The lunatics in charge of the apartheid asylum

<i>A Mouthful of Glass</i> by Henk van Woerden, trans. Dan Jacobson (Granta, &pound;12.99, 168pp)
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The Independent Culture

Like many South Africans, I remember the day that Dr Hendrik Verwoerd, the prime minister, was stabbed. I was working in Cape Town for an Afrikaans publisher, not far from the Houses of Assembly, where the murder took place. It was a warm Tuesday afternoon, on 6 September 1966. The South African parliament pretended to be based on the Westminster model: leather benches, Speaker, mace and division bells. In fact, it was really just an engine for legitimising racial hatred, and Dr Verwoerd was its driver.

Like many South Africans, I remember the day that Dr Hendrik Verwoerd, the prime minister, was stabbed. I was working in Cape Town for an Afrikaans publisher, not far from the Houses of Assembly, where the murder took place. It was a warm Tuesday afternoon, on 6 September 1966. The South African parliament pretended to be based on the Westminster model: leather benches, Speaker, mace and division bells. In fact, it was really just an engine for legitimising racial hatred, and Dr Verwoerd was its driver.

The PM had just taken his seat when a former drifter, jailbird and mental patient named Demitrios Tsafendas, improbably dressed in a blue messenger's uniform, walked up to Dr Verwoerd and stabbed him four times with a hunting knife, killing him instantly.

Henk Van Woerden's A Mouthful of Glass is a brilliant mix of biography and wonderment, taking the history of Tsafendas as the thread to lead us into the absurd and cruel farce that then passed for normal life in South Africa. Having Dan Jacobson translate from the Dutch was a master-stroke. He understands the crazed atmosphere of the time; which is vital, because this is a very South African tale.

There was once a poor drifter from Mozambique, half-Greek, half-cracked, half-black, who got himself a job in the all-white Parliament of the country on the point of deporting him. Then he killed his chief tormenter, the apostle of apartheid. Woerden sensibly sticks to the facts and does not try to dramatise. The story of "Mimis" Tsafendas, the accidental assassin, is so horribly sad and shot through with comic pathos that only plain telling can save it from the darkest farce.

Not since Julius Caesar was stabbed can there have been such mayhem in a legislative chamber. A government MP who was also a cleric in the Dutch Reformed Church (the body of believers who constituted apartheid at prayer) wrested the knife from the assassin. P W Botha, one day to be president, pointed at the only liberal MP, Helen Suzman, and swore to get even.

Back at my office, the news was soon on the radio. My Afrikaans colleagues stared at me, shocked and angry. A god had died and "English liberals" were to blame, once again. Some years before, a wealthy English farmer named David Pratt shot Verwoerd twice in the head with a small-calibre pistol, to little effect. A sardonic limerick celebrated that failure: "There was a young man named Pratt,/ Who took a pot-shot at a Nat,/ He said: 'Had I known/ There'd have been so much bone,/ I'd have bought me a much bigger gat'." Tsafendas succeeded where Pratt failed, and spent the remainder of his life in a mental hospital.

Henk van Woerden is a foreigner, an immigrant to South Africa like Tsafendas and, indeed, like Hendrik Verwoerd. It makes for sharp eyes. Tsafendas believed he had a talking snake in his belly that told him to kill. Verwoerd believed God had told him that separate races should be confined to cages where touching, mixing or mating would never take place. Which was madder? One form of dementia got you locked up in a mental hospital, the other got you running the country.

Seeing this so clearly and quietly makes A Mouthful of Glass a marvellous piece of work. This is a remarkable picture of South Africa under apartheid: not so much a country, but a mental hospital run by its most disturbed inmates.

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