b. Mozambique, January 14, 1918
d. Sterkfontein, October 1999
The 1960's were an important decade in the history of South Africa. The decade opened with the Sharpeville Massacre, the country was ostracized from the international community, expelled from the Commonwealth and became a Republic in 1961. 1964 saw Nelson Mandela and several other prominent anti-apartheid activists jailed for life, and in 1966, the state Prime Minister and architect of apartheid, Dr. Hendrik Verwoerd, was assassinated in parliament by a messenger named Demetrios Tsafendas.
Demitrios Tsafendas was born in Mozambique, the illegitimate son of a Greek engineer father and a Swazi mother. He spent the first seven years of his life with his Greek grandmother in Egypt, before moving back to his father and South African-Greek stepmother, who moved from Mozambique to Middelburg in the erstwhile Transvaal. Under apartheid, all residents of South Africa (only "whites" were citizens) had to be officially classified according to race. Given his father's stature, and his own appearance, Tsafendas was officially classified "white". Still, he grew up fully aware of his mixed-race heritage and was ostracized by all (racial) communities for being either not white enough, or too white.
Tsafendas spent two decades as a sailor, taking in countries as far afield as Egypt, Greece, Turkey, Portugal, Germany, Britain and the United States. The world in those days was hostile to mixed-race immigrants, and he was continuously expelled, deported, excluded and rejected. He spoke several languages fluently, and maintained a soft spot for Lorenço Marques (Maputo, Mozambique) and an interest in Portuguese architecture.
He returned to South Africa in 1964 and fell in love with a "coloured" woman. Laws passed by Dr. Verwoerd in his previous post of Minister of Native Affairs, as well as his current position as Prime Minister, meant that Tsafendas was legally prevented from marrying (or even having sex with) his beloved. He tried to have himself reclassified "coloured", but was denied because "nobody ever reclassifies that way"*.
Denied reclassification, not only were the couple not allowed to wed, but they were not even allowed to frequent the same public places. Beaches, bars, restaurants, even park benches were not to be shared by different racial groups. Verwoerd's government took its laws seriously: prison was a likely result if they insisted on continuing their relationship. Tsafendas was dumped, and reportedly never got over it. It is claimed that he never had a sexual liaison he didn't pay for.
Verwoerd did not allow non-white domestic help in his own home, nor as messengers in parliament. By virtue of his "white" classification, Tsafendas got around this rule and served as a parliamentary messenger for two years (since his return to South Africa). On the afternoon of September 6, 1966, instead of delivering a message to an expectant Verwoerd, he delivered four blows from a knife.
Tsafendas, who claimed the tapeworm in his stomach ordered him to kill Verwoerd, was declared insane and never put on trial, yet spent 28 years on death row in Pretoria, in the cell right next to the gallows. The assassination, and indeed all of the anti-apartheid history, was swept under the rug. There is speculation that the result of "insanity" was preferred by the authorities to a trial that would expose Tsafendas' multi-racial heritage and romantic ill-fate. Tsafendas was also a member of the South African Communist Party, though the killing was not linked to the party. There was enough opposition within the borders, and lately, thanks to Sharpeville, outside as well, without a white man killing the Prime Minister for political reasons.
Tsafendas was released into Sterkfontein mental hospital in 1993, when the country was turned over from Verwoerd's National Party to a multiracial Government of National Unity that ran the country up until the 1994 elections. Tsafendas was free to leave the mental hospital, but had nowhere to go. He died in the mental hospital in early October 1999, aged 81. At the time of his death, his only medication was for high blood pressure.
There was reportedly a wreath of white lilies at Tsafendas' graveside with a card that read: "Displaced person, sailor, Christian, communist, liberation fighter, political prisoner, hero. Remembered by your friends." For the last three years before his death, his only visitor at Sterkfontein mental hospital had been Liza Key, who completed a documentary of his life called A Question of Madness.
Tsafendas was laid to rest opposite the Sterkfontein institution in a grave with no tombstone, identified only by the number J59.
Learn more: A mouthful of Glass by Henk van Woerden, available in several languages.
*It was common enough for reclassification to a higher-priviledge social group, so "black" to "coloured" or "coloured" to "white". The "coloured" community is mixed-race for too many generations to identify original heritage, resulting in a vast range of physical characteristics. For example, a "white" person of Portuguese descent could have been of much darker skin-tone than a "coloured" person with green eyes and fair skin, even red hair, but would have been granted innumerable social advantages. For example -- citizenship, the right to vote, superior education and vocational prospects, the right to own property wherever they could afford, etc. (Non-white people could only own property in specific areas. In all of Johannesburg, the only place "black" people could own property was Soweto.)
Reproduced by permission of the author, Francesca Maier. Originally published at http://www.community2.com/?node_id=5331. The author reserves the right to modify or remove the text from its original location without compromising ownership of the work.