Tsafendas and the filthy business of purity


AFRAID and at sea. Renos Spanoudes is Dimitri Tsafendas in ‘Strange Land’. Photograph courtesy Renos Spanoudes.

EVIL AND TERRIBLE leaders shape our world. It takes someone with a certain level of passionate belief in who he is and what he stands for, to commit the ultimate act of premeditated murder of such a leader. It doesn’t happen often, but it happened during the first 20 years of apartheid legislation when the parliamentary messenger at the time, one Dimitri Tsafendas stabbed the then Prime Minister Hendrik French Verwoerd to death in 1966. Also recognised as the ‘architect of apartheid’, Verwoerd was an icon hated by South African society for his fanatic focus on purist ideals. The play Strange Lands by Anton Krueger presents a searing understanding of Tsafendas in a way that raises its value as a human essay, but also as a very important South African story which needs to be told and heard.

Art is a strange master. When a performer is able to gloss over a competent performance of a work and forge on to the next challenge, and the next and the next, it’s about making a living as an artist. And sometimes, something invariably is lost. Yet, when a performer works on an idea for decades, troubling it and questioning it, rethinking it and revising their thoughts about it, something else happens: it’s about making a life as an artist. When you see Renos Spanoudes in this performance, you realise his status as artist.

Strange Land is Spanoudes’s third iteration of a monodrama focused on the life of Tsafendas. And while it may be meaningless and presumptive to predict how many more iterations there may be in Spanoudes’s performance future, in this work you find an evolved and subtle understanding of the complex character of Tsafendas, peppered and run through as it is with deep pathos, humour and wile. It’s characterised by passion and evocation that can take you into the fineness of dust tossed in a ray of sun to the horror of being beaten by apartheid heavies. And it features Greek dance that allows Spanoudes to become gossamer-like in his sense of levity.

Spanoudes delivers an unforgettable performance that is utterly flawless and completely haunting. While the set with a ship-evocative floor, a mess of noose-redolent rope and topsy turvy shelves, is interesting, the performance is so riveting that you feel you could erase it all, as it detracts from Spanoudes’s deep and clear performance. And yet, he speaks in plain language: there is no posturing in offering insight into a man who invented a dragon tapeworm and teetered on the supposed brink of madness – neither too much nor too little – in order to stay alive, in a world riven by pure racism.

Beautifully written with strong recourse to the 2018 publication by Harris Dousemetzis, The Man Who Killed Apartheid, the work uses much of Tsafendas’s own words as it reflects on the persona of a man who really did sacrifice everything because of a system that made no sense. The love child of his Greek father and his Shangaan mother (who was the family’s maid), Tsafendas was born in 1918. Neither dark enough to be considered black or light-skinned enough to be respected as white he spent his early life adrift between values and never belonging anywhere.

Like Bram Fischer, Tsafendas experienced the unrelenting cruelty of the state: because he had killed their ‘god’. He was not treated for madness, but instead incarcerated alongside the hanging room for 28 years. He was released in 1994, and still not belonging anywhere, died five years later and was buried in an unmarked grave. Unequivocally, this is the play of the year: if you never see theatre, see this one.

  • Strange Land is written by Anton Krueger and directed by Jade Bowers. It features design by Nomvula Molepo (lighting), Nthabiseng Malaka (set), Jade Bowers (costumes) and Yogin Sullapen (music). It is performed by Renos Nicos Spanoudes at the Barney Simon Theatre, Market Theatre complex in Newtown, Johannesburg, until June 16. Call 011-832-1641.

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