Wednesday, 15 February 2017

Dimitris Tsafendas: ‘The wandering Greek’

I want to add a couple of things to the interesting piece Dean Kalimniou has put together on Dimitris Tsafendas, who stabbed to death in 1966 Henrik Verwoerd, the South African prime minister and architect and chief exponent of apartheid.

Tsafendas was born in Mozambique, the illegitimate child of a Cretan father and a mixed-raced local woman, who after an apparently happy early childhood with his paternal grandmother in Alexandria returned to the Portuguese colony and his father's new all-Greek family, which felt uncomfortable with the prodigal son and farmed him out to a boarding school in South Africa. Despite intelligence – Tsafendas spoke eight languages – the young adult quadroon found it hard to bear the numerous stigmas and symptoms of his outsiderness in racially conscious southern Africa and drifted into menial employment – and became a defiant, belligerent, uncompromising, opinionated and unstable character, attracted to radical politics and Christianity.

A remarkable period of adventures and wanderings followed, which took Tsafendas all over the world, and from one prison and psychiatric institution to another – Tsafendas suffered from schizophrenic episodes – before he managed to return to South Africa, where he precariously flitted between jobs and white and coloured communities, finally finding employment as a messenger in the all-white parliament in which he committed the murderous deed that landed him in prison and psychiatric care for the rest of his life – he died in 1999, aged 81.

Tsafendas' slaying of Verwoerd was denounced as the act of a madman, an interpretation the numerous filmmakers and writers who became interested in Tsafendas' story after apartheid collapsed, objected to, insisting instead on the political dimension to his crime. On the wreath she sent to his funeral, the documentary filmmaker Liza Key described Tsafendas as 'Displaced Person, Sailor, Christian, Communist, Liberation Fighter, Political Prisoner [and] Hero'.

However, this rehabilitation of Tsafendas as a political hero doesn't do justice to his story either. Reading Tsafendas' tragic narrative – superbly documented in Henk van Woeden's book, A Mouthful of Glass – it's hard not to regard Tsafendas as some sort of perverse Odysseus, driven from his native land by his family's hostility, desperate to return to kin and country but rejected and denied at every turn, exuding not cunning and intelligence but madness, who makes it back 'home' but fails to fit in, boring and alienating friends and family – who wish he'd never returned – with his outlandish tales of the world and high seas, and driven in the end to a brutal act of violence, which doesn't restore order but condemns him instead to the living hell of apartheid's prison and mental institutions.

There are also elements of Tsafendas' story that make us think of the specific experience of Greeks in the 20th century. In particular, van Woeden's book provides a fascinating glimpse into Hellenism in colonial Africa – in Mozambique, Rhodesia and South Africa – which is, perhaps, the least well-known of the Greek diasporas; and, as the 'Wandering Greek', Tsafendas also becomes an extreme symbol of modern Greece’s failure to fulfil its promise to become a country capable of providing security and opportunity for its tekna, disgorging them instead to the four corners of the world and exposing them, in one way or another, to annihilation.

The video clip is from Liza Key’s film, The Furiosus, which briefly features Tsafendas, describing the killing of Verwoerd.