Monday, February 09, 2009


"It is through a separated form of himself that the being comes into play in his effects of life and death, and it might be said that it is with the help of this doubling of the other, or of oneself, that is realised the conjunction from which proceeds the renewal of beings in reproduction."
Jacques Lacan - What is a picture?

The tragedy of apartheid finds expression in many forms, one of the most painful of which was the life story of an 81-year-old man who died ten years ago in a mental institution outside Krugersdorp after spending much of his life on South Africa's death row.
Dimitri Tsafendas arguably changed the course of post-war South African history more than any other individual when, in a brief moment of frenzy, he stabbed to death the "architect of apartheid", prime minister Dr Hendrik Verwoerd, in the Cape Town parliament in 1966. Verwoerd, grand wizard of white supremacy, died from a punctured lung and heart. The news electrifies the nation's black and white communities. If Kennedy's assassination, which occurred three years earlier spawned whole libraries of speculation, the Verwoerd case was quickly sealed. Dimitri Tsafendas was a ''mad Greek'' who followed instructions from a giant tapeworm. An insane act by an insane man. Case closed. Even Nelson Mandela dismissed Tsafendas as an ''obscure white messenger.'' He was found unfit to stand trial for the murder by reason of insanity, the judge president of the Cape, Mr Justice Beyers, observing at the time: "I can as little try a man who has not at least the makings of a rational mind as I could try a dog or an inert implement. He is a meaningless creature!"
Tsafendas was committed as a "state president's patient". This normally means detention in a secure mental institution. But the government of the day, judging that Tsafendas had not paid enough for his actions, chose instead to exploit a loophole in the law making it possible to hold him on death row. There he spent nearly a quarter of a century, subjected to the terrible sounds and sights of weekly state executions and apparently used as a human punch-bag by sadistic warders. He was finally moved out of prison to Sterkfontein mental asylum after the arrival of black majority rule and the end of apartheid in 1994.
During his incarceration, he was befriended at Sterkfontein by a South African film producer, Liza Key. A schoolgirl at the time of Verwoerd's death, Ms Key held popular assumptions about the assassination - believing, along with most South Africans, that the prime minister had been killed by a white parliamentary messenger of Greek nationality who had no political motivation, but believed that he was acting on the orders of a giant tapeworm infesting his stomach.
Researching his life for a documentary, Key was startled to find a very different story. She was not much helped in this by Tsafendas himself, who - whatever his state of mind at the time of the assassination - had seemingly had his sanity seriously disturbed by his experiences on death row.
But, digging into state records and interviewing family, officials and others involved in the events surrounding the assassination, she found that Tsafendas had been both politically sophisticated - at one time having been a paid-up member of the Communist party - and a classic victim of the racial prejudices that Verwoerd exploited to try to entrench white rule on the subcontinent. Similarly, in ''The Assassin,'' the first biography of Tsafendas, Henk Van Woerden rescued this ''mad Greek'' from obscurity, whiteness and insanity. Van Woerden, a Dutch writer who spent his youth in South Africa, interviewed Tsafendas in the mental institution where he died in 1999. From these interviews, through creative sleuthing and from files in South Africa's state archives, Van Woerden was able to piece together a politics and a history for a man permitted neither.
It emerges that Tsafendas, lived as an illegitimate from conception to coffin. His Crete-born father, Michaelis, emigrated to Portuguese East Africa, later Mozambique, where he kept a mixed-race maid, Amelia Williams, who was also his concubine. When Williams gave birth to Tsafendas, the child threatened to become a scandal. Michaelis dismissed the mother and she disappeared. His father sent the boy to Alexandria, Egypt, to be reared by a grandmother. When she grew frail Dimitri returned to his father. Victimised at school for his mixed blood (he was given the nickname "blackie"), Tsafendas was not to learn of his origins until he turned eighteen. They explained a lot: his rejection by his father and Greek stepmother; family-condoned sexual abuse; the racial tauntings he endured when sent away to a white South African boarding school. Unable to cope with his environment or himself, Tsafendas left Mozambique to wander the world as a merchant seaman.
Accounts of his travels, pulled together by state investigators in the immediate aftermath of the assassination, provide a tantalisingly incomplete picture. Before gripping his assassin's knife, this racial and familial outcast seems to have been little more than an international tramp, bouncing not so much from city to city as from asylum to asylum, only to pop up on occasion as a man of some substance but with a mysterious background. He was deported from or refused entry into the United States, Britain, Canada, Israel, Rhodesia, Portugal and Spain. South Africa denied him entry eight times; Greece and Portugal refused him passports. Eight countries detained Tsafendas in mental institutions or prisons. The man became a cosmopolitan untouchable, with a knowledge of Greek, English, Portuguese, Shangaan (a local African language), Spanish, Arabic, German, Italian, Hebrew, Turkish and Afrikaans too.
He returned to South Africa in 1964, and somehow - despite his mixed parentage, status as an illegal immigrant and history of mental instability - secured a post in the whites-only parliament as a messenger, exploiting his privileged position to stab the prime minister to death. Van Woerden's the ''The Assassin'' takes shape as a book about two immigrants and two rival visions of madness. Verwoerd the South African Prime Minister, born in the Netherlands, was an outsider who sought to define in blood the limits of true belonging. How do we disentangle his obsession with racial purity from his immigrant paranoia?
By the time he assassinated Verwoerd, Tsafendas was an unbalanced man. But he'd been raging publicly for years against apartheid's chief architect. Tsafendas yearned, he told acquaintances, for a ''rainbow nation.'' He abhorred the laws that forbade sex across the colour bar. A few weeks before stabbing Verwoerd, Tsafendas had filed to be reclassified from white to coloured, hoping to live legally with the mixed-race woman he loved. ''Which of the two,'' Van Woerden asks, ''was more truly crazy: Verwoerd or Tsafendas?''
Although there were attempts by police, during interrogation, to suggest to him that he believed a tapeworm had "ordered" him to carry out the killing, he never seems to have made the claim himself. Alexander Moumbaris visited him as he languished in prison: "For four years he had been tortured seven times a day... I met him in 1972, he was in the next cell at the Pretoria prison known as "Maximum" or "Berverly Hills". This is where the hangings took place. He was detained as the "State President's patient", which meant complete isolation. I don't believe that he was really insane. Rather, he let himself be considered insane to save his life. But at a moment of confidence, when the guards were at some distance, he told me in Greek with a little smile of pride and triumph: "I got their tough guy". During the great demonstrations that rocked South Africa during the 1976 Soweto uprising, Tsafendas was used, if only briefly, as a rallying point for aggrieved and oppressed black students. They took to the streets chanting: "Tsafendas Inyanga Yezizwe." (Tsafendas healer of the nation.) However, he once more languished back into obscurity, his plight having slipped the notice of the new ANC dominated government.
Moumbaris continues: "I saw Tsafendas again in 1996,by which time he was an old man. He was still behing bars, and I imagine this is where he stayed until the end. When I saw him with my wife, we talked in French, Greek, English and Arabic. Heseemed lucid and not at all insane.When we saw him, we asked him whether he wanted anything. He answered "I want my freedom!" I regret not having done anything for him to get out of there. He deserved a better fate than the one he got."
Notably, the events of Tsafendas' life are explored in a play by Anton Robert Krueger entitled: "Living in Strange Lands - The testimony of Dimitri Tsafendas." It is remarkable not only for its exploration of Tsafendas' character and motivation, but also how his conception of his Greek identity, being one that demands total adherence to prerequisites, was the fatal flaw that led to his ultimate tragedy. "So anyway, I thought I was Greek but one day I was over at Mrts Takalou's house and I saw a guitar on the floor.and was drain to it. And then I here Mrs Tsakalous screaming in my ear: "Leave it alone. You're just like that mulatto mother of yours! Stupid!" As he confesses in the play, in a manner that would strike a chord with many Australian born Greeks: "I've sometimes looked like a different race in a different part of my life, in different parts of the world. .. Now neither the whites nor the blacks want anything to do to me, because I'm not in their group. I'm not one of "their people," you know? It's this bloody group nonsense. Why must it always be about group? Why, why does it matter?"
Whether viewed as a modern day Harmodius and Aristogeiton, doing away with the tyranny of the Peisistratids, or just a Tsafendas' pathetic and ultimately tragic life offers a brilliant chronicle of what it means to be unwanted from birth. Tsafendas lived unsupported by the paper identities (passports, visas, work permits, birth certificates) that sustain most of us invisibly. To explore his story is to embark upon a transforming journey through the illegal immigrant's plight, the cost of race thinking and the way the label ''mad'' is used to suppress stories too dangerous or unbearable to hear. Soren Kierkegaard, in his Two Ages, opined: "A person experiencing passion forgets the externality of the object of his passion." As such, Tsafendas will always remain, a heart-wrenching symbol of eloquent humanity and understated rage.

First published in NKEE on 9 February 2009