In A Nutshell
The man behind the design and implementation of apartheid, South Africa’s infamous racial segregation system, suffered two assassination attempts on his life during his tenure as Prime Minister between 1958 and 1966. Although the first failed, the second attempt was successful. In both instances, the would-be assassins were white men.
The Whole Bushel
H.F. Verwoerd was the seventh Prime Minister of South Africa. Born in the Netherlands, his family moved to South Africa before his third birthday. A brilliant student, the young Verwoerd received top marks during his school years and graduated from university with honors. He continued his studies in the fields of psychology and philosophy and was ultimately rewarded with two scholarships in 1926 (one at Oxford, the other in Germany) to complete his post-doctoral degrees abroad. As there were a number of famous professors in Germany at the time, Verwoerd opted for the latter. Many believe it was during this time that he formulated his apartheid ideology, although his published works, notes, and memoranda make no reference to any racist theories.
On his return to South Africa, Verwoerd became heavily involved with social and welfare work among poor white South Africans. It was this involvement that ultimately drew him into politics, first serving as Minister of Native affairs until his appointment as Prime Minister in 1958. During his time in parliament a number of “apartheid laws” came into being which he believed would guide natives to self-determination or independent nationhood. The laws determined that black people had their own territories, schools, universities, tribal councils, and social infrastructure. It also prohibited sexual relationships or marriages between white and black people and every citizen was classified according to race.
In April 1960, H.F. Verwoerd miraculously survived the first assassination attempt on his life when he was shot in the face during his opening address at the Union Exposition in Johannesburg. He quickly recovered and returned to work less than two months after the attempt. The would-be assassin, David Pratt, stated that he had shot the “epitome of apartheid.” Five different psychiatrists confirmed that Pratt lacked legal mental capacity, and he was committed to a mental hospital where he ultimately committed suicide.
H.F. Verwoerd was assassinated on September 6, 1966 as he entered The House of Assembly in Cape Town. A parliamentary messenger, Dimitri Tsavendas, attacked and savagely stabbed him in the neck and chest after he failed to have himself reclassified as “colored” or of mixed-race in order to live with his mixed-race girlfriend. Although he had mixed parentage (partly Greek), he was classified as white under the classification system. The assassin was a recognized schizophrenic with a record of mental illness. He stayed in various prisons and mental institutions until his death in 1999. Loved and hated equally, H.F. Verwoerd’s funeral was attended by thousands. The bloodstained carpet where Verwoerd fell and died was kept in Parliament until its removal in 2004.