An inconvenient person: Remembering Dulcie September

Cape Flats woman who was assassinated in March 1988 defied the totalitarian control of her father and the state

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Photo of memorial plaque in Paris for Dulcie September
Anti-apartheid activist Dulcie September was shot dead on 29 March 1988 in Paris. The above plaque is in the city of Nantes. Photo: Wikipedia user WhisperToMe (public domain)

This is an edited and shortened version of a presentation at Cosatu Western Cape’s National Women’s day event at Community House on 9 August.

When I think of Dulcie September, I think of loyalty. Loyalty to her cause, to a higher goal, not only to an organisation or party. Loyalty in the face of great sacrifice. A fallen soldier’s tale. That’s what Dulcie’s story means to me.

She was born in August, an auspicious month for struggle iconography in South Africa. The Women’s March occurred 60 years ago, a march we commemorate nationally on in August. And the United Democratic Front (UDF), which united South Africans in mass political action in the 1980s, was launched on 20 August in Rockland Civic Centre in Mitchells Plain 30 years ago.

Christened September, a calendar name revealing her slave origins, perhaps her ancestor might have been acquired in this month, or perhaps he or she was indentured labour with seasonal employment. September is the planting season.

I feel I know her, have always known her. Like me she was born on the Cape Flats. She grew up in Gleemoor, where my beloved eldest son now lives, a small estate along Thornton Road, where I grew up with my siblings. Today, on Thornton Road there is a monument commemorating the Trojan Horse massacre in 1985, when armed police hid themselves in a delivery truck and fired upon boycotting high school students stoning the passing traffic during a stay-away.

She went to Athlone high school, like I did in the late 60s and early 70s. The school is right opposite what used to be my ouma’s little council house in Silvertown, on the corner of Durant and Calendula Road. She did her teacher training at Wesley Training College, where my father taught, where I and my siblings went to the practising school, opening each school morning to a ringing Lutheran rendition of the Lord’s Prayer.

Later she completed her teacher training at Battswood Teacher’s College. Both colleges are closed now. Battswood used to be right opposite the home of my younger son, the family home of his father.

So how could I not feel I know her? She walked the same streets, ate her jam or peanut butter sandwiches in the same playgrounds, visited Gleemoor library for her fortnightly supply of books like I did, learned dance and movement on the Oregon pine floors of Wesley’s gym hall.

She was murdered at 53, in Paris. I remember being 53 years. Six years on, I still feel vital, still have a mission to accomplish, still have so much to learn, so much to say. She was robbed of this, of making any further contribution. Several streets, schools and squares in France are named after her. 

Like me, she had an authoritarian father of high social standing – he a pastor, mine a teacher. And like me she knew the visceral terror, the loneliness of defying the all-powerful Meneer. I feel an understanding, a shared characteristic which left her unable to just keep her head down and obey. Before her country exiled her, her father did, expelling her as a teenager from her home. Against the trend of the time, liberation came early to her, perhaps taking refuge in the homes of kinder authority figures, aunts, teachers and poets. I wonder if they ever forgave each other, if perhaps her father approached her years later, out of longing for her, missing her, with a peace offering she could not refuse, as my father did. I hope she felt the joy of that forgiveness, before she died.

I try to imagine signing a pledge to leave Cape Town and never come back. To board a ship knowing you will never see your home, sister, mother, friends, comrades, lovers again. This is what she did, what they all did, the political exiles of the 60s and 70s. Such courage, such sadness, such determination that must have taken.

Dulcie started her political activity in the Unity movement, and when she began teaching, joined the Teachers’ League of SA, an organisation with close ties to the Unity Movement. Her peers were my teachers, some my father’s colleagues. They were a genteel group, with their mannered debates, their well pressed suits. Their pretty wives wore perfume and attended the political meetings. Not like most of the wives in our neighbourhood, who stayed home with the children, while their men roamed the neighbourhood at weekends, playing darts and dominoes in each other’s backyard sheds, drinking brandy and coke.

Occasionally the neighbourhood wives did venture out with their husbands as couples, like bright flamingos in their form fitting, flared, floral party dresses, to weddings, engagements and twenty firsts, which mostly ended in fistfights. Some, in lesser plumage also went to Sunday church services and funerals as couples. Many went alone, with their children, mothers and aunts. You hardly saw their menfolk.

Dulcie joined APDUSA, preferring its programme to the Unity Movement. When the organisation split, she was part of a caucus that brought the best of both sides together. I like the thought of that, that she rose above the inner party segmentation. It did not last though. She became part of the guerrilla faction, with Neville Alexander. They formed the YU CHI CHAN Club which transformed itself into the National Liberation Front. A small group, they soon came to the attention of the police and were all arrested. Dulcie went to prison from 1964 to 1969. When released, she was issued with a banning order.

Those who were under banning orders could not leave their home for any social or family activity. There were a restricted number of people who could be in the same room with them.

Blacks and coloureds under banning orders did not have access to the kind of resources of their white counterparts. I saw a film of Braam Fischer, with photographs of the house pool and the parties he and his wife hosted while he was banned. Not for Dulcie. I know the size and shape of the Gleemoor and Crawford houses. We had to boil our bath water on the kitchen stove and carry it through the passage to the tiny bathroom and toilet.

The Cape Flats was wide and bleak in the late 60s. You could get around during the day, take a bus to most places, but in the first generation ownership houses flanking Thornton Road no-one went anywhere at night. It was different in Silvertown, where my Ouma stayed. There the streets were alive with people walking and even children playing into the dark night. Some nights, even after everyone had retired and the houses were dark, you could hear the sound of the gangsters calling each other to arms with a chilling Uuuuuuuuhup! Uuuuuuuuhup!

Few people had cars. But every house had some kind of entertainment: a dart board, a ring board, a kerum board, a chess set, two decks of cards, snakes and ladders - unless you came from a very religious sect which regarded these as the tools of the devil. If you had money, you had a radio, if you had a little more, a record player, or a combined radio and record player in a pine or imbuia cabinet with the speakers on each side. Then you would need more money to buy the records – the seven singles or the Long Playing LPs. To avoid more expense you would have to nurse your needle carefully and look after your records to avoid scratches. I wonder if she had a record player in her bedroom prison.

I’m sure she had books. That’s what we all had. That’s what the Unity Movement & TLSA teachers inculcated into their ranks and their pupils, the future generations, the fighters to come. Read, learn, speak out. Although, when they eventually did fight in the 1980s and 90s, few of those generations fought under the Unity movement banner. They became the intelligentsia, somewhat insular, pronouncing their analysis and solutions from the height of their authority as teachers, school inspectors, heads of schools and departments. We labelled them ‘armchair revolutionaries’. The workers overtook their lead in the struggle, and the popular frontism of the UDF had greater appeal to the radical, multi-racial youth of the 1980s.

Dulcie left for London in 1973, accompanied on the boat by police, a one way ticket out of South Africa. I imagine her first experience in London. I too visited London for the first time in my 30s, never having been too far away from the Cape flats, never having eating out of my home in a café or restaurant because we did not have any in our neighbourhood, and the ones in the city were not for coloureds. Imagine walking in a huge city filled with strangers, knowing it is unlikely you will ever encounter anyone who knows you, your family or your neighbourhood.

She met with friends of the anti-apartheid movement and soon committed herself to serving the movement. She joined the ANC serving in the Women’s League, then as an international spokesperson, then as their chief representative in France, Switzerland & Luxembourg. Based in France, she supported the communist and socialist parties.

Although hosted by the French, she still could not keep her head down or her voice silent. She spoke up and campaigned against the French government’s national and foreign policies. She advocated for sanctions against South Africa and shamed them for their relations with the apartheid state. She worked hard to raise international outrage against the death sentences of the Sharpeville Six, who were plucked randomly from photographs of the crowd in the mob murder of the deputy-mayor of Sharpeville and charged under the dreadful doctrine of “common purpose”.

She was murdered in 1988, while collecting the mail before opening the office in Paris. That’s the terrible thing about death: we all know it’s coming, but no one can imagine it taking you today, while performing the most mundane of activities, like collecting the office post. I try to imagine her last thoughts, having collapsed from those fatal shots. I wonder if death was immediate, or whether there were some moments before her death, when its imminence superseded the simple list of chores which occupied her mind opening the office. When she flashed back to the highlights of a life well lived, a movement built which would live and triumph after her.

Nobody knows who killed her. The Truth Commission, the release of apartheid secret records: all reveal nothing. It seems unlikely. It makes one suspect a conspiracy, an attempt to prevent the discovery of uncomfortable truths, connections, people. Who can tell? Those were the years of ‘total onslaught’, following the declaration of a state of emergency. The South African government was doing terrible things to inconvenient people like Dulcie. They had made inroads into many anti-apartheid structures. they dealt with inconvenient people with ruthless efficiency.

It is how I think of her, as an inconvenient woman. Defying the totalitarian control of her father, she was banished from her family home. Breaking the forced silence of the oppressed, she was jailed, banned and exiled from her country. Picking up the gauntlet in Europe, she fought for her cause on multiple issues from children’s rights, to workers’ rights, to human rights, to the unfair abuse of a judiciary which could sentence a random pensioner couple, amongst others, to death for mob Justice. She threatened South Africa’s foreign relations and was once again silenced through the ultimate act of terror – assassination.

Through her untimely death, her courage and her loyalty, she personifies extraordinary sacrifice. I salute her loyalty to her principles, to her, my, our cause. I mourn her untimely death. I long for the truth to emerge, for those responsible to be named, to be punished.

The author thanks SA History Online for information for this article.

Views expressed are not necessarily GroundUp’s. A correction was made to the sentence about streets and squares in France named after Dulcie September.

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Dear Editor

Please notice that the picture of the street sign was shot in the city of Nantes, not in Paris.
Thanks for your attention.

Paris never named a Place Dulcie September.

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