Theatre Review | The man who tried to kill apartheid

On stage, Renos Spanoudes brings to life the beleaguered existence of Dimitri Tsafendas, the man who killed HF Verwoerd, the fascist architect of apartheid.

On 6 September 1966, Dimitri Tsafendas, a messenger in the South African Parliament in Cape Town, followed then Prime Minister Hendrik French Verwoerd into the debating chamber of the House of Assembly, pulled a sheath knife from under his clothing and stabbed to death the man known as the architect of apartheid.

In present day South Africa, Renos Nicos Spanoudes – actor, drama teacher and broadcaster – steps on stage at the Market Theatre in Johannesburg and breathes life into the man who assassinated Verwoed, in a one-person play called Strangeland.

Born of Cyprian immigrant parents, Spanoudes feels a connection to Tsafendas. Even though he is unequivocally white – the equivalent of winning the jackpot in race-obsessed apartheid South Africa – Spanoudes was not exactly white enough; he was always an outsider.

“At school, I was not part of the ‘in crowd’, I was overweight and I wasn’t a sportsman,” he says, casting his mind back to his school days, first at Fairways Primary School in Birnam, Johannesburg, and later at the Highlands North Boys High School.

If his looks and lack of sporting prowess were a badge of shame, they were nothing compared to Spanoudes’s heritage. “[I was] also ridiculed because of my parents having a café. I was known as the ‘greasy Greek’,” he says, with a faraway look in his eyes, as though talking about how the memory tears a scab off a long-healed wound.

His voice changes as he channels a long forgotten, bigoted high school bully in some bygone school yard: “If you wanna know if Renos is at school, just look at the floor. If you see grease marks you know he’s at school.”

He delivers the line with venom, its intended hurt still as potent now as it was all those years ago. Such insults were many. “The sports guy [a teacher] would say, ‘No wonder you don’t play sports, because if you got into a corner on the soccer field, you’d open up a café.’”

In that cruel, race- and class-obsessed world, such utterances were not limited to ignorant school yard bullies. A teacher – an adult who should have known better – would occasionally enter the fray.  

“A teacher once asked me, ‘Why are you growing a moustache? Do you want to look like your mother?’” The pain of such slights is still there. “It was stuff like this. People are cruel,” he says.

Tsafendas brutalised

Worse insults than these were aimed at Tsafendas. When he came kicking and screaming into this world in 1918, the son of a Greek father and a Shangaan-speaking Mozambican mother of mixed heritage who was the family’s domestic worker at the time, the world had great pain in store for him.

His was a life of brutal sadness, punctuated by very few instances of happiness. He lived the gamut of South African racial-classification madness. He was classified white because his father was white. He then struggled to be reclassified as “coloured” because he had fallen in love with and wanted to marry a woman classified as such by apartheid law, which prohibited interracial relationships.

Always attracted to the sea Tsafendas left South Africa and travelled the world. A lifelong communist he fought with the Democratic Army, the military wing of the Greek Communist Party, and was detained in prisons in a startling number of countries for his radical commitments. But he never forget his roots in southern Africa where apartheid had blocked his life from all sides.

He eventually returned to South Africa and elected to kill the man responsible for the mad rules that stood in his way, a man he saw as the fascist enemy. And he did. His act of political courage would unleash harm on other people, whose only sin was sharing his Greek heritage.

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“When I was six they closed the schools, that day [and] for three days,” Spanoudes says of the day Verwoerd was assassinated. Somebody at the school had contacted his mother and advised her to come and get him.  

“The Prime Minister has been killed. You can’t go to school tomorrow or the next day, we have to wait,” Spanoudes remembers his mother saying. He adds, “They were quite scared because some [Greek] cafés had been attacked and my parents were quite scared.”

After the initial fear of reprisal died down and the schools were opened, Spanoudes recalls, “Interestingly when I went back to school, for about two years, I said to everyone, ‘Tsafendas wasn’t Greek, he was Portuguese’.”

Tsafendas’s abuse, at the hands of so many – members of his own family, the Greek community in both Mozambique and South Africa, the apartheid South African government and even the post-apartheid government – was more than a bigoted comment here and there. It was truly horrendous.  

Tsafendas on stage and sane

In Strangeland, this life is brought to a semi-dark stage in full, unrelenting technicolour savagery. The play is written by Anton Krueger, based on historian Harris Dousemetzis’s recently published book The Man Who Killed Apartheid (2019), which, unlike any previous reflections on Tsafendas, reveals the man as passionate and deeply political, but not insane.

Spanoudes, who for several years has been working with translating Tsafendas’s story to the stage, performs in front of a backdrop comprising tattered nooses, deceptively evoking an abandoned pirates’ ship. In reality these are representative of the execution chamber at Pretoria Central Prison, next to which Tsafendas spent 28 years in a specially built cell, the bulk of his incarceration. In 1994 he was transferred to the Sterkfontein psychiatric hospital outside Krugersdorp.

After he killed Verwoerd, Tsafendas escaped the very real prospect of being sentenced to death by feigning insanity, claiming a tapeworm had spoken to him, egging on in his murderous act. Strangeland is Spanoudes’s third iteration of his theatrical celebration of Tsafendas and he does not believe the man to have been insane at all. It suited the powers that be to believe him but they chose not to deal with his “madness”.

“You’ve got a man that you say that is insane but you keep him in a prison. You don’t put him in a hospital. What’s going on there?” Spanoudes reflects, adding, “If someone is alone enough, rejected and persecuted enough, eventually they will lose it.”  

In the play, Spanoudes spends an hour and a half portraying Tsafendas’s life from youth to his final moments, when he says, “I’m living my life in the rotten sweetness of my own vomit.”

Strangeland is not a story structured along the traditional theatre trajectory where, at the end, the protagonist triumphs over adversity. After years of having a virtual front-row seat to the deaths of dozens of men, Tsafendas is transferred to a psychiatric hospital where he dies alone and neglected from symptoms relating to dementia. At no point during his life does his community, the Greek community, reach out to him. Neither does his family.

Strangeland is scheduled for a repeat season at the Market Theatre in Johannesburg in September 2019.

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