The Erasure of Dulcie September

South African activist Dulcie September would have turned 84 today had she not been assassinated in March 1988. The podcast series They Killed Dulcie revisits the murder and her legacy.

Robben Island / Mayibuye Archive.

On March 29, 1988, Dulcie September, the Chief Representative of the ANC for France, Luxembourg and Switzerland, took the elevator to ANC’s fourth floor office in 28 Rue des Petites Écuries in the center of Paris. As she opened the door, she was shot five times in the head with a silenced 22. calibre rifle. Her murder has never been solved and September is not a household name in South Africa. Neither of those things are coincidental.

Dulcie September grew up in Athlone on the Cape Flats in Cape Town. Apartheid would only become official policy years later, but racial segregation was already deeply entrenched. Her father was a school principal, but also, as Michael Arendse, Dulcie’s nephew says, “… an abusive man.” Dulcie stood up to him and eventually had to leave her childhood home. She became a teacher and an activist, eventually joining the newly formed National Liberation Front. The NLF worked to organize black South Africans (what they termed non-white South Africans) in the struggle against imperialism and for political freedom. It was mainly a call for unity against oppressive institutions.

In October 1963, the security police arrested Dulcie for her NLF activities. Dulcie spent six years in jail where she experienced mental and physical abuse at the hands of the authorities. Three years after her release, she left South Africa for London. Here, she joined the ANC, already banned in South Africa and operating from exile and eventually moved up the ranks to become the chief representative in the Paris office.

The relationship between South Africa and France has been a long and complicated one. The first contact between South Africa and France was in 1671 when the Dutch allowed Huguenots (French settlers claiming religious persecution in France) to settle at the Cape Colony. This population was integrated into the local white community.

During apartheid, France and major French corporations were some of the most loyal supporters of South African apartheid government. French companies quickly became the second largest suppliers of arms to South Africa.

There was some pushback from within both France and South Africa against these oppressive ties. In 1965 representatives from the French and South African communist parties had a meeting, where solidarity was discussed. However, the French government continued to support South African’s repression by supplying arms.

At the end of 1983 Dulcie was appointed chief ANC representative in Paris. Then, between 1986 and 1987, September became involved in an anti-apartheid movement called the Albertini Affair, which angered and embarrassed both the French and South African government. (A French national, Pierre Andre Albertini, on an exchange program at Fort Hare University, had become politically involved in South Africa. He was arrested. September, as ANC representative, became a vocal activist for his release and insisted France refuse to accept South Africa’s new ambassador unless Albertini was released. Neither the French nor South African governments were very comfortable with the attention this brought to their close relations.)

One year later, in March 1988, Dulcie was murdered. She was 52-years old.

At the time she was murdered, Dulcie was beginning to understand, how powerful networks involving European banks, arms companies across the world, shipping companies and middlemen made fortunes arming apartheid in violation of a mandatory UN-embargo. What all these actors have in common, is that none of them have been held to account to any meaningful degree. This is detailed researcher Hennie van Vuuren’s book Apartheid Guns and Money: tale of profit, which is the starting point of the podcast.

A single, but telling example, is the French arms company Thompson CSF, which was heavily involved in the illegal arms trade with South African during apartheid. Later, the company changed its name to Thales. To this day Thales is part of the corruption case against former South Africa President Jacob Zuma stemming from the 1999 arms deal. A deal that was not only mired in corruption, but also meant that the ANC government spent billions of Rand on weapons the country did not need. Weapons often bought from the same companies and people who had armed their opponents during the struggle.

In South Africa, there are no statues of Dulcie September, no airports or grand boulevards named after her. This is in spite of the fact that she was the highest ranking ANC-official ever to be killed outside of Southern Africa. In part, the podcast series is an investigation of why she has not become the icon her career and sacrifice would suggest. Of course, there is no simple answer to this, but on the day she could have turned 84, it is worthwhile to consider a couple of factors.

Firstly, it is Women’s Month in South Africa. For many, it is also an opportunity to highlight how South Africa’s policy of non-sexism continues to fail when for example three women die by the hands of their partner every day. This tragically mirrors the experience of woman freedom fighters who not only experienced violence and sexual abuse at the hands of the security forces, but also from their own comrades. As former MK-commander and current speaker of the South African Parliament Thandi Modise has argued, women were not only discriminated against during the struggle, but also in its history, where especially the armed struggle has been largely recounted from a male centric perspective.

This silencing of women’s role in the struggle is undoubtedly part of the reason for the erasure of Dulcie September. Archival documents show, how she always spoke up against gender based discrimination both outside and within her movement. But it is not the only reason. Beyond her duties as chief representative, we know that Dulcie September was investigating the illegal arms trade between South Africa and Europe during apartheid. Much of trade was coordinated through the South African embassy in Paris. Before Dulcie September was assassinated, she reported she was being watched and feared an attempt on her life. In spite of this, she never received protection from neither the French authorities or the ANC.

Remembering Dulcie September is not only an inconvenient reminder of past and present gender based discrimination. It is also a reminder of the seamless way some ANC leaders entered into corrupt relationships with the very people arming the murderers of their comrades. The cost of erasing Dulcie September and others like her, is not only the billions that could have been spent on a society in dire need. It is also the opportunity to accurately understand the past in order to improve the future. And, of course, justice.

Further Reading

Long live Ruth First

The great South African writer and activist, Ruth First, was assassinated by a letter bomb sent by the South African Security Police in Maputo, Mozambique on this day, 17 August, in 1982.