Anti-apartheid activism

Commemorating anti-apartheid activist Dulcie September’s assassination

By Léonard Cortana

Posted on April 5, 2023 05:59

Screenshot 2023-03-31 at 11.54.57 Dulcie September in Paris on 17 August 1985 during the MRAP conference on South Africa. © PIERRE VERDY/AFP
Dulcie September in Paris on 17 August 1985 during the MRAP conference on South Africa. © PIERRE VERDY/AFP

On 29 March 1988, anti-apartheid activist Dulcie September was murdered in the middle of Paris. Great efforts have been taken to ensure that people forget about this mysterious crime, from dismissing the case to refusing to reopen the investigation. However, there are also many people who have taken up the challenge of bringing this historic figure back to life.

Dulcie September, who was the African National Congress (ANC) representative in Paris, was shot several times in the head in the spring of 1988 in the heart of the French capital, 35 years ago.

Thousands of demonstrators took to the streets and a crowd of more than 20,000 people from around the world accompanied the anti-apartheid activist to her final resting place on 9 April.

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Since then, nothing, or almost nothing, has happened. It was as if the mechanism to erase this historical figure had gradually been set in place, despite her family and friends’ resistance.

As a result, the French justice system decided to close the file on her assassination in 1992.

Then, in December 2022, it rejected the family’s request to reopen the investigation, arguing that the case was time-sensitive.

September’s relatives argued that her murder was a crime of apartheid, and therefore a crime against humanity, which is by its nature not subject to any statute of limitations.

An appeal process is currently underway, but September’s murder remains one of the most mysterious criminal cases of the apartheid years. The mere mention of her name provokes embarrassment and her relatives continue to suspect that she was denied justice.

Re-memorisation projects

Many are determined not to see September disappear from memory.

In fact, the fight against her erasure began as early as July 1996, when Nelson Mandela, then the new president of South Africa, made an official visit to France. Shaking up protocol, he began his trip in the activist’s host city, Arcueil, where he paid her a vibrant tribute. Today, online communities, especially the “digital black diaspora”, are increasing the number of re-visibilisation projects on digital platforms.

Whether they are called alternative visual archives or counter-memories, such projects aimed at shedding a light on historical figures who are not well known – or who have literally been erased from history – provide another perspective on the struggle for human rights. The internet has become a space where a different history is told than the one written in textbooks, and where new generations can exchange views regarding the work of those who carry out these sensitive projects.

One of these projects is Murder in Paris, a documentary by South African director Enver Samuel. It was released in the midst of the Covid-19 pandemic and accompanied by an impact campaign aimed at “de-identifying” the figure of September, particularly in schools and on social media.

In a story that spans South Africa, France, England and Switzerland, Samuel brings together numerous witnesses who celebrate the South African activist’s political commitment from a very young age, her years in prison and her courage when she went into exile. Internet users say that knowing her story allows them to think about her assassination in a completely different way.

Her murder took place at a time when European countries were becoming aware that the apartheid regime was running out of steam, weakened by sanctions and the growing mobilisation of civilian populations throughout the world.

There was perhaps an urgency to remove September so that she would never have the opportunity to experience the post-apartheid world. But the hashtags #justicepourdulcie #mercidulcie #rememberdulcieseptember on social media have given online visibility to this victim of apartheid who was murdered a decade before the internet become commonplace.

This campaign emphasises the need to not reduce September to the dark story of her mysterious assassination because by doing so, one risks contributing to the erasure of her existence by forgetting her work.

Thinking heads

In order to take part in this movement to commemorate September, photographer Ghanwa Rana and I launched the project September in March, in partnership with the Fusion collective.

Supported by the Délégation Interministérielle à la Lutte contre le Racisme, l’Antisémitisme et la Haine anti-LGBT, it brings together students who are completing their final year of high school at Maryse-Condé de Sarcelles.

The aim is for them to take ownership of the South African woman’s story and to reflect on how her work resonates with the struggles they want to wage. In a series of workshops, the students delved into the archives of the anti-apartheid struggle, September becoming a link between the 1980s and 2023.

I had already done this type of work in a different way with my students at the University of Santa Barbara in California. We created the podcast Dulcie Lives On, a five-part series about the urgent need to fight against the erasure of great historical figures. On 29 March, we presented the Sarcelles students’ work and the film Murder in Paris, followed by a debate with the director.

September deserves to be rehabilitated in various ways. Her family and friends rightly insist on fair justice. This quest for justice must, however, go hand in hand with ensuring that her life forms part of the general history of the struggle against apartheid.

Just like other women exiles, Ruth First and Jeanette Schoon, for example, who also paid with their lives for their commitment to the cause and whose names remain largely unknown both in South Africa and outside the country.

Like First and Schoon, September fought many battles. At the same time as she was investigating European multinationals that were not respecting the UN embargo against the Pretoria regime, she was denouncing women’s ill treatment within the ANC itself.

All of these women deserve the same interest in their intellectual output as their male counterparts. Far from being mere rally organisers, they were also leaders of militant movements.

Léonard Cortana is a doctoral student at New York University and researcher at the Berkman Flein Center at Harvard.

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