The life of Dimitri Tsafendas


When Dimitri Tsafendas was a young boy in Mozambique it was discovered that he had a giant tapeworm. A Portuguese chemist gave Dimitri’s Greek stepmother a powerful poison to help expel the worm and told her to keep its head for him to study. Dimitri passed the worm, which was two or three metres long, but panicked because his stepmother flushed it into the sewers - still alive, he believed.

Years later, in Cape Town, Dimitri went into a store and bought a large knife. A few hours later he went to work. He was 48-years-of age, had an IQ of 125 and could speak eight languages, but as a designated ‘coloured’ person he worked as a uniformed parliamentary messenger in the all-white House of Assembly.

That afternoon Prime Minister Dr Hendrik Verwoerd, the architect of apartheid who was responsible for the Sharpeville massacre, was exchanging greetings with those around him as he made his way towards the green leather benches. Dimitri briskly walked from the lobby entrance across the floor to where Verwoerd had sat down, drew his knife and stabbed Verwoerd four times in the chest. Other members of parliament rushed forward and overpowered the court messenger. Mrs Verwoerd ran down from the wives’ gallery and kissed her husband as doctors tried to save his life but he was dead on arrival at hospital. It was September 6th, 1966.

Verwoerd had survived an earlier assassination attempt and believed that God had intervened to save his life, which indicates that he was slightly mad.

Within days of Dimitri’s arrest stories appeared in the media claiming that he told police that a giant tapeworm ordered him to assassinate Verwoerd. One psychiatrist quoted him as saying, "I don’t think I will be able to live in Cape Town after this, because of public opinion, you know… 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."

South African blacks who should have been dancing in the streets at the assassination did not know how to respond to this killing by a loner, who had no party political ties and who was described as just a crazy Greek.

For a living I write and review books, some of which are interesting, others boring. My next read, I am looking forward to. It is called, ‘A Mouthful of Glass’ by Henk Van Woerden, and it is about the life of Dimitri Tsafendas and is a blend of biography and fiction.

Tsafendas was born in Mozambique, the son of a marine engineer of Greek extraction and a mother of mixed race, whom his father disowned and he never knew. He was sent to live with his grandmother in Egypt but she died when he was six and he returned to Mozambique where his father had remarried. At school he was nicknamed, ‘Blackie’ because of his skin. Later, he found out that he was ‘coloured’ and illegitimate.

In 1936 he moved to South Africa, was a member of the Communist Party for a while, then joined the Merchant Navy and travelled the world. His mental instability was apparent and he ended up being deported or spending time in various psychiatric institutions. One report speaks of him hearing voices from hospital radiators.

In 1964 he returned to Africa, first to Mozambique to try to identify his mother and find her grave, before settling in the Cape.

After his arrest he told police, "I was so disgusted by the racial policy that I went through with my plan to kill the prime minister." A judge found that he was unfit to stand trial and committed him. But instead of being sent to a mental hospital, the government exploited a loophole in the law and he was placed in death row for twenty-three years. There, warders urinated in his food and beat him while he was held in a strait-jacket. They destroyed the only photograph he had of himself as a child. His cell was next to the gallows where his fellow prisoners in batches of up to seven at a time where hanged. He heard their last screams and cries.

It was only in July 1994 that he was moved to a lower-security prison for infirm men. In recent years he was interviewed by two people: David Beresford (who wrote ‘Ten Men Dead’) and Henk Van Woerden. Woerden says that at one stage there was such a racket in the ward that their exchanges had to be written on a pad. He says that Tsafendas wrote in untidy, block letters: ‘I REGRET WHAT HAPPENED.’

"He began to cry. I took both his shoulders in my hands and shouted as loudly as I could: ‘Never mind. Other times. Not your fault.’ ‘A whole other time,’ he sobbed. ‘I am not that kind of person. It was something that happened. It was not in my nature. Besides, I was sick… It will not die. I’m helpless against this Dragon-Tapeworm.’"

Dimitri also asked him who was the president of South Africa now. "I wrote the name ‘Mandela’ and showed it to him. ‘Nelson Mandela…? I would like to speak to him. He’s a very strong man.’"

Dimitri Tsafendas died aged 81, a year ago this month, from pneumonia. About ten people, mostly members of the Greek community, spared him a pauper’s funeral and gave him a proper burial. No one from the ANC attended, even though he had struck a significant blow against apartheid. He was buried quietly in Krugersdorp.

One card on a wreath of white lilies on his grave read: "Displaced person, sailor, Christian, communist, liberation fighter, political prisoner, hero. Remembered by your friends."

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© 2007 Irish Author and Journalist - Danny Morrison