Dimitri Tsafendas pictured at Pretoria Maximum Security Prison in 1976. The photo was taken by a police officer who interviewed Tsafendas posing as a journalist. [Courtesy of Gordon Winter]
Last Saturday in Maputo, the capital of Mozambique, a memorial service was held for a man who died 22 years ago and who, while alive, was forgotten or, at best, considered insane and insignificant. Today, this forgotten Greek is gradually seen as a martyr in the fight against colonialism and racial discrimination.
In September 1966, when Dimitri Tsafendas killed the architect of the South African apartheid system, Prime Minister Hendrik Verwoerd, stabbing him to death in Parliament, it was almost immediately described as the work of a madman who ostensibly committed the act on the orders of a tapeworm in him. The judge in his very brief trial ruled that just as he couldn’t judge a “dog or an inert instrument,” he couldn’t judge the stocky 48-year-old man in front of him. Tsafendas was not sent to a mental hospital but disappeared in harsh South African prisons. When he died in 1999 at the age of 81, he had spent 33 years behind bars – longer than any other South African prisoner.
Dimitri Tsafendas was born in Mozambique in 1918, son of Michalis Tsafandakis of Crete and Aimilia Williams, daughter of a German father and a Mozambican mother. The two were not married. When Tsafandakis married a Greek from Egypt, Dimitri grew up with the other children of the family, only learning at the age of 17 that he was not born to the same mother.
The story that was established after the assassination – that Tsafendas was a madman – suited everyone. The apartheid regime would not have to accept that a political opponent was hired as a parliamentary messenger and succeeded in assassinating the Prime Minister despite the massive security apparatus across the country; Tsafendas escaped the death penalty; the black liberation movement feared the regime’s anger, especially since Tsafendas had acted alone and had no involvement in the act; Tsafendas’ family, like all Greeks and other minority groups, wanted the matter to be closed as quickly as possible so that the hostility towards them would end and they could get their lives back on track.
After the end of apartheid, Tsafendas was transferred to a mental hospital, where he remained until his death. Very few people attended his funeral. His grave was marked by a stone with a number.
The man who had struck at the heart of a sick regime was himself condemned as sick. It was this “old shabby lie” that a young Durham University scholar, Harris Dousemetzis, set out to debunk when he began investigating the case in 1999. He interviewed 137 people and studied something. 12,000 pages of documents in the archives of South Africa, Great Britain, Mozambique and other countries. In previous years, there had been references to Tsafendas in a few books and studies, and two documentaries (by Manolis Dimelas from Greece and Liza Key from South Africa), which noted that Tsafendas did not seem mentally disturbed. But no one had carried out such a detailed and lengthy examination as Dousemetzis had done. Among the revelations was Tsafendas’ statement to the police after his arrest, in which he said: “I was so disgusted with racial politics that I followed my plan to kill the prime minister. Nowhere was there any mention of a talking tapeworm.
“The more I learned about the character of Tsafendas, his activism and his long-standing interest in politics, especially his hatred of apartheid and colonialism, the more I felt that a major historical injustice had occurred in presenting him to the world as a madman and his assassination of Dr Verwoerd as an apolitical and senseless act, ”writes Dousemetzis in the prologue to his captivating and very moving account of an incredible life, full of political commitment and adventure , “The Man Who Killed Apartheid: The Life of Dimitri Tsafendas (Jacana Media, 2018). “I felt a moral imperative to expose one of the greatest cover-ups in apartheid history and to reveal the truth about a brave and humble man who has been treated so badly by history.”
Among many revelations, Dousemetzis describes how Tsafendas embraced his father’s (anarchist) love for freedom, listening to tales of the Cretans’ heroic resistance to the oppressors. From an early age, he began to act against the Portuguese colonial authorities in Mozambique and earned a police record. The book details Tsafendas’ travels, his many run-ins with the law, and his unwavering commitment to the fight against colonialism and racial discrimination. Dousemetzis compiled a fully detailed 2,192-page evidence report to the South African Minister of Justice, calling for the facts to be put back in place regarding Tsafendas and the political nature of his act. In this he was assisted by five eminent South African jurists, including the late George Bizos.
The truth about Tsafendas is gradually being known.
Last Saturday’s memorial service in the Greek Orthodox Church was led by Bishop Ioannis of Zambia (and Acting Bishop of Mozambique), who, as a priest, had met Tsafendas in prison and was instrumental in helping to rehabilitate his memory.
The message that Patriarch Theodoros of Alexandria sent to be read at the memorial is very significant.
“Despite efforts to smear his character and portray him as mentally ill, Dimitri Tsafendas was a true human rights fighter, a missionary for freedom and a true martyr, having spent most of his life in prison and suffered indescribable torture, ”wrote the patriarch. “We all have a sacred duty to Dimitri Tsafendas, this ecumenical Greek and freedom fighter, to rehabilitate his memory and put him on the pedestal he deserves.”
Among the messages read at the memorial service were those from the Communist Party of South Africa, which pledged to build an appropriate tombstone and monument for Tsafendas, veteran anti-apartheid fighters Ronnie Kasrils and Alex Moumbaris , and eminent jurists.
“He was motivated by his passionate belief in the injunction of classical Greek democracy to raise its hand against the tyrant,” Kasrils said of Tsafendas. “The tragedy of his life was that his act for freedom has not been recognized by the liberation movement even to this day, and that the lie that he was mad created by the apartheid regime has never been challenged. Tsafendas suffered in agony and isolation. It is right and right that he be remembered as a man who sought freedom and justice for the oppressed and honored as a freedom fighter.
Moumbaris, who had spent some time in the same prison as Tsafendas, and who escaped after serving six years of a 12-year sentence, wrote: “He is the bravest man I have.” meet. He was a tyrannicide (Τυραννοκτόνος). Glory to his name. I regret that he ended his life in a hospital that looked so much like a prison and only a stone to mark his grave.