file quoting the Greek consul in Beira as testifying how Tsafendas - back from his world travels - had talked fluently in that language to the crew of a Russian ship which happened to be in the port.
During that 1966 hearing on the sanity of Tsafendas there was a particularly piquant exchange between his counsel and Mr Justice Judge beyers.
The Judge President asked: “Did the accused tell you that history will judge whether he was right in killing the deceased ?”
Dr Cooper SC replied: “I do remember him saying something to the effect that history will prove whether he is right, or wrong.”
A madman, or a man with a mission ? Perhaps Mary Shelley came closest to summing up the life of Tsafendas, with the words she put in the mouth of Frankenstein’s monster:
“Am I to be thought the only criminal, when all humankind sinned against me?”
Footnote. Research for this article was by Liza Key, producer of a documentary being prepared on the life of Demitrio Tsafendas for the SABC. The article is an extended version of a submission made to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission this week by Ms Key.