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Dimitri Tsafendas: South Africa’s Forgotten Freedom Fighter

Dimitri Tsafendas was a martyr, not a “madman”; it’s high time for us to give him the recognition that he deserves.

By Clare XanthosPublished 8 months ago 9 min read
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Photo of Dimitri Tsafendas. BOOK COVER (AMAZON.COM)

It’s nearly 30 years since the end of legalized racial oppression in South Africa -- known officially as “apartheid.” However, most people still don’t know the name of an important anti-apartheid hero -- a man named Dimitri Tsafendas (pronounced “Sa-fendas”); October 7th marks the 24th anniversary of his death in a psychiatric hospital.

In an attempt to bring an end to white supremacy in South Africa, Tsafendas assassinated South Africa’s then-Prime Minister, Hendrik Verwoerd, in 1966. The South African government responded to the assassination of the Prime Minister by incarcerating Tsafendas for the rest of his life; holding him for decades on death row; systematically torturing him; and labelling his actions as the senseless work of a “madman.”

Although the apartheid regime officially ended in 1994, the new “liberated” South Africa did not acknowledge Tsafendas’ courageous actions, or the fact that by 1994, he had been incarcerated for 28 years as a political prisoner. He was subsequently sent to a psychiatric facility, where he suffered appalling conditions, until his death in 1999; he was buried in an unmarked grave, where his remains rest to this day.

The book, The Man Who Killed Apartheid: The Life of Dimitri Tsafendas, authored by Harris Dousemetzis (originally published in 2018, and updated in 2023) demonstrates that a false narrative was created about Tsafendas to make it appear that his actions were the random act of a mentally ill person, when in fact, this was a selfless act of political resistance.

Who was Dimitri Tsafendas?

Dimitri Tsafendas was born in Mozambique in 1918, to a Greek father and a Mozambican-German (mixed-race) mother. He spent some of his childhood in South Africa, returning there intermittently as an adult.

While Tsafendas was “white-passing,” from an early age, he felt passionately about racial justice issues. In the book, The Man who Killed Apartheid, the author describes how, as a young boy, Tsafendas was deeply affected by the novel, Uncle Tom’s Cabin:

“The story of racial discrimination and violence in America shocked the boy deeply and had a tremendous effect on him.”

Tsafendas would grow up to become a life-long anti-colonialist and communist; he was politically active in a number of countries in which he lived sporadically, including South Africa. Not surprisingly, he despised South Africa’s then-apartheid regime, and everything it stood for, even trying (unsuccessfully) to get himself reclassified from white to “coloured.”

In 1966, desperate to bring about political change, Tsafendas made plans to assassinate the Prime Minister, Hendrik Verwoerd. Somehow managing to obtain a job as a parliamentary messenger (to give him access to the Prime Minister), on September 6, 1966, Tsafendas killed Verwoerd by stabbing him four times with a knife.

While legalized racism was to continue for another 28 years, Tsafendas’ actions, resulting in the assassination of the Prime Minister in 1966, was a significant event in the fight against apartheid. As reported by the New Statesman, anti-apartheid activist Janet Suzman described the death of Hendrik Verwoerd as pivotal in altering the course of South Africa’s history.

The context of the assassination: legalized racism in South Africa.

Legalized racism (apartheid) existed in South Africa from 1948-1994. Apartheid consisted of the legally sanctioned segregation and oppression of non-white peoples in South Africa. Black indigenous South Africans were subject to meticulously organized exploitation and persecution on their own lands.

Some notable features of apartheid included the seizing of land from Black South Africans; the forced relocation of Black people to areas described as “resettlement camps”; the rigid separation of people in accordance with their designated “races” of Black, White, Coloured (mixed-race) and Indian; the denial of Black South Africans’ voting rights; the enforcement of a requirement to carry a pass (identity card) upon Black South Africans; along with racially-motivated police brutality, torture, murders and massacres (e.g. 1960 Sharpeville Massacre; 1976 Soweto Massacre; 1985 Langa Massacre).

As stated on History.com, the stealing of land was one of the most destructive features of apartheid:

“. . . [T]he government forcibly removed Black South Africans from rural areas designated as “white” to the homelands and sold their land at low prices to white farmers . . . they were plunged into poverty and hopelessness.”

Also noteworthy, is the fact that the South African government went to truly mind-numbing lengths to put the apartheid laws into practice. Greg Beyer, a writer for TheCollector website, brings to life the reality of the apartheid regime’s segregation practices. For example, Beyer notes that the South African government went so far as to separate mixed-race family members in accordance with their socially-ascribed racial identities. In addition, Beyer describes the segregation of public buildings in stark terms:

“. . . [I]f a building had only one entrance, the entrance and the corridor were split down the middle, with whites having to walk on one side and non-whites having to walk on the other.”

Hendrik Verwoerd: “Hitler’s best student.”

Hendrik Verwoerd -- the Prime Minister of South Africa from 1958 to 1966 -- was nicknamed the “architect of apartheid,” due to his major role in the shaping of apartheid laws. In 1960, Time noted that the pass system became even harsher under Verwoerd’s premiership; Black South Africans could literally not walk out of their homes without being required to present their passes. When they tried to peacefully protest regarding the draconian pass system, the police responded by killing at least 80 Black civilians and wounding an additional 297 people, in what became known as the 1960 Sharpeville Massacre. Verwoerd commended the police for their actions during this mass slaughter.

During the Second World War (prior to his becoming Prime Minister), Verwoerd had been a closet Nazi sympathizer, who was against Jewish refugees being allowed into South Africa. As reported in The Guardian, he was the editor of the “virulently anti-Semitic newspaper, Die Transvaler,” and a member of a secret Afrikaner society that had developed links to the Nazis prior to the war. For these reasons, it is not surprising that Tsafendas described Verwoerd as a “‘tyrant’, ‘a dictator who oppressed his people’ and ‘Hitler’s best student.’”

Tsafendas: an activist, not a “meaningless creature.”

As pointed out in The Man Who Killed Apartheid, the assassination of the South African Prime Minister by Dimitri Tsafendas was a major embarrassment to the South African government. Most importantly, the government was afraid that the assassination would draw international attention to the horrors of the racist regime in South Africa. Additionally, the government was mortified about their failure to prevent the assassination, and humiliated by the fact that they had unknowingly hired the assassin.

For these reasons, the South African government’s strategy was to brand Tsafendas as mentally ill, with no political reasons for killing the Prime Minister. The government’s manoeuvrings worked: Tsafendas was labelled a schizophrenic and found not guilty of the assassination by reason of insanity. The Judge President described Tsafendas as “a meaningless creature.” This false narrative remains as the official account of Hendrik Verwoerd’s assassination in South Africa’s history books, which Harris Dousemetzis (author of The Man Who Killed Apartheid) seeks to correct.

As argued in the above-mentioned book, Tsafendas was not mentally ill; in reality, he was a dedicated social justice activist, who took action to end the apartheid government’s reign of terror. Indeed, in his statement to police, he explained the reason for his assassination of Prime Minister Hendrik Verwoerd, clearly stating, “I was so disgusted with the racial policy that I went through with my plans to kill the Prime Minister.” Moreover, Tsafendas said that he believed that “with the disappearance of the South African Prime Minister a change of policy would take place. . . .” He later put it like this:

“Every day, you see a man you know committing a very serious crime for which millions of people suffer . . . . Would you remain silent and let him continue with his crime, or would you do something to stop him?”

In the book, Dousemetzis further illustrates Tsafendas’ anti-apartheid activities, reporting that during the time that Tsafendas resided in the UK in the early 1960s, he was a member of the British anti-apartheid movement. He was also an associate of the ANC representative in London. Moreover, during this period, he went so far as to try to enlist people to participate in a revolt in South Africa.

Despite being officially designated as mentally ill, tellingly, Tsafendas spent 28 years of his 33-year incarceration in a prison (not a mental institution), where he was held on death row, in a cell specifically built for him -- just next to the execution chamber. He was subjected to horrific torture during most of his incarceration.

Betrayed by a still-unequal South Africa.

As argued by Jon Robins of the New Statesman, Dimitri Tsafendas “delivered one of the most profound blows against apartheid.” Thus, one would imagine that when apartheid officially ended in South Africa, Tsafendas would have been released; honored for his efforts as a freedom fighter; and provided appropriate assistance with reintegration into society.

However, this did not happen. While South Africa released 100s of political prisoners in the early 1990s, Tsafendas was not among them. According to Solomon Makgale, writing in the Mail & Guardian, the ANC did not want to release Tsafendas when apartheid ended because they feared that it would jeopardize the racial reconciliation project.

In 1994, following the fall of apartheid, instead of being recognized as an anti-apartheid hero, tragically, Tsafendas was sent to a psychiatric hospital, where he significantly deteriorated, dying five years later, in 1999.

As quoted by the Daily Maverick, a former veteran of the ANC, Ronnie Kasrils summed up the injustice of the Dimitri Tsafendas story:

“The tragedy of Tsafendas’s life ‘was that his act for freedom was not acknowledged by the liberation movement, even unto this day, and that the falsehood that he was insane created by the apartheid regime was never contested.’”

Indeed, in the New Statesman, Jon Robins notes Nelson Mandela’s dismissiveness of Tsafendas in his memoirs; Mandela refers to Tsafendas as “an obscure white messenger.” Moreover, the book, The Man Who Killed Apartheid reveals that prior to Tsafendas’ death, letters were sent to Archbishop Desmond Tutu asking if he would be kind enough to visit Tsafendas, whose health by that time, was rapidly deteriorating. However, sadly, the Archbishop could not find the time to visit this now-old man, who had paid the ultimate price fighting to free South Africa from fascism.

Even now, nearly a quarter of a century after his death, South Africa has yet to acknowledge Tsafendas as a freedom fighter and anti-apartheid hero. Perhaps this is because the spirit of apartheid still lingers in much of modern South Africa. While some may disagree with this view, the persistence of inequality along racial lines is undisputable; despite the veneer of equality, Black poverty is still a key characteristic of modern South Africa.

Moreover, it is well-documented that following the end of official apartheid in 1994, the ANC government focused its efforts on reconciliation with the white community, rather than meaningful racial equity for non-white South Africans. To give a few examples, it is noteworthy that whites kept the majority of the land and continue to control the economy. Additionally, the victims of the apartheid regime’s crimes against humanity never got their day in court; justice was sacrificed for so-called peace and unity. Furthermore, as recently as 2016, Pambazuka News reported that “several African nationalists who resisted the inhuman system” were “still languishing in prison.”

In South Africa’s current political climate, then, it should not be surprising that Dimitri Tsafendas -- for the most part -- remains a forgotten hero, whose legacy has been warped by a dishonest narrative.

A martyr, not a “madman.”

Dimitri Tsafendas’ act of assassinating South Africa’s Prime Minister, was motivated by a desire to overthrow a racist regime which brutally oppressed the majority of its population. As argued by Harris Dousemetzis, this was not an apolitical act. Moreover, a number of commentators have noted that Tsafendas’ action had a significant impact on the struggle against apartheid. The author of a 1999 obituary in The Guardian argues that Tsafendas “changed the course of post-war South African history more than any other individual,” while Niren Tolsi of the Mail & Guardian, considers that Tsafendas made a “meaningful contribution to the beginning of the end of apartheid.”

Ultimately, Dousemetzis’ book, The Man who Killed Apartheid, is the first major step in correcting an historical injustice, demonstrating that Tsafendas was a rare man of great integrity -- someone who displayed courage and selflessness in making a fundamental sacrifice for a cause he believed in. Dimitri Tsafendas was a martyr, not a “madman”; it’s high time for us to give him the recognition that he deserves.

Originally published on Medium on October 7, 2023.

Copyright © 2023 Clare Xanthos — All Rights Reserved.

historypoliticsopinioncontroversiesactivism
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About the Creator

Clare Xanthos

Writer, scholar and researcher specializing in racial equity, racial health equity and racial justice. Co-editor of: "Social Determinants of Health among African-American Men." PhD in Social Policy (London School of Economics).

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