Apartheid hero was tortured and detained in mental hospital

Dimitrio Tsafendas. On October 11, 2015, a Greek Orthodox memorial service was conducted in Maputo by the then Bishop of Mozambique, Rev Joannis Tsaftaridis, who had visited Tsafendas in Sterkfontein. PHOTO | NATION MEDIA GROUP

What you need to know:

  • In Lagos, many Nigerians shouted “Hallelujah” and jumped for joy, and in Zambia there was laughter from some MPs when the news was announced in Parliament.
  • An autopsy was performed on Verwoerd and established the cause of death as “multiple stab wounds”, one of which penetrated the heart.
  • Apartheid’s 46-year rule was over and Tsafendas was finally moved out of the prison system to Sterkfontein psychiatric hospital near Krugersdorp, 50 miles from Johannesburg.

Fifty years after he dramatically stabbed to death South African Prime Minister and architect of apartheid Hendrik Verwoerd inside Parliament, the role of Dimitrio Tsafendas in changing the course of history remains understated. Labelled a madman by the oppressive regime, Tsafendas died a lonely man in October 1999. In the second and final instalment of this Sunday Nation world exclusive series based on years of research, Gerry Loughran pieces together the assassin’s awful life in prison.

Hendrik Verwoerd’s assassination, stabbed to death in Parliament by a messenger, Dimitrio Tsafendas on September 6 1966, stunned South Africa and the world.

This was the 1960s when Africa’s colonies were joyfully gaining independence, but in apartheid-ruled South Africa, downtrodden blacks remained subject to strict control of movement, residence and political expression.

If restraint marked the reaction of many Western nations reluctant openly to support the murder of a national leader, this was rarely so in Africa.

From Nairobi, The Times of London wrote that throughout East Africa, “people were shocked but not really distressed… it seemed they were worried that Dr Verwoerd’s successor might be worse for Africans”.

A statement by President Jomo Kenyatta of Kenya said “Perhaps the assassination will act as a timely lesson to Dr Verwoerd’s supporters in redeeming their country from many more such deaths".

Kenya’s Defence Minister Njoroge Mungai, when told about the stabbing, said “I hope it is successful, it would be a good thing”.

The East African Standard reported the assassination without comment, but the Daily Nation published a front-page, signed comment by editor George Githii, which denounced the “inhuman social experiment” of apartheid.

MP Henry Wariithi said of Verwoerd: “He should not be buried in African soil.”

In Lagos, many Nigerians shouted “Hallelujah” and jumped for joy, and in Zambia there was laughter from some MPs when the news was announced in Parliament.

Johnny Makhathini, the representative of the South West African People’s Organisation in Algiers, said: “The fascist Verwoerd got what he deserved.”

In South Africa, the assassination provoked outrage among Afrikaners and other whites, but in their own neighbourhoods, blacks and Coloureds celebrated by dancing, drinking and singing “the tyrant is dead”.

Children chanted the words skipping rope. None of this was reported by the mainstream media.

Tsafendas meanwhile was in police custody, bruised and battered, not only by the violence of his arrest in Parliament but from the beatings he had received from police.

After being frogmarched out of the House of Assembly at 2.30 pm by three policemen, he was bundled into a police van and driven to the police station in Caledon Square, round the corner from Parliament.

At 2.50 pm he was examined by a doctor, who found a gaping wound from his forehead to the bridge of his nose, which was broken, and a cut to his lower lip.

Immediately the doctor left, the handcuffed Tsafendas was taken to a cell where he was seriously beaten.

Policemen made him stand and took turns punching him; one used his baton.

The station commander, seeing the injuries, ordered that Tsafendas be taken to Groote Schuur Hospital.

His injuries were treated and one hour later he was driven back to the police station where he was beaten again.

The Minister of Justice and Police, John Vorster, put the investigation into the hands of Major-General Hendrik van den Bergh, head of the Police Security Branch.

Flying in from Johannesburg, he immediately started the interrogation, which went on all night.

Van den Bergh was polite, offered Tsafendas a cigarette, which he declined, and water, which he accepted, but would not let him sleep until the questions were concluded — sometime the next day.

On the afternoon of September 8, exactly 48 hours after the assassination, Tsafendas appeared before a specially constituted court at the Caledon Square Police Station on a charge of murder.

Eight police officers stood around the walls of a small room.

Tsafendas, who was not handcuffed, said he understood the proceedings, and was remanded in custody until October 6. The hearing lasted four minutes and 50 seconds.

On the same day, an autopsy was performed on Verwoerd and established the cause of death as “multiple stab wounds”, one of which penetrated the heart.

Two days later, South Africa’s sixth prime minister was buried in Heroes’ Acre, Pretoria, before the biggest crowd in South African history — 250,000 people.

Re-appearing on October 6, Tsafendas was remanded for summary trial at the Supreme Court in Cape Town on October 17.


In the intervening 11days, he was systematically tortured.

Police would blindfold him, stand him on a chair with a rope around his neck, then kick the chair away, allowing him to dangle momentarily before letting him fall.

He was taken to a window and threatened with defenestration, and he was given electric shocks, regular techniques for the apartheid police.

Tsafendas went on trial in the heavily-guarded Court No 1 of the Supreme Court in Cape Town on Monday, October 17.

Spectators had queued since the early hours while hundreds of people jostled outside and camera crews recorded the scene.

Newspapers trailed the event as “the trial of the century”.

Almost immediately, the court heard of the creature that was to dominate the trial and remain linked to Tsafendas’s name thereafter – the tapeworm.

Psychiatrist Dr Harold Cooper said Tsafendas told him a tapeworm had lived in his stomach since 1935 or 1936.

Doctors told him it did not exist but he had a fixed belief it was there. Dr Cooper concluded that Tsafendas was schizophrenic.

Dr Isaac Sakinofsky testified that Tsafendas had voiced “delusional ideas” and was “not of sound mind”. Other medical experts testified for the defence along similar lines.

For the State, the Attorney-General called only two witnesses, a clinical psychologist, Mr JAJ Erasmus, and a professor of psychiatry, Adolf van Wyk.

They stunned the court by giving evidence that contradicted the State’s own case for insanity and effectively supported the defence.

Erasmus: “Tsafendas is mentally disturbed.” Van Wyk: “He is certifiable.”

The Attorney-General then closed his case, bringing the trial to an abrupt end and causing wide surprise since the State’s two experts had acted more like witnesses for the defence.

At 10.45 am, Judge Beyers delivered a 55-minute judgment that found Tsafendas to be mentally disordered and unfit to stand trial.

He said: “There can be no doubt whatever that the man before me is schizophrenic, that he is a lunatic... I can as little try a man who has not got at least the makings of a rational mind as I would try a dog or an inert implement.”

He ordered that Tsafendas be taken to a jail and held there at the State President’s pleasure.

What strikes the observer as extraordinary about this trial is the feeble nature of the prosecution.

The Attorney-General must have known that his two witnesses intended to give evidence that would effectively destroy his own case, yet he let them go ahead.

There were many people who could testify that Tsafendas was perfectly sane and seriously political, yet none was called.

There was a hospital report which said Tsafendas had faked mental illness in the past, there were witnesses that Tsafendas had tricked the Portuguese police with acts of madness.

Above all, there were statements which Tsafendas gave to the South African police which set out his motives for killing Verwoerd.

They were entirely political. “I did believe that with the disappearance of the South African Prime Minister a change of policy would take place… it was my own idea… I was so disgusted with his racial policy that I went through with my plan to kill the Prime Minister… I wanted to see a government representing all the South African people.”

Why these statements were not produced in court, assuming they were known to the Attorney-General, remains a mystery.

Ditto, the vast amount of evidence the police had gathered which could have overturned the insanity diagnosis.

The only conclusion: It was better for the government’s authority to claim a madman had killed Verwoerd rather than a Communist, and better to jail him than make him a martyr by hanging him.

Instead of being sent to a secure mental hospital for care and treatment, as the law decreed in cases of insanity, Tsafendas was detained on death row in the maximum security section of Pretoria Central Prison, where he remained in solitary confinement for 23 years.

Not only was he denied access to his fellow prisoners and refused newspapers and a radio, he was placed in a cell next to the execution chamber where condemned prisoners were hanged.

Years later, Tsafendas recalled: “They used to hang people next to my cell, half a dozen at a time, six a week.”

He was forced to watch the condemned men walking past his cell.

He said warders urinated in his food and made him eat it, and beat him constantly.

“They used to take me into a locker of clothes and put a strait-jacket on me and punch me until I fell unconscious.”

Brian Price, a British prisoner who escaped while serving an 11-year sentence for dealing drugs, told the London Observer that Tsafendas “was a plaything for sadists”.

Price said: “He was treated with gross inhumanity and was a broken man. For the first five years or so, the warders used to lay into Tsafendas.”

This was 1976, 10 years since the assassination.


Also in prison at the time was South Africa’s writer and poet, Breyten Breytenbach, serving seven years for high treason.

He said some of the guards took Verwoerd’s death as a personal insult.

They would bring his food late and cold, throw it on the floor, walk in it and have him clean it up; they would pour water over his bed or tip it over, throw water on the cell floor and make him dry it up.

“They egged each other on to see who could be the most awful,” Breytenbach said.

“They felt he had to be punished day after day for killing Verwoerd, although they themselves never knew Verwoerd, they were too young. But there was this kind of revenge, using him as a punching bag.”

Not only did Tsafendas face life-long imprisonment and brutality, he was disowned by the Christian church he had loyally supported and the anti-apartheid movement distanced itself from him.

He had few visitors but four Greek priests came often and became friends.

He told them he would never give up hope for his release.

It was to these priests that Tsafendas confessed the truth about the tapeworm, that there was no such thing.

In 1986, Tsafendas was transferred out of Pretoria Central Prison to Zonderwater Prison near Cullinan.

In 1993, the 27th year of his incarceration, he was asked by a friend if he wanted anything.

“My freedom,” he replied. The following year that began to look possible.

Multiracial elections were won by the African National Congress under Nelson Mandela.

Apartheid’s 46-year rule was over and Tsafendas was finally moved out of the prison system to Sterkfontein psychiatric hospital near Krugersdorp, 50 miles from Johannesburg.

One day, the Greek priests asked him how he wished to be remembered.


He said he did not care, “I did my duty, I did the right thing, my conscience is clear”.

In 1994, Tsafendas was visited by Jody Kollapen, a High Court judge in Pretoria.

He was the first visitor Tsafendas had received in 28 years, apart from the Greek priests.

In a memo to the Human Rights Commission, Judge Kollapen declared that “Tsafendas should not die a lonely man in an institution.. he has paid his debt to society, if he owed a debt at all...”

But nothing came of the plea and Tsafendas remained a prisoner.

On October 7, 1999, Tsafendas died, aged 81, of pneumonia aggravated by heart failure.

Two days later, his funeral was held according to Greek Orthodox rites at St Andrew’s church in Krugersdorp.

Policemen and journalists outnumbered mourners. But among the latter were Tsafendas’s best friend, Patrick O’Ryan, and his wife, Louise.

Gagi Mohane, a member of the African National Congress, was there in his private capacity. No official government or opposition representative attended.

Tsafendas was not entirely forgotten. On October 11, 2015, a Greek Orthodox memorial service was conducted in Maputo by the then Bishop of Mozambique, Rev Joannis Tsaftaridis, who had visited Tsafendas in Sterkfontein.

He hailed him as “a hero in the struggle against apartheid and for the independence of Mozambique”.

Christian Martins, Eastern Cape MP for the ANC, declared that Tsafendas had changed the course of post-war South African history.

He said: “Homage should be bestowed on Tsafendas, a hero and a martyr for the cause of the South African people.”

He urged that Tsafendas’s grave be declared a heritage site.

But 50 years after the assassination and 14 years after Tsafendas’s death, his grave in Sterkfontein cemetery was undistinguishable from any other, a rectangle of turf, without a headstone or a name.