/ 6 May 2020

The biographies of Robert McBride and Dimitri Tsafendas share a curious resonance

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On reflection: Dimitri Tsafendas was sent to Sterkfontein mental hospital in Krugersdorp after years in prison (seen here in 1976). (Courtesy of Gordon Winter)

This is a review of two biographies, namely, Robert McBride: The Struggle Continues by Bryan Rostron and The Man Who Killed Apartheid: The Life of Dimitri Tsafendas by Harris Dousemetzis with Gerry Loughran. The protagonists in both books, although from two different generations, share a curious resonance.  They were both influenced by their fathers and  lived life on the edge, not afraid to stare death in the face. They waged a violent struggle against a powerful and brutal apartheid government. Both men’s lives lay bare the atrocities of state-sponsored demonisation of black people. 

To this day, the mere mention of their names still evokes strong emotions on both sides of the racial divide and at different ends of the love-hate spectrum. Robert McBride and Dimitri Tsafendas’s paths crossed, although they never physically met, while they were both incarcerated at Pretoria central prison, which was renamed Kgosi Mampuru in 2013. 

This review is about both men’s dates with death. It is about being surrounded by death for long periods of time. It is about how Tsafendas’ death and McBride’s close encounter with it were the mortar used to lay the foundation for apartheid’s eventual death. 

Robert McBride: The Struggle Continues is an updated memoir about the former head of Independent Police Investigative Directorate (Ipid). The original version was first published in the United Kingdom 1991 as Till Babylon Falls. This is a gorgeously written book that is relatively easy to read. What is new is the inclusion of McBride’s life in the new democracy, especially as head of police watchdog Ipid, and his widely reported fights with Parliament’s portfolio committee on police and two different ministers of police (Nathi Nhleko and General Bheki Cele). 

McBride had a close relationship with his father Derrick, who was passionate about politics. Derrick, who passed away in February, was a mischievous fellow with an explosive temper. From an early age, McBride was exposed to the cruelty of apartheid. After narrating one incident to his father, he was infuriated. “These Afrikaners only understand the language of the gun,” he told him before giving McBride, then only 13 years old, Al J Venter’s book Coloured: a Profile of the Two Million South Africans. From then, McBride received more books about history and politics.

At college, McBride built a solid friendship with Gordon Webster, whose mother was Zulu and father was of Irish descent. Webster joined the armed struggle and recruited McBride to his special operations team. He drummed “maximum discipline and ultra-secrecy” into his reggae-music-loving head, and taught him about AK47s, Makarov pistols, explosives and detonators.  

In one of their operations, Webster was hit by a police bullet and was hospitalised. McBride, for the first time, opened up to his father about his underground activities and about his pal who was badly wounded in hospital. McBride’s plan was to mount a rescue operation. Surprisingly, for the maverick that Derrick was, his initial reaction was “you must be crazy”. However, his love for action got the better of him and he eventually agreed with the plan.  

In a scene reminiscent of a Hollywood movie, Derrick was decked out with a priest’s dog collar, a bible and a concealed Makarov pistol; McBride was armed with an AK47; others waited in a getaway car. McBride was pulling the hospital trolley on which his naked friend Webster lay and fired AK47 bullets at anyone who looked like a Special Branch cop. Derrick pushed the trolley from behind as they negotiated their way down three floors. The Edendale hospital rescue operation was a resounding success.

A few years later, McBride was now running the cell in the Durban area. He targeted Why Not and Magoo’s bars, much-loved drinking holes for white people,  including cops. He placed a massive car bomb at the bar; three people died and many sustained injuries. McBride, his father and others were arrested. Derrick was sent to Robben Island; McBride received three death sentences. 

He was to be hung. “The struggle continues till Babylon falls,” he shouted at the top of his lungs, arm raised, fist clenched as policemen moved in to take him from the courtroom after the judge read out his punishment. 

McBride was sentenced at a time when both the ANC and National Party regime were like two fatigued heavyweight boxers who had outpunched each other. Neither side could throw a knock-out thump. Things worked out fortuitously for McBride — he walked out of Westville prison in 1992 to a hero’s welcome. 

McBride had spent 1463 days on death row. While agonising about his fate, he found out that the apartheid regime, in a rather sadistic act, had built a special cell for Dimitri Tsafendas next to the gallows. From here, Tsafendas heard all the anguished sounds of death. He could hear the fearful screams, defiant singing and the squeaking trapdoor as it opened for those who had been waiting to meet their maker. This was Tsafendas’s grim reality for about some 22 years. McBride managed to get this information out, which was published in the UK’s The Guardian newspaper.

The Man Who Killed Apartheid: The Life of Dimitri Tsafendas is about the man who assassinated South Africa’s true prime evil, Hendrik Verwoerd. Although Verwoerd was originally from the Netherlands, he was said to have done everything possible to be regarded as more Afrikaans than Afrikaners. He got a scholarship and chose to study in Germany, later becoming editor of Die Transvaler, which published anti-Jewish and apartheid propaganda. 

At first, The Man Who Killed Apartheid is a tough read. With it being over 400 pages long — and including details on all the places and people that Tsafendas encountered — it requires patience and commitment to see it through. However if the intention was to prove beyond reasonable doubt that Tsafendas was of sound mind, its exquisite writing painstakingly manages to prove the point. 

In 1966, Tsafendas, a parliamentary messenger, brought a knife to Parliament and fatally stabbed Verwoerd’s black heart four times. He did not think much about an escape route and the consequences of his actions. He thought failing to kill Verwoerd, while he had an opportunity, was something he would regret forever. 

Tsafendas was arrested and tortured as the embarrassed securocrats went into overdrive, trying to find out how this could have happened right under their noses. As they dug, awkward news was unearthed. Tsafendas was a communist and an illegal immigrant, who was refused entry into South Africa, Mozambique, the United States, Portugal and many other countries. 

There was no way the state was going to admit this publicly. So, when they stumbled upon information that Tsafendas had spent time in  mental institutions in the US and Europe, they used this to claim that he was a deranged, lone actor. To save him from a definite death, Tsafendas’s legal team convinced him he should play along and plead insanity. 

Tsafendas was born in 1918 in Mozambique to a Greek father, Michalis Tsafantakis, and a local woman named Amelia Williams, who was of German and Shangaan heritage. When Tsafendas was born, he was “white. As white as all the family, but he had different hair. It wasn’t like the blacks’ hair, it was like the coloureds,” his half-sister recalled.

Michalis passed on his passion for politics, music and reading to his son. He bought Tsafendas a multi-volume encyclopaedia for his 10th birthday. The young boy could hardly bring himself to put it down.

Tsafendas travelled all over the US and Europe, always entering countries illegally. Whenever he got arrested, he would claim lunacy. He improved on this deception when he told authorities that he had a tapeworm in his stomach that ate his food. Throughout his travels, he mixed with people freely, learning their cultures, becoming a polyglot who could speak eight languages, including German, French, Spanish and English. 

After liberation, the ANC government did not want to release Tsafendas, arguing that such a move could hamper Madiba’s racial reconciliation project. The best they could do for him, was to send him to Sterkfontein mental hospital. His painful and lonely existence there ended in 1999 with his death. 

Tsafendas was a “displaced person, sailor, Christian, communist, liberation fighter, political prisoner and a hero”. This exquisitely written book meticulously proves that he was not insane.

Solomon Makgale is an independent communication consultant.