Partition Blues

By Shapiro, Michael J. | Alternatives: Global, Local, Political, April-June 2002 | Go to article overview

Partition Blues


Shapiro, Michael J., Alternatives: Global, Local, Political


The migrant is an uncertain and incomplete man.

He lives in an inveterate state of unease.

Henk van Woerden

Prelude: A Fatal Unease

In a stunning literary performance, Henk van Woerden reconstructs the fatal encounter between two immigrants. (1) A "half-Greek," Demitrios Tsafendas, who was born to a Greek father and an African mother in Lourenco Marques (now Maputo), the capital of Portuguese East Africa, killed Henrik Verwoerd, the "half-Dutch" prime minister of South Africa and architect of apartheid, who was born in Amsterdam. As Tsafendas, employed as a courier in the Gape Town parliament building, approached Verwoerd on September 6, 1966, observers assumed he was delivering a message; instead, he mortally wounded Verwoerd with four thrusts of a long knife. Tsafendas struck at the man whom he saw as the cause of his nearly lifelong malaise. He saw himself as a victim of the Verwoerd-initiated racial-separation decrees. But the killing of Verwoerd had no immediate effect on racial division. The apartheid policy remained in place as Verwoerd was succeeded by the Nationalist Party's minister of justice, Balthazar Vorster, while the offic ial biography of Tsafendas (i.e., the spin the event was given in the South African press) consigned his act to the irrationality of a madman. Transferred from the place of his original confinement on Robben Island to Pretoria Central Prison, Tsafendas was "placed in a cell next to death row and forgotten." (2)

Van Woerden, as a thirteen-year-old, had experienced the disruption of Verwoerd's implementation of "racial" separation directly. A South African white and, like Verwoerd, "a half-baked Hollander" (he had emigrated to South Africa with his family at age nine), he lived in a "racially mixed" suburb of Cape Town when, in the early 1960s, his Cape Coloured neighbors disappeared. Ultimately, three to four million South Africans were "chased out of their cities." For many like van Woerden, the separation was inexplicable:

The differences between the 'poor white' Afrikaners and the Coloureds, especially, were not all that easy to make out, on either side of the colour line. Both groups spoke the same language and felt the same longing for a recognition of the wrongs done to them in the past. (3)

As van Woerden's experience attests, contrary to the conceits of Verwoerd's Nationalist Party, many of the "Whites" and "Coloureds" (to use the local idiom) shared a "structure of feeling"; what was "actively lived and felt" did not conform to the ideological underpinning of the apartheid policy. (4) What was officially articulated was disjunctive with "discordant elements in exemplary personal experience." (5) And, for van Woerden, the discord only deepened. He returned to Europe shortly after the assassination but remained unable to quench a "great thirst," a "nostalgia for the future . . . left behind." (6) By writing a Tsafendas biography, van Woerden implies that he is restoring a level of political consequence that impersonal accounts of South Africa's apartheid years have left out, "visceral forms of human connectedness." (7) The viscera in question belong primarily to Tsafendas, for shortly after the account begins, van Woerden abandons his use of the first-person as he is displaced in the experientia l narrative by Tsafendas.

How to Know a Man with the Blues: An Epistemological Interlude

Although primarily a biography, "The Assassin" is also an account of the politics of partition. To follow the global migrations of Demetrios Tsafendas--a man who found all of many venues in the planet's racial/spatial order inhospitable--is of necessity to map the boundaries imposed by state jurisdictions and the related but not coextensive ethnonational imaginaries and practices. As a result, van Woerden's focus on an individual articulates collective, transindividual implications. …

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