By Stuart Dickinson
What did anti-Apartheid activist Dulcie September 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?
Nearly 35 years after September’s assassination outside ANC headquarters in Paris, these questions remain unanswered in the wake of a meticulous, calculated campaign to erase her legacy and the circumstances surrounding her death. Before an unknown gunman emptied five rounds into her, September, then chief ANC representative of Paris, was gathering evidence of an illegal arms trade between South Africa and France, while continuing her extensive work in drawing international support in the fight to end Apartheid.
On 23 February, the Wits Centre for Journalism, together with the Wits History Workshop, Wits Film and TV, and Wits Music departments, hosted a screening of Murder in Paris from award-winning South African filmmaker and director Enver Samuel, a documentary which traces the murky motives behind September’s assassination and the monumental work done by Dutch investigative journalist Evelyn Groenink in attempting to find answers.
“How many people knew the name Dulcie September before hearing about this film screening?” Samuel asks the audience.
Several hands pop up around the lecture room, but most stay down. From the lens of a journalist, filmmaker, researcher or historian, the film shows us the importance of preservation, of memorialisation, and in the case of keeping stories like September’s alive, the direct link this can have to justice and accountability.
Murder in Paris, released in 2021, is a culmination of a four-year journey undertaken by Samuel to breathe life back into September’s suppressed story and assist her family in their long fight for justice. Together with several impact campaigns that revisit history through active engagement, the documentary is making its way around the world to critical acclaim.
Senior lecturer at the Wits Centre for Journalism, Dr Nechama Brodie, explains that as a journalist and researcher who studies fatal violence, she often asks, ‘Who speaks for the dead?’
“Because the dead can’t speak for themselves, we often nominate someone to do that, but these stories that they tell are often forgotten, or co-opted. Dulcie wasn’t murdered a hundred years ago; she was killed in 1988. This is recent history in many respects, and shows us the quickness with which stories can be forgotten,” says Brodie.
“Here in South Africa, where so many stories are co-opted, the only people who get to tell the story of the struggle [to end Apartheid] are the people who survived, and they don’t always tell the whole story. It may be only their part in it, or a part that makes them look good. This is why it’s so important to keep documenting and to keep re-telling stories in new voices. With history, the events don’t reoccur, but the stories get retold and rewritten, and it’s in the retelling of history that we learn new things.”
Journalist, author and doctoral student at the Wits Centre for Journalism, Lesley Mofokeng, draws a parallel between the research he conducted on the preservation of family history and how stories connect us, to the importance of ensuring stories like September’s are never lost to time.
“When we pitch thesis ideas in the [Wits Centre for Journalism], it’s often centred around telling our stories in long-form, narrative journalism. My story looks at the life of my grandfather, and like Dulcie, as African people we find that our stories are forgotten; there is an erasure that happens over the years and we find ourselves rootless. We don’t know where we come from, or know much beyond our grandparents,” says Mofokeng.
“This is what the Centre is focused on now – we are uncovering these stories, excavating history. That’s why a project like this documentary and the impact campaigns surrounding it resonate so much with what we’re doing – the memorialisation of important characters who might otherwise be forgotten by time.”
The illicit arms deal September planned to expose was a violation of the 1963 UN embargo, and would have incriminated dozens of high-ranking officials.
Murder in Paris footage shows how French police were quoted as calling September “hysterical” and “paranoid” when she approached them for protection after being assaulted in the city as a result of her work and research. Aziz Pahad, who worked closely with September as ANC director at the time, dismissed her letters and calls by calling her a “drama queen.”
“She must’ve been scared if she had phoned London to say ‘I’m being followed’, but our view was that we’re all being followed,” Pahad had said. The film shows how September had written “no one even seems to write down anything I say” in her diary.
Josephine Trilling, Masters candidate in Black Diaspora Cinema at the University of Santa Barbara in California, travelled to Paris in 2022 and asked people if they knew who Dulcie September was.
“I didn’t find anyone who did,” she writes. “What’s more, the people I talked to had a hard time masking their disbelief. A few defiantly told me that it didn’t happen, and that France wouldn’t do something like that. This is similar to the attitude of French people at the time of her murder. They couldn’t conceive of the notion that French companies or government would assassinate an activist in cold blood, on French soil. In the documentary, there is now evidence to suggest otherwise.”
Where to now?
Michael Arendse, September’s eldest nephew, explains that there are several unfinished cases that were put in front of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, and his aunt’s is one of them.
“There is a new approach that we’re taking to the case here in South Africa, which is one of ‘almal werk saam’ [we all work together], involving the Hawks, the police, prosecutors and so on. We had a meeting between these representatives and family members last week, which was an opportunity for them to give updates, and for us to put pressure on them and implore them to get the work done more urgently,” says Arendse.
From an international perspective, he explains that the difficulty with September’s case is twofold within a legal dimension and a political dimension.
“Jacqueline Dérens, the French writer and teacher who became Dulcie’s close friend in the 70s, strongly believes that the French judicial system just has no idea how to handle Dulcie’s case,” he says.
This, mixed with murky political elements that have thus far hindered cooperation and a sense of urgency from French authorities to continue the investigation, have made the family’s pursuit of justice an arduous one.
“There’s a treaty between South Africa and France called the Mutual Legal Assistance in Criminal Matters Treaty. Justice Minister Ronald Lamola has to invoke this treaty in order for us to receive cooperation from the French government. I’m looking forward to seeing how quickly Lamola invokes this treaty, and what the level of cooperation from French officials will be, if any. These two governments have very good relations currently, and one side does not want to antagonise the other.”
For now, Samuel and September’s family continue to promote the campaign of un-erasure and take Dulcie’s story around the world.
Adds Mofokeng: “Hopefully through these activation campaigns and screenings, people will continue to share the name of Dulcie September and find inspiration to research and narrate their own stories, even in seeking justice for others. I think therein we see the power and beauty of journalism and storytelling.”