The Key to Tsafendas

Matthew Krouse, who once portrayed Dimitri Tsafendas in a play, looks at Lisa Key’s extraordinary documentary on the man who murdered Verwoerd

I know what it feels like to kill Hendrik Verwoerd. I killed him often in 1985, when I acted as Dimitri Tsafendas in a musical satire I wrote with Robert Colman, who played the fallen prime minister.

Called Famous Dead Man, the play mentioned no names but presented its audience with a riddle: in the gritty Eighties, who had the Dutch-born architect of apartheid become? And who was the enigmatic, Mozambican figure that had penetrated the holy of holys, bumping off the high priest of the Nationalist regime?

In reality the ghost of Verwoerd landed up taking charge of the then President PW Botha. He, like Afrikanerdom in general, was easy to send up. But Tsafendas, his supposedly insane murderer who languished in a Cape Town prison, was unknown. So we constructed a character - angry, coloured and deranged. But we were wrong. I never thought about it the way Breyten Breytenbach does, but now that I’ve heard him I believe he’s right: Tsafendas and Nelson Mandela are two sides of the same coin.

In the 1980s, reactions to the state of emergency were rife, and Famous Dead Man emerged as one more act of insolence from a public fed up with violence and censorship. In this climate, Famous Dead Man made newspaper headlines, sending its somewhat effete young creators into hiding - fleeing from hit-men of a vengeful right wing.

A complaint from Anna Boshoff, daughter of Verwoerd, led to the play’s banning. This resulted in an unsuccessful Publications Control Board appeal in which we, the authors, were supported by three prominent figures - producer Des Lindberg, the then advocate Edwin Cameron and Pieter-Dirk Uys.

All South Africans over 35 have a memory of that fateful day, September 6 in 1966, when the parliamentary messenger Tsafendas stabbed Verwoerd. Mine is of a young Jewish boy, loitering around Germiston’s Zionist Hall after Hebrew class, while his community prepared the venue for a fundraising fte.

With the country in a state of mourning, the fte had to be called off. I remember sobbing with my sister, denied our chance to eat cake, to take home fabulous prizes. For our Jewish parents the moment smelled of disaster. After all, Tsafendas was foreign. If there was a backlash, would it rub off on the Jews?

Today these events are remote reminders of a system that lent added meaning to the terms “comedy” and “tragedy”. They’re memories that have become all the more vivid and bizarre with the release of a new documentary on the life of Tsafendas, made by first-time documentary maker Liza Key.

Key is a film fundi who spent many years running the South African Film Foundation as well as the cultish Weekly Mail Film Festival, and I worked for her for a brief spell. But in the last two years, it seems that the entire country has known that she’s been out there chronicling the life of the man who, it is believed, claimed a talking tapeworm controlled his life. Perhaps the most startling aspect of Key’s film, called The Furiosus, is the blatant denial of this fact.

Tsafendas had no tapeworm and interviews with him in the documentary show a man who doesn’t seem so out of control.

Let’s jump back to 1997. I was working at the Market Theatre as a publicist and Liza Key was in Cape Town making her film. I remember getting a call from her. Could I send her all the press and transcripts of the Famous Dead Man ordeal. And would I be prepared to act as Tsafendas’s father in a dramatisation of his life?

In the first instance, I did have transcripts of my own “trial”. Before copying them for Key I read them. Like all official documents about the assassination, they harped on about Verwoerd. Could he, as a deceased leader, be defamed? Had we defamed his wife, who was still alive?

But not a word about Tsafendas, whom I portrayed. Perhaps I had not been doing my job properly. Of course we overlooked a pivotal fact. Our portrayal of him as a lunatic fed directly into the propaganda, although our play did end with the words: “Doctor prime minister, I Tsafendas am mad enough to kill you!”

Secondly, I considered Key’s offer to act as Tsafendas’s father, and upon inquiry discovered that I had to do so naked on a couch! I called her up and told her I was looking fat. That was okay, so was he. And there was something else: could I find her a coloured kid who would be prepared to act as the young Tsafendas, tickling his prostrate father’s stomach with a feather?

Things were going too far. My own tapeworm was beginning to talk.

I’m sorry to report that I’m not physically in Key’s documentary. But in some ways I feel like I am. After watching it everyone will. It’s a compassionate revisitation of some harrowing times. It’s witty, with camp nostalgia, and at moments off-the-wall.

But it’s not merely a lighthearted chuckle at the man who, as one interviewee puts it, “did the job for us”. The work is also interspersed with Keys’ own submission, on behalf of Tsafendas to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission last year. It is one more small masterpiece launched in the year that has belonged to the documentary form.

It’s been a year of seeing our history through the eyes of remarkable people. This parting glance at the world of the furiosus - meaning madman - is the most extraordinary of all.

The Furiosus will show at the Swiss South African Documentary Film Festival on June 26 at 8pm and will be followed by a panel discussion. At the National Arts Festival it will be screened on July 6

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