Dimitri Tsafendas

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Dimitri Tsafendas
Born (1918-01-14)14 January 1918
Lourenço Marques (now Maputo), Mozambique
Died 7 October 1999(1999-10-07) (aged 81)
Krugersdorp, Gauteng, South Africa
Cause of death
Known for Assassination of South African Prime Minister Hendrik Verwoerd
Criminal charge Murder
Criminal penalty Detained "at the pleasure of the State President"
Criminal status Not guilty by reason of insanity

Dimitri Tsafendas (Greek: Δημήτρης Τσαφέντας; 14 January 1918 – 7 October 1999) is known as the murderer of Prime Minister of South Africa Hendrik Verwoerd, the "Architect of Apartheid" on 6 September 1966.[1] Tsafendas, working as a parliamentary messenger, stabbed Verwoerd with a dagger during a parliamentary session.

Early life[edit]

Tsafendas was born in Lourenço Marques (today's Maputo) to Michaelis Tsafendas (also spelled Miguel Tsafandakis), a Greek seaman, and Amelia Williams, a Mozambican of mixed race. He was sent to Egypt after his first year to live with his grandmother.[2][3] He returned to Mozambique five years later; then, at the age of ten, moved to Transvaal, where he attended Middleburg Primary School from 1928–1930. He then returned to Mozambique and attended a church school for the next two years.[3]

From age 16, Tsafendas worked at various jobs.[3] He joined the South African Communist Party in the 1930s.[4] He became a seaman in the merchant marine in 1941.[5] He served aboard a US convoy ship after the outbreak of the Second World War, and spent the next 20 years travelling. He began to experience psychotic episodes that resulted in short periods of institutionalisation in various countries, including a 6-month detention on Ellis Island where he was diagnosed as schizophrenic.[3][5]

During his wanderings, he picked up 8 languages, and upon his return to South Africa, he worked for a time as a translator.[3] Tsafendas was shunned in white circles in South Africa because of his dark skin, though under the apartheid system's racial laws he was classified as white.[6] However, because of his dark appearance, he faced taunts and ostracism from white South African society throughout his life.[7]

He had become a baptised member of the Two by Twos sect while visiting Greece, and associated with its members after returning to South Africa on a temporary visa.[8][9] Shortly before the assassination, Tsafendas applied for reclassification from "white" to "coloured" so that he could legally live with his mixed-race girlfriend, but his application was turned down.[7][10]

The murder[edit]

In 1966, Tsafendas, at the age of forty-eight, obtained a temporary position as a parliamentary messenger. A month later on 6 September, Prime Minister Hendrik Verwoerd entered the House of Assembly and made his way to his seat. Tsafendas approached him, drew a concealed knife, and stabbed Dr. Verwoerd about four times in the torso before he could be pulled away by other members of parliament.[11][12]

Tsafendas received non-life-threatening injuries during the attempt. Although the assassination was apparently deliberate, he had no plan for escape and was easily apprehended.[3] He was taken into police custody, then moved to a hospital where he was interviewed. Later, he was returned to jail pending trial.[13]

Aftermath and trial[edit]

Following the assassination, leaders in the anti-apartheid movement distanced themselves from any association with Tsafendas.[3] He was also disowned by the Two by Twos church.[9] Although there seemed to be no rational political motivation behind the deed,[3] six days after the assassination, Tsafendas told the police that he had killed Verwoerd because he was "so disgusted with the racial policy".[10] One source indicates that Tsafendas believed that Verwoerd "was helping blacks at the expense of whites."[14]

At his trial, Judge Andries Beyers declared Tsafendas not guilty of murder by reason of insanity.[15] He had been diagnosed as being schizophrenic and it was claimed by police and his defence that he had said that he had a giant tapeworm inside him, which spoke to him.[1][3][16] The court ordered that he be detained "at the pleasure of the State President", which meant that only the State President (later President) had the authority to order his release.[17] He was never discharged.

Aerial view of a walled prison facility
Zonderwater Prison

Tsafendas was at first given a cell on death row in Pretoria Central Prison, next to the room in which men were hanged, sometimes seven at a time.[18] In 1986, he was transferred to Zonderwater Prison near Cullinan. In 1994, he was transferred again, this time to Sterkfontein psychiatric hospital outside Krugersdorp. In 1999, Liza Key was allowed to conduct two televised interviews with him, for a documentary called "A Question of Madness"; she put forward the suggestion that he may have been acting as part of a wider conspiracy.[19]


Tsafendas, at the age of 81,[20] died of pneumonia in October 1999. At the time of his death, he was not regarded as a hero in anti-apartheid circles, which sent no members to attend his funeral.[13] The funeral was held according to Greek Orthodox rites, and he was buried in an unmarked grave outside Sterkfontein Hospital.[5][21] Fewer than ten people attended the service.[13]

In popular culture[edit]

An award-winning play entitled Tsafendas by Anton Krueger was presented to South African audiences in 2002. A London production entitled I.D. was written by the noted Shakespearean actor Antony Sher, who lived in Cape Town at the time of the incident. I.D. premiered at the Almeida Theatre in London in 2003, followed by an American debut in 2005.[22]


  1. ^ a b Obituary: Long-jailed assassin of South African premier in The Guardian, 11 October 1999. Archived by WebCite at [1] Retrieved on 8 July 2009.
  2. ^ Hollington, Kris. 2008. Wolves, Jackals, and Foxes: The Assassins Who Changed History. New York: Macmillan, p. 116. ISBN 978-0-312-37899-8
  3. ^ a b c d e f g h i Jones, Tiffany Fawn (2012). Psychiatry, Mental Institutions, and the Mad in Apartheid South Africa. New York: Routledge. pp. 89–90. ISBN 978-0-415-88667-3. 
  4. ^ Dyzenhaus, David. 1998. Judging the Judges, Judging Ourselves: truth, reconciliation and the apartheid legal order Oxford: Hart Publishing, p. 50. ISBN 978-1-901362-94-7
  5. ^ a b c Robins, Jon. "The Assassin and the Tapeworm," The New Statesman. London. 27 March 2000.
  6. ^ Kahn, Ely J. The Separated People: A Look at Contemporary South Africa. New York City: W. W. Norton & Company, p. 149. ISBN 978-0-393-05351-7
  7. ^ a b "The Worm Did It", New York Times (book review), 24 June 2001
  8. ^ Hollington, Kris. 2008. Wolves, Jackals, and Foxes: The Assassins Who Changed History. New York: Macmillan, p. 117. ISBN 978-0-312-37899-8
  9. ^ a b Account of Tsafendas in South Africa before the assassination. Archived by WebCite at [2] Retrieved on 8 July 2009.
  10. ^ a b "The assassin and the tapeworm", by Jon Robins, New Statesman, 27 March 2000
  11. ^ Morris, Michael and Linnegar, John with the South Africa Ministry of Education, Human Sciences Research Council, Social Cohesion & Integration Research Programme. 2004. Every Step of the Way: the journey to freedom in South Africa. Cape Town: HSRC Press, pp. 184–185. ISBN 978-0-7969-2061-4
  12. ^ http://www.sahistory.org.za/people/dimitri-tsafendas-0
  13. ^ a b c Jones, Tiffany Fawn. Psychiatry, Mental Institutions, and the Mad in Apartheid South Africa. New York: Routledge. pp. 86–87. ISBN 978-0-415-88667-3.  Cite error: Invalid <ref> tag; name "TFJones2012p92" defined multiple times with different content (see the help page).
  14. ^ "Vorster Replaces Slain South African Leader," Chronicle of the 20th Century (September 1966), p. 954 (Mount Kisco, New York: Chronicle Publications) (refers to the assassin as Dmitri Stifianos).
  15. ^ Bell, Terry Bell and Ntsebeza, Dumisa Buhle. 2003. Unfinished Business: South Africa, apartheid, and truth. New York: Verso, p. 57. ISBN 978-1-85984-545-5
  16. ^ "The Tapeworm Murder", Time Magazine. 28 October 1966.
  17. ^ Dyzenhaus, David. 1998. Judging the Judges, Judging Ourselves: truth, reconciliation and the apartheid legal order Oxford: Hart Publishing, p. 43. ISBN 978-1-901362-94-7
  18. ^ Jon Robins. "The Assassin and the Tapeworm", The New Statesman. London. 27 March 2000.
  19. ^ Jones, Tiffany Fawn. Psychiatry, Mental Institutions, and the Mad in Apartheid South Africa. New York: Routledge. pp. 199–200. ISBN 978-0-415-88667-3. 
  20. ^ Obituaries: "Dimitri Tsafendas; S. African Assassin", The Los Angeles Times. 8 October 1999
  21. ^ van Woerden, Henk (translated by Dan Jacobson). 2002. The Assassin: a story of race and rage in the land of apartheid. New York: Macmillan. pp. 159–163. ISBN 978-0-312-42084-0
  22. ^ Carter, Alice T. "Musings of 'I.D.' Offer Intellectual Exercise," Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, 24 May 2005.

Further reading[edit]