Dr. Hendrik Frensch Verwoerd, a South African professor, newspaper editor and prime minister, is credited with designing that country’s system of apartheid — literally, “apartness” — that separated the country’s white minority from the much larger black majority.
Early in his political career, Verwoerd was considered an extremist who was leading South Africa into disaster with his policy of white supremacy. By the time he was murdered on September 6, 1966, Verwoerd had convinced many that his racist policies were visionary, and he was considered reasonable and even moderate in his views by many white voters.
An attempt was made on Verwoerd’s life in 1960, when South Africa was in a state of emergency following riots in Sharpeville, where police killed 67 blacks. Verwoerd dismissed the incident as “a periodic phenomenon.”
South African anniversary
Verwoerd, 58 at the time, was in Johannesburg attending a cattle show on April 9, 1960, during celebrations marking the 50th anniversary of South Africa’s nationhood.
He had just given a speech when David Pratt, a 54-year-old white farmer, raced up to the podium and fired twice with a .32-caliber automatic.
Pratt, who had no involvement in politics, was seized by guards as Verwoerd was rushed to the hospital for emergency surgery. As racial tensions, already high, reigned in the wake of the attempted assassination of the National Party leader, Foreign Minister Eric Louw announced to a radio interviewer, “We will not hand over control of South Africa to a native majority. South Africa has gotten used to being slandered in the past 14 years.”
On September 26, 1960, Pratt was declared mentally unfit to stand trial on attempted murder charges. A state-appointed psychiatrist testified before the Supreme Court in Pretoria that Pratt’s mental condition had deteriorated as the result of epilepsy and he was committed to a mental institution.
Hanging from a bed sheet
On October 2, 1961, Pratt was found dead, hanging from a twisted bed sheet in his cell at the Bloemfontein mental hospital where he had resided since September.
In 1962, a reporter asked Verwoerd if he was afraid of another attack. The prime minister said he was not, saying he did not believe anyone wanted to kill him. He added, “If someone really wants to kill you, it’s not a very hard job.”
On September 6, 1966, just after 2 p.m., as the prime champion of apartheid sat on a bench in the South African Parliament, Dimitri Stifianos, a 45-year-old white South African, stabbed him to death. A temporary messenger, Stifianos had complained to co-workers that Verwoerd was doing too much for non-whites and not enough for “poor whites.”
Stifianos, later judged insane, did not stand trial.