Dr. Hendrik Frensch Verwoerd
b. Amsterdam, Netherlands, September 8, 1901
d. Cape Town, South Africa, 2.10pm September 6, 1966
"Is not our role to stand for the one thing which means our own salvation here but with which it will also be possible to save the world, and with which Europe will be able to save itself, namely the preservation of the white man and his state?"
Verwoerd may have been born in the Netherlands, but he was an Afrikaner to the core, having moved to South Africa as an infant with his missionary parents. He obtained a doctorate from Stellenbosch University (a whites-only Afrikaans medium university for many decades). Verwoerd traveled to America and Europe and undertook post-graduate studies at several universities, including Hamburg and Berlin, where he came into contact with the National Socialist (Nazi) Party.
He returned to South Africa in 1928 and took up a professorship at his alma mater in the faculty of Applied Psychology and Sociology. Still at the university in 1936, Verwoerd joined five other professors in protesting the admission to South Africa of Jewish refugees from Germany. Verwoerd remained a Nazi sympathizer unto his death.
Verwoerd left Stellenbosch in 1937 and moved to the erstwhile Transvaal, where he took up the post of editor of Die Transvaler, the (then opposition) National Party newspaper. Under Verwoerd’s stewardship, Die Transvaler became an extremist mouthpiece, sympathizing with the Nazis and condemning South Africa’s involvement in World War II on the Allied side. Despite a Supreme Court judgment against Verwoerd and his use of the newspaper as a tool of the Nazis, extremism turned popular opinion, and the National Party swept to power in 1948, under JG Strijdom.
Verwoerd’s role in the victory was recognized with him being elected to the Senate. In 1950 he entered the Cabinet as Minister of Native Affairs. By the time of Verwoerd’s appointment, much of the segregation that had existed in South Africa since the earliest days of Jan van Riebeek’s colony had been written into law. Verwoerd set about vastly expanding the existing disenfranchised stature of non-white South Africans, developing a complex social structure and dubbing it “Grand Apartheid".
“Grand Apartheid grants to others what it claims for itself and which is calculated to provide the same opportunities to everyone within his own race group."
Watch the linguistic trickery there: Verwoerd did not espouse the notion of equality across racial boundaries, merely within them. While he claimed to be the champion of treating different races as "separate but equal", there was no hint of racial equality in the laws he passed first as Minister of Native Affairs, and later as Prime Minister.
Prime Minister Strijdom died in September 1958, elevating Verwoerd, leader of the ruling party, to Prime Minister. 1960 was a turbulent year: In January Verwoerd announced that there would be a referendum to decide whether to break away from the Commonwealth and form a Republic; Two weeks later, British Prime Minister Harold Macmillan visited the country and returned to London to make his “Winds of Change" speech criticizing apartheid; On March 21st was the notorious Sharpeville Massacre, and less than a month later, the first attempt on Verwoerd’s life.
(White) farmer, David Pratt, an acquaintance of Dr. Verwoerd and sitting in the VIP section, walked up to Verwoerd who had just completed his opening speech at the Union Exposition to mark the 50th Anniversary of the Union of South Africa, and fired two shots into Verwoerd’s face. It is remarkable that Verwoerd not only survived, but did not suffer lasting injuries. The first shot, fired from point-blank range, entered Verwoerd’s right cheek, the second his right ear. The gun (a .22) was knocked from Pratt’s hand before he was overpowered and removed to Marshall Square police station. Verwoerd remained conscious throughout the ordeal and was rushed to Pretoria Hospital. Pratt was declared “mentally disordered and epileptic" and in September was committed to Pretoria Central Prison to “await indication of the Governor General’s pleasure". He hanged himself on October 1st the following year at Bloemfontein Mental Hospital. Verwoerd had returned to public office in May of 1960.
Anti-apartheid activists kept Verwoerd and his government busy. Organizations such as the African National Congress (ANC) and Pan Africanist Congress (PAC) were banned, and most of their leaders were rounded up and put on trial. Hundreds of prominent anti-apartheid leaders were sent to jail in the early 1960’s, most notably Nelson Mandela and his co-accused at the Rivonia trial, who miraculously escaped the death penalty and found themselves on Robben Island for over nearly two decades. (Mandela spent a total of 27 years in prison, having already been serving a sentence when sentenced in the Rivonia trial. Only 17 of his 27 years were spent on Robben Island.)
On September 3, 1966, Verwoerd had met with Chief Leabua Johnathon, Prime Minister of Lesotho. (Lesotho is a country landlocked in the Drakensburg/Maluti mountains of eastern South Africa.) It was the first time the South African Prime Minister had met with a leader of a “black state" on South African soil, and the pair had agreed to work together without criticizing one another’s internal politics. (To this day Lesotho is no picnic: as recently as 1998 there were rumors of a(nother) coup brewing.)
There was much anticipation of an important speech by Dr. Verwoerd at the House of Assembly on September 6, 1966, but he never got the chance to make it. Parliamentary messenger, Demetrios Tsafendas walked towards Verwoerd as he took his seat. Raising his right hand and removing the sheath of the knife with his left, Tsafendas mortally stabbed Verwoerd four times in the chest. There were four medical doctors in the crowd of MPs who tried to save Verwoerd. His wife (who was fiercely rumored to be not entirely “white") ran from the wives’ gallery and kissed her husband. Verwoerd was certified Dead on Arrival at Groote Schuur Hospital, a few miles away.
Demetrios Tsafendas was the illegitimate son of a Greek man and a Swazi woman who was denied reclassification as “coloured", which would have allowed him to marry the woman he loved. Tsafendas 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 next to the gallows. He 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 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.
Reproduced by permission of the author, Francesca Maier. Originally published at http://www.community2.com/?node_id=5332. The author reserves the right to modify or remove the text from its original location without compromising ownership of the work.