50 Years Ago: Verwoerd assassinated
Many people remember where they were when something momentous happens, like the assassination of Dr Verwoerd, and I happened, quite unusually at the time, to find myself in the company of South African expatriates in the UK, and the immediate reaction of all to the news was “Out of the frying pan and into the fire”.
I had a couple of days of from my job of driving buses for London Transport, and took the train from Waterloo to Bournemouth to stay with Arthur and Florence Blaxall.Arthur Blaxall was an Anglican priest who had worked among deaf and blind children. He was also a pacifist, and ran the office of the Fellowship of Reconciliation in Johannesburg. He had been arrested and charged under the Suppression of Communism Act for things like supplying spectacles to members of the families of political detainees, given a suspended sentence, and forced to leave the country, so he was an exile rather than an expatriate.
I got to Waterloo station about 10:10, and had breakfast there, There was rather sickly music gurgling from loudspeakers all round the platforms. The place where I had breakfast was called “The Windsor Room”, with rather pretentious decorations, and cheap furniture that made the total effect rather ridiculous. I had meant to get the 10:30 train, but on getting on to the platform found it was full up. I went to the end of the platform and watched it pull out — it had a steam locomotive at its head — the first I had seen in England. Like the rest of the British Railways rolling stock, it had these great big spring-loaded buffers at each end and no cow catcher, which gave it a sort of Hornby toy appearance. Then I went back to the concourse again and bought a book, which I read at the platform gate while waiting for the next train at 1:30. It was called Mandrake — about a British minister of planning who gets an idea similar to Dr Verwoerd’s Bantu Homelands — traffic is diverted from the towns, and people are moved around and sent to where they were born, and the earth takes revenge on them.
The train got to Bournemouth at about 2:30, and I went out of the station and got a number 4 bus to the terminus, as instructed by Arthur Blaxall. I was rather disappointed that it was not a trolley bus, and when I got to the terminus I found an old trolley bus route had come up there once, but now all the wires had been taken down, and just the poles left standing. I saw the tower of the church, and made for that, and reached it about 10 to 3. And is there honey still for tea?
Alverna House, where Arthur and Florence Blaxall were staying, was quite a new place, built next to the church, for retired clergy, or those in England on holiday. It is run by the United Society for the Propagation of the Gospel (USPG). I was showing Arthur some photographs when a priest, also from South Africa, Michael McKay, who came from somewhere in the Cape, burst in and announced that Dr Verwoerd had just been stabbed in parliament. “This is terrible,” Florence
said. “Vorster takes over,” I said. Father McKay could give no details of who had done it — he had been in a shop to buy a record when the announcement was made over the radio in the shop. Florence said there were usually news headlines on the BBC light programme at 3:30, so we waited for that, talking and wondering what would happen now. I had had a letter from John Aitchison a couple of days ago with the good news that banning orders of Elliot Mngadi and Mike Ndlovu (two Liberal Party organisers) had been lifted. I had just shown it to Arthur and said I agreed with John that the ardent Nats and even Dr Verwoerd were becoming a little apprehensive about the growing strength of the right-wing fascist element, led by Vorster, and perhaps Vorster had been rapped on the knuckles over the banning of Ian Robertson, a rather mild student leader, and we wondered if this assassination might be Vorster’s revenge. The thing that concerned us all was that Vorster, the leader of the hard right of the National Party, would now take over.
Arthur told us stories of Verwoerd when he was priest in charge of Heidelberg, Verwoerd’s constituency. He was not, said Arthur, very popular there. On one occasion he had been asked to officially open the national road by-pass, and there had only been the mayor and a couple of the town councillors and Arthur and Florence there. The rest of the population stayed behind at home, not interested. On another occasion there had been a National Party stryddag, and they had bought large quantities of meat for a braaivleis, but the meat had to be given away afterwards because it was so poorly attended. He also said that on the occasion that Verwoerd was shot at the Rand Show, the news was flashed on the screens at the bioscopes, and at the non-European one in Market or Commissioner Street, there was a huge cheer. When it was announced that he was expected to recover there was an equally huge groan.
I remembered the occasion well. It was the Saturday before Palm Sunday, and I was with the rest of the AYPA — the youth group at St Augustine’s Anglican Church in Orange Grove, Johannesburg. We were making palm crosses for use in church the next day. When someone announced the news that Verwoerd had been shot there was a spontaneous cheer from everyone — then disbelief. We cheered then because the Sharpeville massacre was still fresh in the minds of all of us, with the State of Emergency and the banning of the African National Congress and the Pan African Congress. It was a release, and the first impulse was to cheer. But not so six years later, because there was only the knowledge that Vorster was waiting in the wings.
We went to town then, by trolley bus. Stood in a queue with hordes of children, and had to stand on the bus when it came. The schools seem to have re-opened today. The bus was a yellow-painted Sunbeam MS2B, with front overhang, and two staircases. It seemed to go very well; indeed it was a joy to ride n a trolley bus again, and some of the streets we passed through might have been in Durban or Pretoria — wide, straight tree-lined avenues, with houses set back from the road and separate from each other. Arthur pointed out a school where people from all over the world came to learn to speak
English. It stretched quite a way along the street, and then the yellow bus nose-dived down a steep hill, and we got out.
We walked through some gardens, with hundreds of people wandering around, all pink, as Englishmen seemed to look when they have been in the sun. A stream, the Bourne, ran through the middle of the gardens, with children paddling and lots of old men with military moustaches wandering about. There was also a bandstand, but the band was not playing at the moment. Then we came to the beachfront, which looked like East London, and there was a paper seller with the evening news, and the placard screaming about Verwoerd being murdered. We bought one, but there appeared to be nothing in it — and so I asked the paper seller if it was the one with the news about Verwoerd. It’s in the stop press, he said with the news about Verwoerd. It’s in the stop press, he said irritably, and went on to mutter something about having been in the place 28 years. Over the way another bloke was selling the local paper, the “Evening Echo”, and that had a more informative article, and an ironic stop press — “Verwoerd dead — official”, and underneath “No Justice” in the racing news. At 2:30 No Justice won the race, and Verwoerd was wheeled out on to the ambulance.We thought it was prophetic. There would be no justice when Vorster took over.
We walked along the beach front and sat in deck chairs and read the papers, and discussed some more. It was now just after 5:00, but the sun was still bright as we sat watching the sea with the rather treacherous-looking waves and the stony beach. There were few swimming here, and it was not surprising as there seemed to be a steeply sloping beach, and a strong undertow. A woman plonked down next to Florence, and listened in on our conversation, then said to Florence, “Did you hear about Dr Verwoerd?” “Yes, shocking, isn’t it.” A man came around to collect money for the chairs we were sitting in, and I paid him.
We sat there in the sun for quite a while chatting and looking at the sea. It was the end of an English summer, and so there was a hint of autumn in the air. But our thoughts were far away, back home in South Africa where it was the beginning of spring and I could picture the azaleas blooming in Pietermaritzburg, but politically there was a chill in the air there too, with the prospect of Vorster having unrestrained power. Verwoerd was the architect of apartheid, but Vorster was the architect of the South African police state.
About nine months earlier I had heard Verwoerd speaking at a meeting in the Pietermaritzburg City Hall. Three years earlier had had spoken there and he had had to be brought into town by a back route, to avoid student demonstrators on the main road. And when he got to the hall the stage was booby-trapped, and bags of flour rained on him and others on the podium. That was just after South Africa had become a republic, and much of the ire against him came from British Empire Loyalists, though the students demonstrated against apartheid.
In 1965, however, the Empire Loyalists had become renegades along with Ian Smith, whose UDI for Rhodesia had made headlines the day before. So Verwoerd was given a hero’s welcome by the “kith and kin” crowd, and the international media were there in force to hear what he had to say about UDI. Instead they had to listen to him speaking for two and a half hours about Sir de Villiers Graaff and the United Party. He dismissed UDI in one or two sentences: our policy is well known, he said, we do not interfere in other people’s domestic affairs.
We left the beach and rode up to the top of the hill in a funicular. The last time I has been in one one must have been when I was about 6, at Brighton Beach, near Isipingo, but it had closed long ago. I wonder if the Bournemouth funicilar is still operating 50 years later. From the top there was quite a good view over the beach, and we walked down again to the gardens.
I bought another, later edition of the Echo, which had a fuller report of the assassination splashed on the front page. “Dr Verwoerd assassinated in parliament” “Stabbed by white” it announced. The man who did it was said to be a parliamentary messenger, of Greek descent.
When we got back to Alverna House in came a chap called Arnold Hirst, priest, also from South Africa. He was from Stellenbosch, where he had just done his curacy under Canon Findley. He was stocky, thickset, smoking a pipe, with blond hair. Very much a white South African. He was quite upset by the news of the assassination — said he could just imagine the effect it would have on his parish — it seemed that hordes of them were scuttling over to support the Nats. “Hell’s delight!”, he said, and so it would be, I thought, with Vorster on the loose and unrestrained. I was to meet Atnold Hirst again six years later, in 1972, when he was rector of St Martin-in-the-Fields Anglican Church in Durban North. I was banned to Durban and had nowhere to live there, so he put me up for a few days until I could find somewhere more permanent to stay, and 18 months later invited me to join him in the parish.
We had supper, and then went upstairs, where there were two old ladies, Dr Christie and another, who were retired missionaries from India. We watched the 10 to 9 news on their television, which was mostly about the assassination, and showed pictures of Verwoerd being carried out on a stretcher. It also showed reactions of people interviewed outside South Africa House
in London; a woman who was a devoted admirer, overwrought with emotion. The men were generally against Verwoerd, but also against the assassination, except for an African who said he was overjoyed, and that it was the happiest day of his life, and wished he had done it himself. Perhaps he is not a South African, or if he is does not intend to go back there, because for those at home there is little cause for jubilation. It will be out of the frying pan, into the fire, with little doubt.
At 10:20 pm we went up again to see the 24 hours programme, which was very good, including interviews with Joe Matthews and Bloke Modisane, and also a guy from the SABC, who made no secret of South Africa’s intention to take over the protectorates. We wondered if Leabua Jonathan (Prime Minister of Lesotho) and Verwoerd had discussed plans for the Anschluss when they met the previous week, and perhaps that was what Oom Henk was about to speak about when he was killed. Now we shall never know — at least not from his lips. There was also a slimy gent from the South African Foundation — a slimy businessman, who obviously didn’t care how many people were in jail, as long as his business keeps booming.
I hadn’t gone to Bournemouth to talk about the assassination of Dr Verwoerd, however, but rather to spend some time with Arthur and Florence Blaxall, and this blog post is really about them. The assassination just happened to be the main topic of conversation that day. Arthur Blaxall was my mentor in Christian pacifism, and I hope one day someone will write his story. Perhaps this can be a small contribution towards it.