'Your father has just shot Verwoerd'
After David Pratt shot prime minister Hendrik Verwoerd at the Rand Easter Show in 1960, his daughter’s life changed forever. In her memoir, Susie Cazenove recounts the drama that erupted when her father became an enemy of the state
'Darling," Gordie said, "there is no easy way to tell you this. It's about your father. He has just shot Verwoerd in the President's Box at the Show."
I stared at him in shock.
"Oh my God," I said. "Is he dead?"
"No. The bullet went through his cheek and lodged in his neck. He has had a miraculous escape and is in hospital."
My stepfather's voice was compassionate but he sounded worried. I slumped back in my chair, horrified.
It was 9 April 1960, a clear sunny afternoon, and Dr Hendrik Verwoerd, South Africa's prime minister, was attending the opening ceremony of the annual Rand Easter Show.
We learned later that Verwoerd had made a speech prior to viewing the prize-winning cattle in the arena, which concluded with the following words uttered in his high-pitched voice: "We shall become nobody's corpse, we shall fight for our existence and we shall survive."
He turned from the prize bull he had been admiring and made his way up to the President's Box to sit and watch the animals parade around the arena. Within moments of his arriving in the box my father got up from his seat nearby and, with no warning, walked up and shot Verwoerd on the right side of his face.
Pandemonium erupted. Security men grabbed Daddy and hustled him down the stand into the nearest police car. Blood was pouring down Verwoerd's face, but he was alive. A stretcher was rushed up the steps above the heads of the bewildered crowds, who were surging around the stands, trying to see what had happened.
Within moments the stretcher rapidly descended, carrying Verwoerd to a waiting car. A crowd of Verwoerd's Afrikaans supporters swarmed around the vehicle in front of the Members' Pavilion, shouting angrily and aggressively at the English-speaking Rand Show membership.
Immediately after the shooting, the President of the Rand Show announced over the loudspeaker that Dr Verwoerd had been shot and was on the way to hospital. He said everyone should leave as the Show would now be closed for the day.
The car had raced to a hospital in Pretoria with a cavalcade of escort vehicles, their sirens screaming all the way there. The route to Pretoria took them down Oxford Road, just moments away from our house.Daddy, whose driver had taken him from his farm in the Magaliesberg on a day trip to the Rand Show with his farm manager and two teenage sons of a friend, was now being held at Marshall Square Police Station in downtown Johannesburg.He couldn't say whyThe morning after that fateful Saturday afternoon, Gordie got permission for me to visit my father at the police station. Thank goodness he came with me, for it was a depressing, dark and dismal place.We were ushered into a miserable little barred room, where Daddy was waiting for us. He looked dishevelled, tired and bewildered. The top button of his shirt was undone and he apologised for not wearing a tie; they had taken it away from him, he said. One ear and the side of his face were caked in dried blood. I thought he had been beaten but he assured us he had not. He said the injuries were slight and had happened when they had bundled him into the police van.He was completely unable to tell us why he had shot Verwoerd. It was as if he was unaware of what he had done. He kept repeating that the country had to be rid of the man who was going to bring such strife and unhappiness.Reporters from the local newspapers started to hound us. After a quick family conference, we decided to say nothing whatsoever to the press - in fact, we had nothing to say to them - but we would do so politely. We didn't want my little sister Jessica, then aged ten, to be upset or worried in any way, but she was actually quite excited by all the drama.We made a game of dealing with the press, giving one another marks out of ten for the way we treated them. Most of us, including my sister, got eight or nine out of ten, but our mother was hopeless. We gave her two out of ten, because she was far too chatty and friendly and in the end we had to stop her from answering the door.Our telephone was tapped over the next few days. You could hear the little click and a slightly hollow sound. I can't blame the police for tapping the line. They were frantically trying to discover whether there was a conspiracy or some covert group they did not know about, bent on destroying the government and to which they felt my father must belong.They were completely baffled when absolutely nothing could be found, no conspiracy or underground group that he belonged to whatsoever. It had been the action of one lone man.At the time, none of us could have known that my father's fate was sealed. I discovered in 2015 that Verwoerd had had a private meeting with the senior psychiatrist at Weskoppies Psychiatric Hospital and had told him to ensure that David Pratt was detained in a mental prison and disappeared.A message for every person in SAJudge Rumpff had allowed Daddy to speak to the court even though it had been decided to send him for mental observation.We have never found the transcript of the court case, but going through various versions of the speech he gave in court on September 13 1960, I noticed that much of it was muddled and out of context as well as being very selective in what he said about his previous few years.After weeks of being on his own in prison, he wrote only what he wished to say. He did, however, describe his mood swings and mentioned spending time in Tara Hospital, where he had been given injections. I wonder what drugs they were giving him.He had come back from a long visit to Europe and, among other things, was very upset at seeing vanloads of detained persons, including women prisoners.He said: "On my arrival in Cape Town, I was horrified at the disintegration that had taken place in South Africa. There was a sense of hopelessness on people's faces. The stinking monster of apartheid was gripping the throat of South Africa and preventing South Africa from achieving her rightful place among the nations."But in the final paragraphs published in the Rand Daily Mail the day after the hearing, my father excelled with his passionate plea to the people of the country he so loved to wake up and reject apartheid."Today I accept with deep humility that I am allowed to say what I myself am convinced is the message for South Africa. I don't say it of my own accord. I don't say it as David Pratt. I say it as a message for every South African: Afrikaner, English, Coloured, Indian, Bantu, Malay, every person has got to play his part if we are to build the South Africa that I know can be built."She has a great and glorious future, a glittering future waiting for her as long as she observes the basic laws of God and human beings."
The hearing was postponed until September 26, giving the psychiatrists two weeks to examine him in order to report back on his mental condition. He was sent to Weskoppies, a secure mental hospital outside Pretoria, where his epilepsy medication was taken away from him, so naturally he had a grand mal seizure, or maybe two.On September 26, Daddy was back in court, with Judge Rumpff again presiding. The court appearance did not take long. The psychiatrists made their statements about his seizures, mood swings and euphoria.They reported, "He keeps telling us that apartheid is a slimy snake gripping SA."Their conclusion was that he was clearly deranged to be having such thoughts. The doctors were part of the Afrikaans establishment, the majority of whom wholly supported apartheid. The judge did not waive the charges against him, saying that when he was well he would have to face those charges - the attempted murder of the prime minister, Dr Verwoerd.There was no specification as to how any improvement in his mental health would be followed up when the judge committed my father to a mental prison.The awful thing was that rather than having put a dent in apartheid, he had strengthened it by not killing Verwoerd, who became more and more convinced that his survival was a positive message from God.David Pratt was declared insane and committed to a psychiatric hospital in Bloemfontein. He committed suicide in October 1961 by hanging himself with a rolled-up bedsheet.