Hendrik Fredresch Verwoerd, psychologist,
sociologist, journalist, statesman and the architect of apartheid,
was born in Amsterdam on 8 September 1901. He was, as he bluntly
admitted in 1947, 'an extreme Afrikaner'.
In 1925, he obtained a doctorate at Stellenbosch
University and then went to America and Europe, where he did post-graduate
studies at a number of universities, including Hamburg and Berlin.
In 1928, he returned to South Africa and was appointed Professor
of Applied Psychology and Sociology at Stellenbosch University.
In 1936, he joined a deputation of six professors
in protesting against the admission to South Africa of Jewish
refugees from Nazi Germany. From that year on, Dr Verwoerd was
destined to be surrounded by controversy.
In 1937, he became the first editor of Die
Transvaler, the National Party newspaper in Johannesburg. Under
his editorship, Die Transvaler became an extremist organ, strenuously
voicing its opposition to the Hertzog-Smuts alliance and to South
Africa's involvement in World War II. A Supreme Court judgment
against Verwoerd would later hold that Die Transvaler made a tool
of the Nazis in South Africa; and he knew it.
In 1948, the National Party swept to power
in the general election. Dr Verwoerd's contribution to the party's
success was clearly recognized and he was elected to the Senate,
where he became the leader of the ruling party. Two years later,
he entered the Cabinet and was appointed Minister of Native Affairs.
It was shortly after this appointment that Dr Verwoerd declared
that the National Party had developed a policy '... which grants
to others what it claims for itself and which is calculated to
provide the same opportunities to everyone within his own race
group. That is the policy of apartheid.’
On 2 September 1958, after the death of J.G.
Striidom, Dr Verwoerd become Prime Minister. The year 1960 was
a dramatic one for South African politics and for Verwoerd personally.
In January, he announced that a referendum would be called to
determine the Republican Issue; the object would be a republic
within the British Commonwealth. Two weeks later, Harold Macmillan,
the then British Prime Minister, visited South Africa. In an address
to both Houses of Parliament he made his famous 'winds of change'
speech and criticised apartheid. On 21 March 1960, there was the
Sharpeville massacre. Then, less than a month later, the first
attempt to assassinate Dr Verwoerd almost succeeded.
On 9 April 1960, Dr Verwoerd opened the Union
Exposition on the Witwatersrand to mark the jubilee of the Union
of South Africa. Having made his opening speech, he took his seat.
Shortly afterwards, a fifty-two year-old farmer, David Pratt,
walked up to him and fired two shots into his face. The police
later gave the following account of the incident:
'After Verwoerd had made his opening speech,
a man stepped up near to the front row of seats in which the Prime
Minister was sitting. Some versions are that the man drew attention
to himself by calling out, 'Dr Verwoerd'. Other onlookers did
not hear the Prime Minister's name being called. A shot was fired
at virtually point-blank range into Dr Verwoerd's right cheek
from a .22 automatic pistol. A second shot was fired into his
right ear. Colonel G.M. Harrison, president of the Witwatersrand
Agricultural Society, leapt up and knocked the pistol from the
gunman's hand. After the pistol fell to the floor, Colonel Harrison,
with the help of Major (Carl) Richter (the Prime Minister's personal
bodyguard), civilians and another policemen overpowered the gunman
and hustled him to the show grounds Police Station. The arrest
was made so quickly and the removal was done so quickly that an
angry section of the crowd was frustrated from assaulting the
detainee. The detainee, David Pratt, was soon thereafter hurried
to Marshall Square [police station].’
Within minutes of the assassination attempt,
Dr Verwoerd was rushed - still conscious - to the Pretoria Hospital.
Two days later, the hospital issued a statement which described
his condition as 'indeed satisfactory - further examinations were
carried out today and they confirm good expectations. Dr Verwoerd
at present is restful. There is no need for any immediate operation.'
The surgeons who worked on Dr Verwoerd would later claim that
his escape had been 'absolutely miraculous'. One specialist declared
that the firearm used ‘…could not have been anything
bigger than a .22 bullet without causing very much more damage.'
Other physicians agreed that if a larger calibre
gun had been used, the bullet would probably have penetrated his
temple bone and lodged in the brain with extremely serious consequences.
Specialist surgeons were called in to remove
the bullets. At first, there was speculation that Dr Verwoerd
would lose his hearing and sense of balance, but these fears were
to prove groundless. He returned to public life on 29 May, less
than two months after the shooting.
David Pratt, Dr Verwoerd's would-be assassin,
appeared in the Johannesburg Magistrates' Court on 11 April. Pratt
was a father of three who had suffered from epilepsy for a number
of years. He was described as a 'socialite and farmer'. He was
a respected member of the Witwatersrand Agricultural Society and
had been close to Dr Verwoerd on a number of occasions prior to
the shooting. In fact, it was later revealed that Pratt had been
one of the VIPs sitting next to Dr Verwoerd during the opening
of the exposition.
David Pratt, who claimed he had been shooting
'the epitome of apartheid', was eventually declared ‘mentally
disordered and epileptic'. On 26 September 1960, he was committed
to Pretoria Central Prison to 'await indication of the Governor
General's pleasure'. On 1 October 1961, he hanged himself at Bloeinfontein
Dr Verwoerd had escaped death by a hair's
breadth. Six years later, he would not be so fortunate.
On 6 September 1966, an air of expectancy
hung over Parliament. Three days earlier, Dr Verwoerd had held
historic talks with the Prime Minister of Lesotho, Chief Leabua
Johnathon, at the Union Buildings in Pretoria. It was the first
meeting on South African soil between the premier of South Africa
and the leader of a black state. Following the meeting, a joint
communique was issued by the two governments with special emphasis
on co-operation without interference in each others' internal
affairs. Against this background, the South African Prime Minister
was expected to make an important policy statement at the parliamentary
session on 6 September.
Dr Verwoerd entered the House of Assembly
that day at 2.15 p.m. As he made his way to the front bench, he
exchanged greetings with those around him. Just as he was taking
his seat, a uniformed parliamentary messenger, Dimitri Tsafendas,
walked briskly across the floor from the lobby entrance. Without
warning, Tsafendas drew a sheath knife from under his clothing.
He bent over Dr Verwoerd and raised his right hand high into the
air. With his left hand, he plucked off the sheath and then stabbed
Dr Verwoerd four times in the chest. Seconds later, a number of
Members of Parliament rushed forward and pulled Tsafendas away
from the Prime Minister. After a violent struggle, the court messenger
was finally subdued.
Four Members of Parliament who were medical
doctors rushed to the Prime Minister's aid and one gave him the
kiss-of-life. Mrs Verwoerd also ran down to the chamber from the
wives' gallery. She kissed her husband as the doctors battled
to save his life. The Prime Minister was rushed to Groote Schuur
Hospital where he was certified dead on arrival.
On 17 October 1966, a summary trial for Tsafendas
began. It ended three days later, with the declaration by Justice
Beyers that Tsafendas was 'insane and unfit to stand trial'. Beyers
ordered that Tsafendas 'be kept in a place of safety where he
will be away from society' and he was confined to Pretoria Central
Tsafendas, who was 48 years-old at the time
of the assassination, was the son of a Cypriot father and a black
Mozambique mother, but was classified as white. Tsafendos had
a history of mental illness which went back to 1 935. He had been
diagnosed as suffering from paranoid schizophrenic, in particular,
a persistent delusion that a giant tapeworm is eating him up from
Only one interview with Tsafendas has ever
been published: it appeared in The Citizen newspaper in 1976.
In it, Tsafendas maintained that he was being well treated in
prison and was receiving regular psychiatric treatment. He also
pointed out that he was allowed extra helpings of carrots, since
that particular vegetable helped with the tapeworm.
It was later learnt that The Citizen interviewer,
Gordon Winter, was a government agent working for the Bureau of
State Security (BOSS). Winter would later claim in his book, Inside
BOSS, that the motivation for the interview was to defuse criticisms
of alleged ill-treatment made by Brian Price, an alleged drug
dealer, in the London Observer.
On 30 September 1989, Dimitri Tsafendas was
transferred from Pretoria Central Prison to Zonderwater Prison
Technically, only the State President could
order his release. An article showing Tasfendas appeared in the
Weekly Mail in December 1997.
Dimitri Tsafendas died in October 1999.