This weekend the annual Rand Easter Show takes place in Johannesburg. It was during the Rand Show in 1960 that the first assassination attempt was made on the life of Hendrik Frensch Verwoerd, the former South African Prime Minister considered by many to be the grand ‘architect of apartheid’.
Despite being born in the Netherlands, Hendrik Verwoerd strongly identified with Afrikaner Nationalism, an ideology supported by the publication Die Transvaler, of which Verwoerd was the editor from 1937 until 1948. During this time he was also responsible for helping to rebuild the National Party (NP) in the Transvaal. When the NP eventually came to power, Verwoerd joined the senate, becoming Minister of Native Affairs in 1950. Among the laws enacted during Verwoerd’s time as Minister were the Population Registration Act and the Group Areas Act in 1950, the Pass Laws Act of 1952 and the Reservation of Separate Amenities Act of 1953. Verwoerd was a strong proponent of the legal doctrine ‘separate but equal’ that formed part of US constitutional law until it was rejected in the 1950s, and when he was voted in as Prime Minister of South Africa in 1958 he continued the work that he had started as Minister of Native Affairs, further segregating South Africa’s different race groups. The 1958 Promotion of Black Self-Government Act set up separate governments in the ‘homelands’, with the aim that these territories would eventually become independent of South Africa. In reality though, the government continued to exercise a strong measure of control over the Bantustans, even after some of them became ‘independent’.
The long list of laws enacted by Verwoerd did not go unopposed, and on the 21st March 1960 thousands of demonstrators took to the streets to protest against South Africa’s pass laws. By the end of the day nearly 70 men, women and children had been gunned down by the South African police, with a further 180 wounded during what would become known as the Sharpeville Massacre. Across the world people spoke out against the apartheid government and the terrible events of that fateful day yet, despite international condemnation and local unrest, Verwoerd seemed oblivious to the opposition South Africa was facing. Addressing a crowd of white supporters shortly after Sharpeville, Verwoerd reassured the public that the “Black masses of South Africa were in support of the government and administration of the country and were also peace loving and orderly”.
Just short of three weeks after Sharpeville, on the 9th April 1960, Verwoerd opened the Rand Show that was celebrating 50 years of the Union of South Africa. After his speech Verwoerd took his place next to his wife, Betsie, on the podium, which is where he was seated when David Pratt shot Verwoerd twice in the face with a .22 calibre pistol at point-blank range. Despite the apparent violence of the attack, Pratt later said in court that he hadn’t intended to kill Verwoerd, but rather “lay him up for a month or more to give him time to think things over”. On the 26 September the court found David Pratt insane and committed him to a Bloemfontein mental hospital. In October 1961, Pratt committed suicide by hanging himself with a rolled-up bedsheet.
Verwoerd survived the assassination attempt only to be killed six years later by a parliamentary messenger, Dimitrios Tsafendas, who stabbed Verwoerd while he was sitting at his desk in the House of Assembly.