Dulcie Evonne September, the second eldest daughter of Jakobus and Susan September was born in 1935 and grew up in Gleemore, a section of Athlone (a suburb in Cape Town). It was here that she developed her social conscience and political commitment to the struggle for national liberation, democracy and social justice.
September began her primary schooling at Klipfontein Methodist Mission, near Cape Town’s International Airport. Later, among the first group of pupils to attend Athlone High School, her political consciousness was raised by a number of her teachers who were active in civic and political organisations. Halfway through Standard Eight (Grade Ten), her father decided to put an end to her formal schooling. However, September persevered and attended evening classes, and at the end of 1952 passed her Standard Eight exams.
In 1954, she enrolled at the Wesley Training School*(see note) in Salt River to pursue a career in teaching, and completed her Teacher’s Diploma in 1955. September began her teaching career, first at City Mission School in Maitland, then at Bridgetown East Primary School in Athlone in 1956- armed with a dream to inspire children to succeed in life.
In September’s first year of teaching, Elizabeth van der Heyden (a close friend), recruited her as member of the newly established Cape Peninsula Students’ Union (CPSU), an affiliate of the Unity Movement of South Africa. The CPSU aimed at overcoming racial divisions and forging unity and solidarity among students of different cultural backgrounds.
In 1957, she joined the Cape Peninsula Students’ Union, an affiliate of the Unity Movement of South Africa. During the 1950’s education had become one of the principal terrains of struggle, due to the imposition of Bantu Education, as it stood to debase higher education and professions, by submitting them to the ideology of apartheid.
It was at the CPSU that she first met people such as Dr Kenneth Abrahams, his fiancée, Ottilia Shimming,Neville Alexander, Marcus Solomon and Fikile Bam. In 1963 some of these people were to feature prominently in a major political trial.
Soon after this, September became a member of the Athlone branch of the Teacher’s League of South Africa (TLSA). Later, September joined the African Peoples Democratic Union of Southern Africa (APDUSA) which was established in 1960. Unhappiness at the TLSA led September to forgo her membership, opting to work with APDUSA, who she thought had the potential of becoming a mass-based organization- one that would be able to politically educate the oppressed.
September was elected to APDUSA’s finance committee. Due to internal strife, APDUSA was divided into two groupings. At the beginning of 1962 Kenneth Abrahams and Neville Alexander were suspended from APDUSA, but Ursula Wolhuter, September and others still looked to Abrahams and Alexander for inspiration and direction, and sought to effect reconciliation between the warring factions. Consequently, they formed an unofficial body of APDUSA, in Athlone, known as the Caucus. The Caucus met regularly to resolve the political and organisational problems they encountered in APDUSA, and the question of the armed struggle and sabotage activities reported in the newspapers formed the basis of their discussion.
She eventually parted ways with her political mentors in the Unity Movement, as she believed in action rather than endless debates and discussions about national and international politics. TheSharpeville massacre, and the consequent political crisis that gripped the country, had awakened a militant attitude among the people.
September then aligned herself with young militants around Dr. Neville Alexander. Together with Abrahams, Alexander, Fikile Bam, Andreas Shipinga, Marcus Solomon, Xenophon Pitt and others, they formed a study group of nine members in July 1962, known as the Yu Chi Chan Club (YCCC). Yu Chi Chan is the Chinese name for guerrilla warfare, which Mao Tse-Tung used. Therefore membership requirements, the aims and objectives of the paramilitary YCCC were revealed from the outset.
The YCCC however, disbanded at the end of 1962, only to be replaced by the National Liberation Front (NLF). The NLF which was officially launched in January 1963.
While engaged in the activities of the NLF, September’s home was raided in the early hours of the morning of 12 July 1963, following this, security police raided Neville Alexander’s home where NLF literature was found. September was arrested and detained without trial at Roeland Street Prison on 7 October 1963.
Together with nine others she was charged under the Criminal Procedure Act, with the principal charge one of‘a conspiracy to commit acts of sabotage, and incite acts of politically motivated violence’.
After almost six months of court proceedings, judgement was delivered on 15 April 1964. September was sentenced to five years imprisonment, during which time she endured severe physical and psychological abuse.
After discovering that September and her fellow prisoners (Elizabeth van der Heyden, Doris van der Heyden [Elizabeth’s younger sister]and Dorothy Alexander) were exerting strong political influence over illiterate women prisoners, the authorities decided to move them from the Cape to Kroonstad, which was reserved exclusively for political prisoners. During her first year in prison, September set out to complete her senior certificate.
Despite their appeal for release, in March 1965 the Appeal Court in Bloemfontein dismissed an application by the NLF members against their sentence.
In April 1969, Doris van Heerden, Dorothy Alexander and September were released from prison. On her release, the Pretoria regime controlled September’s activities in terms of a five year banning order, which prohibited her from engaging in political activity and from practising her profession. September then went to live with her sister in Paarl.
With her incarceration over, Doctor Robert George offered September a position as a receptionist at his Athlone surgery. The daily travelling between Paarl and Athlone was demanding on her health and she was forced to seek lodgings in Athlone. Promptly at six o’ clock everyday she had to rush off from the surgery to report to the local police station.
In 1973, as her banning order drew to a close, September applied for a permanent departure permit. She had secured a position at Madeley College of Education in London, England. She left South Africa on 19 December 1973, and arrived in England eighteen days later.
In Britain, she soon established new friendships with exiles from Cape Town, the majority of whom were African National Congress (ANC) members- most notably Alex and Blanche la Guma and Reginald and Hettie September. These exiles would meet quite often to discuss the political future of South Africa, and gradually September moved towards embracing ANC politics.
September joined the activities of the Anti-Apartheid Movement in London, and was in the frontline of numerous political rallies and demonstrations at South Africa House on Trafalgar Square. Later she resigned her position as a teacher and joined the full time staff of the International Defence and Aid Fund for Southern Africa in London.
In 1976 she joined the full time staff of theAfrican National Congress(ANC) where she worked in the ANC Women’s League, quickly winning recognition for her commitment to women’s’ issues. She made it her mission to welcome and encourage new exiles who arrived in London from South Africa.
In 1979,The International Year of the Child (IYC), September was elected as chairperson of the IYC Committee of the ANC Women’s Section in London. Other members who served on the Committee with her were Ilva McKay, Tessa Wolpe, Hilda Bernstein and Eleanor Kasrils.
This Committee decided to research and compile a booklet to inform the international community of the plight of children under apartheid. September worked diligently and the booklet was published on 16 June, in commemoration of Soweto Day.
During June 1979, the United Nations (UN) Unit against Apartheid together with the NGO sub-committee passed a resolution to hold a seminar onChildren under Apartheidin Paris, France. At the Paris seminar, September reported on the plight of black children under apartheid.
In May 1980, the UN Special Committee against Apartheid, the Women’s’ International Democratic Federation (WIDF), the Secretariatof the world Conference of the UN Decade for Women and UNESCO organised a seminar onWomen and Apartheidin Helsinki, Finland. The seminar was part of the efforts of the international community to do away with apartheid. The Women’s’ Section of the ANC was represented by September, Florence Mophosho, Lindiwe Mabuza (ANC chief representative in Stockholm), and Mankekolo Mahlangu from Lusaka. The ANC delegates were privileged to address the opening session of the seminar.
Again in 1980, the ANC Women’s Section in London proposed September’s name for a seminar in Montreal, Canada arguing that “for continuity with Helsinki and for preparation of papers she was the most suitable”.
At the beginning of October, she went to Arusha, Tanzania, for a seminar of the International Labour Organisation- along with Eleanor Kasrils. Here, September assisted in the preparation of papers dealing with the social and economic consequences of discrimination against women in Namibia and South Africa.
In 1981 she was called to work full-time at the ANC headquarters in Lusaka, in the Regional Preparatory Committee (RPC). At its first meeting September was elected chairperson of the RPC. The main mission of the RPC for that year was the organisation of two conferences of the ANC Women’s Section to be held at Kabwe, Zambia in August and in Luanda, Angola in September. Both conferences were to commemorate the 25th anniversary of South Africa’s Women’s Day.
Mittah Seperepere and September were elected to represent the ANC Women’s Section at the World Congress of Women for Equality, National Independence and Peace to be held in Prague, Czechoslovakia in October, 1981. Mittah and September were elected to serve on a special committee to discuss problems of women and children in emergency situations. They then stayed on for another two days to attend the WIDF Bureau meeting.
At the end of 1983 September was appointed ANC Chief Representative in France, Switzerland and Luxembourg. Coupled with her new appointment, September underwent a short course in military training in the Soviet Union.
In France, September impressed upon the two main groupings, Association Française d’Amitié et de Solidarité avec les peuples d’Afrique (AFASA) and Recontre Nationale Contre l’Apartheid (RNCA) to work together despite their ideological differences.
As Chief Representative, one of her main duties was to rally support inside France, Switzerland and Luxembourg for disinvestment and full economic sanctions against the South African government, as France provided a substantial proportion of South Africa’s military aircraft and naval aircraft.
On 11 October 1985,Alex la Guma, the ANC Chief Representative to Cuba passed away. September went to Havana to support Blanche la Guma. Here she visited the Isle of Youth and also gained first-hand experience of the Cuban way of life.
Back in France, September actively supported the Communist and Socialist Parties in the forthcoming national elections.
In June 1986 September was instrumental in organising an international conference against South Africa. In his opening address, Oliver Tambo, the President of the ANC, spoke of the moral obligations of France to impose sanctions against South Africa. However, Tambo’s words carried little weight. Less than five months after the Paris Conference, France, along with the United States of America, Germany, Israel and the United Kingdom voted against an oil embargo against SA at the UN.
Between October 1986 and September 1987 September was deeply involved with what became known as the Albertini Affair, which dominated the diplomatic relationship between France and South Africa. Pierre Andre Albertini was employed as a lecturer in French at the University of Fort Hare, as part of the French Government’s exchange programme. Albertini became politically active, and the SA government imprisoned him for his collaboration with the ANC. September, in consultation with the anti-apartheid movements, petitioned French President Mitterrand not to accept the credentials of South Africa’s new ambassador to France, Hennie Geldenhuys before Albertini had been released from his Ciskei prison and allowed to return home. The Albertini case continued to embarrass the South African and French governments.
By 1987, it became evident that September had succeeded in putting together an effective anti-apartheid lobby- her strong pro-sanctions and disinvestment campaign in particular- not only in France but also in Switzerland and Luxembourg. September had succeeded in forging strong links with anti-apartheid pressure groups and left wing politicians in all three countries. Her mission had become a serious threat to not only to the South African regime, but also to Europe’s notorious and unscrupulous arms dealers.
The mid-1980s saw an increased aggression in South African military actions against ANC external missions. She was certain that her office was under surveillance and her telephone bugged, and that unknown agents had gained access to her office. Following two failed attacks on her colleague, Godfrey Motsepe in Belgium, September approached the French police for protection (After her death, the French Minister of Police disputed claims that September was refused protection).
After the Sharpeville Massacre in 1960, September planned a mass demonstration in front of the South African Embassy in Paris after the death sentencing of six activists. Despite world-wide protest demonstrations to save the lives of theSharpeville Six, they were hanged.
At this time, the ANC leadership in London decided to recall September and transfer her to safety, however, September refused to abandon her mission.
On 29 March 1988, September was assassinated outside the ANC’s Paris office. She was shot five times from behind with a 22 calibre silenced rifle, as she was opening the ANC office after collecting the mail. She was 53 at the time of her assassination.
Several hundred protesters demonstrated in front of the South African Embassy, and clashed with the French police. Several members of the Young French Communist Party were arrested.
In reaction to the assassination, Georges Marchais of the French Communist Party criticised the French Government for its pro-South African policy and spoke of French ‘complicity’ in her murder. Alain Guerin in L’Humanite (31 March 1988) reported in great detail on the operation of a special death squad in Europe.
Twenty thousand mourners paid their last respects to September in a mass funeral. September was the first woman, ANC member, and high ranked diplomat to fall on foreign soil.
Dulcie September’s murder generated much speculation around whether she was the victim of hitmen hired by South Africa’s apartheid regime, possibly with the complicity of the French secret service. After apartheid’s ruin in 1992, it is alleged that former security police officer Eugene de Kock told the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) that a French mercenary, Jean-Paul Guerrier, had been involved in September’s murder. Nonetheless, officially, no assassin was found and the case remained on the shelf for 10 years, which marked the end of the window period for it to be re-opened. It was hence irretrievably closed after this lapse of time.
A French government commission, under Judge Le Chanu-Forkel, concluded that no sufficient evident was found to take suspects into custody. The Truth and Reconciliation committee also failed to solve September’s murder.
A square in Paris is named after Dulcie September, and was officially inaugurated on 31 March 1998 (ten years after her death). The plate, in the format of Paris’ street names, reads (in French):”Dulcie September Square: Representative of the African National Congress: Assassinated in Paris on 29 March 1988″.
*Note: Some sources say the name of the teachers training college that September attended was Battswood, not Wesley.
It is reported that Dulcie was investigating trafficking of weapons between apartheid South Africa and France at the time of her death. Apartheid agents linked to the BOSS’s Z Squad are fingered for “arranging” her death.