Jay Naidoo: Remembering assassinated anti-apartheid activist Dulcie September – unanswered questions and an enduring legacy

By Jay Naidoo

Words are not enough now, action is needed and the fate of millions of people depends on what you will do or what you will not do. Dulcie September – Save the Sharpeville Six Rally. March 17 March 1988

These words were spoken just more than a week before March 29th, when Dulcie September was brutally murdered by an assassin who emptied five rounds into her head at point-blank range in the early hours of the morning as she got out of the lift to enter the ANC office in Paris. She was 52 when her dynamic life was extinguished. Almost 35 years to the day ago. 

Dulcie Evonne September was born 20 August 1935, the second eldest daughter of Jacobus and Susan September—in a designated coloured township of Athlone—her parents and siblings trapped under the suffocating inequality that existed with their neighbouring white suburbs. It was a cauldron of exclusion that birthed a social activism. Dulcie September was not a product of the political struggle. The struggle was born in Dulcie. 

Every cell screamed NO. No to the strangling of our identity. Our humanity. Our freedom. Shaped by the politics of the Western Cape, she broke through the ideological and theoretical model and into determined action to free our people. She was arrested and detained without trial at Roeland Street Prison on 7 October 1963. She was 28 years, the age of my own daughter. 

Together with nine others she was charged under the Criminal Procedure Act, the principal charge being “conspiracy to commit acts of sabotage, and incite acts of politically motivated violence” and sentenced to five years’ imprisonment, during which time she endured severe physical and psychological abuse. 

On her release in April 1969, the Pretoria regime controlled her activities with an additional five-year banning order which prohibited her from engaging in political activity and from practising her profession as a teacher.

It was a dead end. What could she do? House arrested. Harassed. Cut off from public contact. Politics meant detention, prison or at worse disappearance. People were afraid. Too afraid to talk, let alone challenge an “invincible” apartheid government that was supported by the most powerful western countries in the world. That’s the fear and coercion I see again in the world. And the usual tools and ridicule, demonisation and censorship that we saw in those dark days.

She left on a one-way permit. But we did not lose a true daughter and patriot of our beautiful country. She stepped right back into the greatest global mass movement of the 20th century—building people to people solidarity. The objective—isolating and tightening the noose of economic sanctions to pressurise the white minority government into releasing Nelson Mandela, all political prisoners, unbanning all banned organisations and sitting around a table to begin negotiations. 

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Dulcie September, “die meisie” from Athlone, was now a global figure, at the coalface again. Courageous. Fierce in her beliefs. She revelled in that role. She crisscrossed France, travelling to the smallest villages, raising awareness to what was happening in South Africa. She was an untiring organiser. And today there are more than forty places across France that recognise the enduring spirit and perseverance of Dulcie September by naming important places after her, squares, streets and parks. People held her and our struggle in their hearts and souls.

Dulcie faced the powerful across the barricades and in the corridors of power. She was respected by many. But feared by the few. And when she raised the red flags about the murky shadows of the arms industry, it would have touched the nerves of dangerous people. 

And strangely the French Government then under the Socialist Party, led by President Mitterrand, had invited a cross section of South Africans to Paris to encourage dialogue to a peaceful transition. I remember as part of that trip and being on a two-week passport and attending a memorial at the Paris office to honour Dulcie September. And experiencing the wrenching fear that her assassination was not the last. And there would be many more sacrifices. And they were, including Chris Hani.

Today, 35 years later, there are more questions than ever that we need to answers about the slaying of our ANC Chief Representative in Paris. Our beautiful Dulcie September with a sparkle in her eyes. We know she was gathering evidence of an illegal arms trade and breaking the sanctions embargo between South Africa and France, while continuing her indefatigable work to strengthen sanctions.  

What did this courageous anti-Apartheid activist know that South African and French governments didn’t want the world to find out? Who gave the order to have her killed? Why was very little effort made by local and international authorities to find her killer?

The documentary on her life, “Murder in Paris”, released in 2021, is a captivating window into the murky world of intelligence agencies, the underhand covert dealings of our governments and the global web of assassins and mercenaries for hire. But it also shows Dulcie the revolutionary freedom fighter. A grassroots activist. A principled intellectual and formidable servant leader who was not afraid to rock the boat within the movement itself which suffered from a masculinity that bordered on sexism. 

When she raised her fears of being followed and monitored, she was described as hysterical and a bit of a drama queen. Not to be taken too seriously. Her fears dismissed by her peers were justified. And this form of patriarchy I see rising again in South Africa. Alongside racism, tribalism and narrow nationalism that goes against the entire grain of our heroic liberation struggle. I see the polarization of political debate. The divisiveness and political opportunism we last saw in the bloody and turbulent eighties. And as an Elder I am worried.

But Dulcie, the aunt, the daughter also found the time to stay in touch with family and friends she had left behind in South Africa. She had a big heart. She cared for children, for people. And they embraced her passion. She wrote letters because in an era where there were no mobile phones, emails and WhatsApp. No social media to stay in touch. Everything had to be recorded by hand. It was painstaking. Frustrating work. And lonely even in a bustling western capital. 

The September family yearns for justice and closure on her murder. But so do many families in South Africa. We know this from the proceedings of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission which found that over 20,000 people had been victims of gross human rights abuses. We know that over 5000 amnesty applications were refused. All of these families are also crying out for justice. 

We owe these families an answer. We owe it to tell the stories of what happened to our activists and communities. We need to learn these lessons so that we don’t repeat our mistakes. We were all wounded. Even today. Whether it was a wound of superiority or a wound of inferiority, that wound still festers. 

South Africa has always placed an emphasis on reconciliation rather than Nuremburg trials, prosecution and retribution. It was guided within a framework which incorporated the truth, reparation and forgiveness. We still need to see much of that happen. As in Dulcie September’s case, there are thousands of families who want closure based on the Truth. And the Truth and Reconciliation Commission while opening the door to the past injustice was just the first step towards healing our nation and forging a new identity. 

Many like Dulcie September’s family will not see restorative justice because the truth is hidden under a veil of state held secrecy. That means even the “imperfect” meeting of the perpetrator and the family does not occur. And no healing of the bloody wound of the past takes place. And while the powerful live in affluence, corruption triumphs and our social fabric strains as political vultures descend on a decaying economy that does not meet even the basic needs we affirmed in 1994. 

This is the wound that South Africa faces. From the half-hearted efforts to address the dispossession of the land of the majority to the transformation of our economy. The access to pathways of hope and opportunity for black youth are still largely closed and hunger, poverty and inequality remain the deadly burden of the black majority. 

When we see over half the youth of the country leave twelve years of education with very few skills, no job and unlikely to have a job in their lifetime, then I ask whether our democracy is again just working for a few as in our past. Can it be legitimate when it continues to exclude the majority?

Many of our dreams and goal of eradicating the legacy of apartheid have been stillborn because we lack political will and ethical commitment that Dulcie epitomised. Our SA Constitution remains a noble document on paper. Its preamble that we, “Heal the divisions of the past and establish a society based on democratic values, social justice and fundamental human rights and improve the quality of life of all citizens and free the potential of each person,” is a deferred promise. And our revolution is still incomplete.

Greed and corruption have seized our nation at all levels. It’s become about I, me and Myself. The individualism, competitiveness and intolerance are growing. It is drowning out rational debate, the basic principles and cornerstone of democracy—the freedom of speech, assembly, association and protest. 

After 29 years of freedom, we have to ask ourselves what were we fighting for? What did Dulcie September die for? What are we fighting for now? How do we restore the human values of service and volunteerism again that inspired my generation of 1976? And generations before. 

The servant leadership of the Mandela Generation has been flung out of the window. And now in this political parody we seek to point a finger at our founding father, Nelson Mandela, and make him a scapegoat of the many lapses of leadership currently within the ranks of the oldest liberation movement in Africa. A movement that Dulcie September and many of you present here or your parents were a part of. 

If we want to celebrate the sacrifices of Dulcie September, Steve Biko or Chris Hani and Ruth First we should find not just those who pulled the trigger but unmask the sinister hand of the “Deep State,” we know that exists today that is deeply embedded in compromised political leadership in many parts of the world. 

The more I think about the moment we face today the more I understand why we are all born for this moment, just as Dulcie September was born for hers. We are the generation standing at the edge of the precipice of an ecological cataclysm that endangers the future of unborn generations. 

We are seeing a world teetering not only on the edge of conventional war but with a hovering threat of nuclear one. Throw into that toxic mix pandemics, poverty and inequality and new tyrannies of the powerful overlords of affluence globally and we have a veritable global “Molotov Cocktail,” ready to implode humanity. We are facing a civilizational challenge—our world is changing in every way around our eyes. Economies, businesses, families, communities and nations tearing apart. 

In South Africa how quickly we have forgotten the towering influence of our founding father, Nelson Mandela. Across the arc of his life, he represented the epitome of abiding humility and servant leadership. His opening address in Cape Town on the day of his release, after 27 years was what he represented, both privately and publicly,’ I stand here before you not as a prophet, but as a humble servant of you, the people.’

That wisdom, commitment and humility of the Mandela Generation is what inspired Dulcie September till her last breath. Like it inspired millions of South Africans and the global anti-apartheid movement of citizens to stand up and take action against apartheid.

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I am grateful to Freedom Park, to the award-winning South African filmmaker and director Enver Samuel who produced the chilling documentary on Dulcie, Murder in Paris, and the superb work of Dutch investigative journalist Evelyn Groenink attempting to find answers. I am even more deeply grateful to Michael Arendse and the whole September family that continue to push for justice and carry the torch of freedom that Dulcie September lit.

Alongside all of you I reiterate the demand that the investigation be reopened. And the South African Government should lead the charge. We want the diaries and documents that were seized and sealed by the French police to be returned to her family and be available for scrutiny. This is the least we could do for Dulcie September. And perhaps it will be a thread that will lead us back to that original sin of the Arms Deal and open the can of worms we all want to know about.

This is why we owe Dulcie September and the generations of sacrifice made by honest and brave comrades across the first resistance to slavery, colonization and the heresy of the apartheid period of our beautiful country. These are the lessons of intergenerational learning. 

We need to sit around the baobab tree again. We have no messiah to turn to. No Mandela. No September. Let us find that Madiba and that Dulcie in our hearts. Many of us are Elders today. We carry many scars of past battles. I remember in my younger days reading Sun Tzu, the Chinese military general, strategist, philosopher and writer said in his sterling book The Art of War from nearly two and a half thousands years ago, “The greatest victory is that which requires no battle.”

Let us be wise again. As we have been before. Dulcie September gave her life for the truth. She died because she was lifting the veil of the lies and deception behind politics, power and money. She was fearless even as she stood, often alone, in her life. Surrounded by a small group of trusted confidantes all of whom feared for her safety.

Dulcie ultimately fought for peace. Peace of mind, peace in the heart, peace in the families, peace in the communities, peace in the countries and peace in the world. What would she say today that of the biggest parts of that global economy is that very same murky underworld she was investigating. 

Do we honestly need an arms industry? Each bullet that is made, sold or fired is no sense. How can we transition from this hardwired paradigm to one that Dulcie September was a victim of to a world at peace with itself? Where we dialogue, rise above our differences and our constituencies like we have done before in our country. Let us temper our sword of anger and build the ploughshares on our common fertile ground. 

So as an Elder I would appeal to you, the next generation, to find your voice, your unity and agency and your destiny. I have made many mistakes. And like many others in our history, from the known to the millions of unknown heroes and heroines, we tried to do our best. 

Let us set aside our weapons. Weapons of words. Weapons of censorship. Weapons of intolerance. Weapons of hate. We have done that in our past. In the political miracle that was birthed in 1994. With all its imperfections, it is still our democracy. We don’t want to go back to the past. 

All we need is the truth. Transparency. Accountability. Ethical leadership of all those who hold positions of power. In government, business, labour and civil society. In families, in religion and in communities. We need good governance and common sense. 

Then the sacrifices Dulcie September made would not be in vain. It would rekindle hope. It would blow in the breeze of a renewal. One of vision and solidarity. And when we all stand up as citizens and say that we stand in our truth we have democracy because the government knows we are awake and informed. 

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The Dulcie September message of hope will ring in our ears, be carried by the gentle breeze, across the murmuring water and nurture the wisdom of the generations to come who will build a mycelium of self-replicating endeavours that are a million small boats that lift us South Africans out of the morass of self-inflicted pain and wounding into an individual and collective healing and fundamental transformation of our magnificent country.

In her own words, “And in the distance we can hear sounds of steadily running feet, steadfast feet, steady feet. And we know that these sounds that we hear are the sounds of those who are going to eradicate all this ugliness. These sounds that we hear are drawing nearer and nearer. They are getting very close, drawing closer and closer. And the sun creeps over the horizon, adding long silhouettes to the sounds of the steady running feet.” Dulcie September—Fast Sounds on the Horizon

That is also my prayer as an Elder. A grandfather. And a humanist.

Jay Naidoo

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