Dimitri Tsafendas: The making of a radical

From a young age, the man who killed Hendrik Verwoerd was interested in radical ideas. This is an edited extract from ‘The Man Who Killed Apartheid’.

Michalis Tsafantakis bought a newspaper every day, as well as historical and political magazines, which his son, Dimitri Tsafendas, by then in his mid-teens, read from cover to cover. He would cut out articles of particular interest and assemble them methodically in a series of scrapbooks. One volume held biographies and articles about people he admired; another contained accounts of historical events; two were dedicated to Greece and Mozambique; and a fifth consisted of contemporary articles about the modern world. Each volume was meticulously titled on the cover and the articles were illustrated by relevant images. These included photographs and drawings of Vladimir Lenin, various heroes of the 1821 Greek Revolution, illustrations from the French and Russian revolutions, and, from more modern times, headshots of Italian-American anarchists Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti.

Michalis had talked to Dimitri about politics from an early age and translated several of the Italian texts for him. Among these was Anarchy by Errico Malatesta, one of Michalis’s most admired thinkers. Dimitri also read some of his father’s literature in English. He became familiar with the anarchist idea of “propaganda of the deed”, which advocated acts of violence, including bombings and assassinations. He absorbed the writings of Italian-American anarchist Luigi Galleani, which affirmed violence, including murder, to secure the removal of tyrants and oppressors. Galleani’s American followers had carried out a series of bombings and assassination attempts over the previous 20 years. Michalis agreed with most of Galleani’s ideas, though he was becoming a little more conservative as he got older.

Dimitri did not confine his political obsessions to his scrapbooks, however, and his loose tongue became a cause of friction with Marika, his stepmother. He would take his younger siblings to coffee shops for sweets and cakes, but then would become involved in political arguments with other patrons. The children would become embarrassed and his stepmother infuriated. Thereafter, when they set off for the café, Marika would demand of Dimitri to keep his mouth shut, threatening to cut off his pocket money, though she never did. She feared that, as he became more independent, Dimitri would influence her younger children. She begged Michalis not to talk constantly to their son Victor about history and politics, as he did with Dimitri. Michalis agreed.

Living under Portuguese rule, colonialism was the political imperative that dominated Dimitri’s mind. Subject to its diktats and confronted with the visible manifestations of its power in the colonial offices in Lourenço Marques, he longed for Mozambicans to rebel against the system, often declaring that his great desire was to dynamite those very offices. When it came to blowing things up, the United States was never far from Dimitri’s mind, and featured high on his list of political bête noires. He considered the “Land of the Free” to be a myth, and that freedom and democracy existed for white Americans only. He believed that white settlers had stolen the country from the indigenous Indians, forced them to live in locations and racially oppressed them like Jews, blacks and other minorities. “Liberation” was always the answer Dimitri gave when he was asked about his adult ambitions, clearly dreaming of becoming a revolutionary like Simón Bolivar and his Cretan forebears, and freeing Mozambique and other white-ruled African territories from the colonialists. His stepmother nervously warned him to keep such notions to himself because they would cause problems for them all if overheard by some Portuguese people.

A radical library at home

Michalis maintained a small workshop in the house where he worked on his ideas for new inventions or made toys for the children. He kept it locked because of the dangers the implements posed to his young family, and even Marika was not allowed to enter the workroom. However, as Dimitri grew older, Michalis invited the boy inside and taught him how to use his bench lathe and other cutting tools for dressing metals. What interested Dimitri more were the many books and newspapers that made the room as much a library as a workshop.

Most of the books were about anarchism, politics and history. The majority came from Italy and were in Italian. There were also newspapers that Michalis had brought from his time long ago in Padua and anarchist literature he received at home by mail. The workshop walls were hung with the portraits of prominent anarchists, including Mikhail Bakunin, Emma Goldman, Errico Malatesta and Peter Kropotkin, as well as Sacco and Vanzetti. Dimitri knew no Italian, but he was fascinated by this treasure trove and spent a lot of time in the workshop deciphering whatever he could.

Dimitri knew that if one day he decided to blow up the Portuguese administration offices in Lourenço Marques or the Statue of Liberty in New York, knowledge of how to make the bombs would be essential. When he was about 16 or 17, he spotted a manual on bomb-making in his father’s workshop and became extremely excited. The book was in Italian and, knowing that his father would never translate it for him, he bought an Italian dictionary and tried to work out the instructions himself. Secretly, he began to experiment in the manufacture of bombs, including some filled with nails, which he tested in a field near their house.

One day something went wrong and an explosion destroyed a large part of the workshop. Marika ran screaming from the house with the toddler Katerina in her arms, and Dimitri, amazingly, escaped the blast without a scratch. What he did not escape was Marika’s wrath. Setting Katerina down, she began furiously slapping him, but Dimitri accepted the blows silently. Katerina remembered the explosion clearly 80 years later: “He would make bombs stuffed with nails and so on and explode them. We could have been killed.”

On learning that her stepson had set up the explosion by following one of her husband’s books, Marika seized the book and hurled it into the backyard furnace. When Michalis arrived, she berated him for filling his son’s mind with what she believed were dangerous political ideas. “He could have killed us all,” she shouted repeatedly. Finally, Marika threatened to leave Michalis and Dimitri and return to Egypt with the other children unless Michalis agreed to three demands: throw away all the anarchist material and stop receiving anarchist newspapers and literature from overseas; ban Dimitri from entering the workshop ever again; and stop talking and giving books to Dimitri about anarchism and politics.

Michalis tried to argue that the bomb manual was the only dangerous book, but Marika was adamant. Eventually, he agreed to stow all his anarchist literature in a storage room, to stop receiving anarchist literature from overseas, and to cease speaking to Dimitri or giving him books on the subject.

A radical bookshop

The promises were honoured only in part. Michalis made arrangements with his best friend, Dimitri Spanos, a Greek communist who owned a publishing company and a bookshop, to receive the anarchist literature there. Michalis remembered to scold his son for taking the book without permission and setting off explosions. However, the pair continued talking about anarchism and politics when Marika was not around. The workshop blast was the explosion Marika referred to in her statement to the police after Hendrik Verwoerd’s assassination when she said Dimitri “nearly blew up our house”. The incident became widely known within the Greek community in Lourenço Marques, although Michalis always said it was an accident that happened while the boy was playing unwittingly with some of his workshop materials.

6 September 1966: Hendrik Verwoerd’s body is carried out of parliament after his assassination in Cape Town. (Photograph by Die Burger)

As an older teenager, Dimitri began to take a less romantic view of politics, and his growing awareness of the political realities was to become markedly enhanced when he got a job selling books and newspapers at Spanos’s bookshop. Spanos was to become an enduring influence in Dimitri’s life and world view. Michalis met with his best friend almost every day, at the bookstore or in a café, where they talked and argued about politics, and young Dimitri was frequently an avid listener to their debates.

It was Michalis who insisted on his son getting this serious job so he could realise the responsibilities of earning a living. However, Dimitri came later to believe that his father had another aim in mind when he arranged for him to work for Spanos. He suspected that because they could no longer talk politics at home, Michalis sent him to Spanos to continue his “education” along the “correct” political path, which for him was anti-authoritarian. He had warned Dimitri many times, half joking, half serious, that he could do whatever he wanted in his life except become a fascist or a royalist. As to professions, he could be anything he wanted, even nothing at all, but he must never become a professional soldier or a policeman. Dimitri was warned that if he did, his father would immediately disown him.

Spanos was a former miner who tried and failed to form a labour union in Johannesburg in 1902. Within a year, he was forced to flee the country because of his political activities and he relocated to Mozambique. As a member of the International Socialist League, he was well connected with socialists around the world, including notably William H Andrews, a pioneer trade unionist and communist who was the first chairman of the South African Labour Party and later general secretary of the South African Communist Party.

With financial assistance from Michalis, Spanos opened a general interest bookshop, but, as business flourished, again with financial help from Michalis, he started a news distribution agency, the first of its kind in the region, which funnelled magazines, newspapers and foreign publications, many with socialist content, to bookshops and kiosks throughout Portuguese East Africa. In time, Spanos expanded into printing and publishing, and his company became the leading publishing house in Mozambique. Between 1915 and 1921, Spanos published The International, the International Socialist League’s organ, and distributed it throughout East and Southern Africa. His socialist contacts would ship literary material to him from around the world, including the US, and he would send Dimitri to the port and airport to pick up the bundles, which would then be duplicated and distributed across the south of the continent, including South Africa.

As for his new employee, the elder Greek’s uncompromising, leftist ideology fitted perfectly with the youth’s vision of how the world should be. It was a short step for Dimitri to a life-long conviction that communism was the weapon that would bring this about. Happily surrounded by books in his new job, Dimitri lost no time in familiarising himself with the contents of as many as he could handle.

This is an edited extract from ‘The Man Who Killed Apartheid: The Life of Dimitri Tsafendas’, by Harris Dousemetzis with Gerry Loughran, published by Jacana Media

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