Evelyn Groenink

Dulcie September Inaugural Lecture | The Teacher Who Did Her Homework

For more than three decades, ZAM's Investigations Editor Evelyn Groenink researched the murder of Paris ANC representative Dulcie September in 1988. The complex backgrounds of this gruesome act presented in Groenink's book Incorruptible were long ignored. Until now.

Before she left for exile in 1973, Dulcie September was a school teacher. A serious one. She cared about her kids, cared so much that one of the reasons she left was that she had been banned from ever teaching in South Africa again. One of her reasons to join the struggle against apartheid had been what Bantu education was doing to her country’s children. Dulcie September never stopped being a school teacher. In exile, her syllabus became the Freedom Charter, and she would consistently remind everyone, inside and outside the ANC, what that syllabus prescribed. South Africa was to belong to all who lived in it, with learning, culture and comfort accessible to all. There were to be human rights and social justice for all. To achieve this was the task, the job, the homework, for all in the movement.

Several ANC members in exile told me how they were in awe of Dulcie September’s seriousness in that regard. She should not catch you doing a shoddy job, neglect your homework, or knocking off at four PM to go jol somewhere in a pub in London or Toronto, not when there was still unfinished business on your desk. She would give you an earful. But, as any good teacher and educator, she was sweet, too. A young employee at her office floor in Paris told me that he saw her as a mamie confiture, which loosely translates as an aunt who bakes jam tarts for you. Conny Braam, the chair of the AAM in Holland, told me that when she visited Lusaka, highly pregnant, and was part of a group travelling on the back of a truck, Dulcie held her tummy tight to protect it from all the bumping and shaking. Dulcie September cared for kids, for the young generations, for South Africa and for the struggle, and for doing your homework and delivering on the job you were tasked to do. That is probably why she would not, as another ANC diplomat once told me, close her eyes when she came across illicit military and nuclear collaboration between Paris and Pretoria, shortly before she was assassinated with five bullets in her face, in her own office in Paris, on 29 March 1988, with a lot of unfinished business on her desk.

I was part of the Anti-Apartheid Movement in Amsterdam at the time and I decided to do a story on her and the murder. I was – we all were – simply shocked. We were in Western democracies. Our governments were against apartheid. We had sanctions. How could this happen? In Paris, five hundred kilometres from Amsterdam? She was murdered in our back yard. This was our homework. I went to Paris. I did not expect that the article I then intended to write would to take me over thirty years to – almost – fully complete. But, slowly, Dulcie September’s unfinished business became mine.

It started with the weird, slowly dawning, awareness that the Paris I found in 1988 was not the Paris I had expected. France had a socialist president, François Mitterrand. We, lefties, liked him a lot. When he had been elected in 1981, a friend had brought champagne to my front door. Mitterrand was a friend of the struggle and the ANC. His wife Danielle ran a foundation called France Libertés, dedicated to human rights worldwide. Their party, the Parti Socialiste, had its own anti-apartheid movement. Surely the state of France should be on our side, and not on the side of those ‘apartheid death squads’ the papers were talking about? Why would anyone in civilised France protect die-hard white supremacist extremists who were running around shooting black activist women?

After trying for months to find these apartheid death squads, which were rumoured to be out to attack ANC members ‘everywhere in Europe’, I discovered three things. One: they did not exist. At least not in Europe, not in the way they were portrayed. Dulcie September remained, and still remains, the only ANC member ever killed in Western Europe. Two: the French police was not serious about catching the killers. They arrested some refugees, had to let them go, then did nothing after that. Three: all the newspaper reports that talked about these ‘apartheid death squads’ could be traced back to sources in the French secret services. 

Indeed, the only suspicious activity I found in the aftermath of the assassination of Dulcie September was of the French secret services. Because, as I went around in Paris asking questions, strangers became interested in me. I was photographed in the streets. Individuals wanted to ‘help’ me. My hotel room was searched, my metro card with photograph went missing. A new French magazine wanted to publish my whole story in one article, then ceased to exist after I gave it to them. It was never published. Slowly, however, a picture started to emerge. Sources close to foreign affairs dealings between France and South Africa let on that Dulcie September had been unwise to raise certain issues. ‘She was stupid, she was fighting with everybody’, a French international journalist told me. ‘Here you must have a bottle of wine and go with the flow’. One secret service report I got hold of referred to a ‘woman who had to shut up’. A source in the interior ministry admitted that the police did not, and would not, do their work in this case. Mainly thanks to her secretary at the ANC office, Joyce Tillerson, who had been cautious to talk to me at first but over time shared her former boss’s diary and occasional comments, I learned what she had had to shut up about. The school teacher who hated shoddy work had gotten wind of illegal and dangerous military nuclear collaboration between France and South Africa. She had investigated, for that was her job as she saw it: to represent the people of South Africa and keep the world away from collaborating with the apartheid regime. She had gone about it methodically. Had done her homework. Had uncovered maybe not all, but a large part of it.

It was the opposite of what her predecessor in Paris, Neo Moikangua, would have done, Moikangua told me later, explaining that investigating these things was simply not what a diplomat should do. ‘If they would show me a cupboard full of weapons’, he told me, ‘I would close the door and pretend I’d have never seen anything’.
Maybe Dulcie September was not a diplomat.

That France did not want the full extent of its nuclear interests in apartheid South Africa to be known was to be expected. What I had not expected was that the ANC itself appeared not to want to know about it. Before her death Dulcie September had phoned the London office, her liaison with headquarters, several times, increasingly worried, increasingly terrified about the pressure and intimidation on her that had increased as she went along her investigations. But her superiors had not wanted to entertain what she raised. Solly Smith, one of the heads of that office and sent to replace her after her assassination – at a time when it was becoming well known that he, Smith, was actually an apartheid agent – would later admit to me, drunk and crying, that ‘she had phoned us so many times, asked us to come to Paris, and we did not go’.

When I asked Aziz Pahad, the ANC’s main international liaison officer for Western Europe, based in London, about this, he said that ‘we thought she was a bit of a drama queen’. But that was of course not all there was to it. The late eighties were a time of changes, of intense negotiations, of talks both with Pretoria and western governments, about South Africa’s future. The ANC was about to take power. Aziz Pahad was, next to Thabo Mbeki, one of the principal negotiators for the ANC. ‘Changes, changes, changes,’ was the buzz phrase, often indeed said like that, with emphasis and plural. Amid all these changes, Dulcie September was a woman who was making trouble. She was, in fact, a woman who had to shut up.

Was it perhaps indeed a little ill-advised, to keep thinking of the struggle, the Freedom Charter, nuclear sanctions and the like, as Dulcie September kept doing, in the late eighties?  Should she maybe have shut up, now that there was power in sight? Maybe one should not alienate one’s possible allies, at a time when top posts and postings were being discussed. One needed to get to know one another, big shots in one another’s countries, needed to become big shots one selves, or at least allies and friends of big shots. There were contacts and contracts in the making, deals to be worked out. If that last bit sounds familiar in the here and now, that is intentional.

But I don’t think Dulcie September was wrong to keep worrying about all the homework that still needed to be done; also in 1988, perhaps especially in 1988, when there was still an actual war being waged on the ground in South Africa. Activists were murdered by gangsters, police, Witdoeke, Inkatha. Underground operatives were disappearing, freedom fighters were being kidnapped and murdered in Swaziland. Children were being tortured and killed in the umpteenth state of emergency. And now weapons were being developed that could eradicate an entire township. It was important to sit back and discuss what it all meant. To get the classroom in order, so to speak.

It was in that context that she wanted to engage with the ANC, her movement. But she was waved away. A bit of a drama queen.

Maybe the ones who refused to take her calls and refused to take her seriously, did not know in detail what she had discovered; they did clearly not want to know. But they would have had an inkling, because she did let on it was about arms trade: she wrote a note to Abdul Minty at the World Campaign against Military and Nuclear Collaboration, saying she had information to share. But in 1988, perhaps even something about arms was not worth the trouble. After all: those arms, like those gangsters, and those police, were going to be all ours now. As I overheard Pallo Jordan saying – typical dry, tongue in cheek at a conference in Paris a year after Dulcie September’s assassination: ‘… of course, when we are the government, we will buy your weapons’.

After she had been killed, it remained easy to simply blame apartheid death squads. It is still the easiest narrative, even now, and still the dominant one, too. ‘We were all on hitlists’, the narrative goes. ‘We were all looking over our shoulders for those agents, those murderers. Apartheid was targeting all of us’. They were bad, we were good. What the heck, we are good.

As a single story it is an exquisitely simple and useful one. If we keep pointing out how bad the enemy was, and remarkably, often apparently still is, we are automatically good. We don’t have to do anything to prove it. We can do whatever we want: jostle for positions, focus on big deals and contracts. Do trillion-rand nuclear deals with Russians. Ruin the Free State and Mpumalanga and leave people without water and medicine. So what if we knock off Friday 4 pm, or even Thursday, with unfinished business on our desks? What if we spend some time at the Saxonwold shebeen instead? As for our homework, that apartheid dog ate that too.

I imagine Dulcie September alive now. How would she respond to leaders who are fine with learners passing matric with 30 %? To police shooting students? To the looted billions that could have funded not just university bursaries, but teacher training, textbooks, roofs, water, lights and functioning toilets for schools? How would Dulcie September respond to activists being murdered when resisting polluting, exploitative projects in their communities?
I can’t help thinking that if Dulcie September were alive today, she might be killed all over again.
But I imagine her now alive, a school teacher in a class called South Africa. I imagine some of the class bullies waffling on about the struggle and the heroic ANC, while stealing others’ lunch boxes. I imagine her grabbing such bullies by the neck and telling them to bring a five-page essay on ‘How I must do my job’, tomorrow, then tasking them to make a project out of doing it. I imagine her marking them, firmly failing all those wavering around 30 %.
And I hope that others will start to imagine, and continue to imagine her, again, too.

This article is based on Evelyn Groenink’s speech given at the Dulcie September Lecture, organised on 18 March 2020, in collaboration with the Nelson Mandela Lecture.