Teacher, Struggle Ambassador & Human Rights Activist (1935 – 1988)

When Jakobus and Susan September welcomed the birth of their second child on 30th August 1938 in Gleemore Estate in Athlone, little did they imagine that their daughter, Dulcie Evonne September would become a freedom fighter whose life would be ended by an assassin’s bullet in France. Dulcie September became the first woman holding the diplomatic position of ANC Chief Representative to be killed in the course of her duties in a foreign country serving her people’s quest for freedom.

Dulcie’s story begins with her education at primary school at Klipfontein Methodist Mission and then at Athlone High School. Her foundational political influences began in Athlone where she experienced the chasm of difference between her world and the privileged white society across the railway line.

The Young Activist

By 1955 she had graduated from Wesley Training School in Salt River with a Teacher’s Diploma. She started her career at City Mission School in Maitland. In 1956 she took up a new post at Bridgetown East Primary School in Athlone and joined the Teacher’s League of South Africa. It was here that she became involved in the Cape Peninsula Students’ Union and began to follow a political path. Like many young people at this time she tried the various political bodies that had sprung up in the preceding decade such as the Unity Movement of South Africa.

Among the organisations that she was drawn to was the African People’s Democratic Union of South Africa (APDUSA) that had arisen out of the Unity Movement. Dulcie however, was frustrated with what she expressed as the intellectual comfort zone of APDUSA and the Unity Movement. She also had reservations about the contradiction of teachers in safe government jobs who claimed to have the only true ‘radical’ political path. There was a lot of strife and tension in political movements at the time about what constituted being a collaborator. This saw her and other youth feeling frustrated about the narrow interpretations of collaboration with the apartheid forces. Dulcie at this time was close to activists like Neville Alexander, Marcus Solomon, Andreas Shipanga, Fikile Bam and others.

The Yu Chi Chan Club

Together with a group of likeminded activists led by Neville Alexander, Dulcie was part of the formation of a militant study group named the Yu Chi Chan Club. They were inspired by the Chinese revolution. They disbanded the club after just over a year and then in 1963 formed the National Liberation Front (NLF). More and more for these young people, armed struggle seemed the only way forward. Other activists at the time included Reg September, Alex la Guma, Basil February, James April and Barney Desai who went underground and into exile to embrace the armed struggle with Umkhonto we Sizwe, the military wing of the African National Congress (ANC). They were possibly infiltrated by enemy agents because a sudden wave of repression and detentions hit the NLF while they were still trying to get off the ground. Ten of the NLF cadres including Dulcie were detained in October that year, imprisoned in Roeland Street Prison without trial. They were taken to court on charges of conspiracy to commit sabotage and incite political violence under the Criminal Procedure Act and sentenced on 15 April 1964. Dulcie September was sentenced to five years’ imprisonment.

When she was released in 1969 she was immediately placed under a five-year banning order. This restricted her from political activities, from practising as a teacher and severely restricted her social and family life. After four years under banning orders Dulcie September applied for an exit permit to leave South Africa for good. She sailed aboard an ocean liner and went into exile in the United Kingdom. There she took up a position at Madeley College of Education in Staffordshire.

In the UK she joined the Anti-Apartheid Movement and after a while resigned her post as a teacher to work for the International Defence and Aid Fund for Southern Africa. In the UK she teamed up with Reg and Hettie September and with Alex and Blanche la Guma who gave her support and developed close bonds. In 1976 she made a decision to join the ANC and became active in the organisation’s Women’s League.

The International Stage

The declaration of 1979 as the International Year of the Child (IYC) was when Dulcie September rose to prominence. She was elected as chairperson of the IYC Committee of the ANC in London working with other activists like Ilva McKay and Eleanor Kasrils. She was drawn into championing children’s rights with conferences being held in France, Finland and Canada. She also worked with NGOs, governments, international women’s bodies and the United Nations. In the course of her work she encountered militant liberationist women like Hettie September, Florence Mophosho, Lindiwe Mabuza and Mankekolo Mahlangu. At one point she was called upon to attend a seminar of the International Labour Organisation (ILO) in Arusha in Tanzania, along with Eleanor Kasrils.

The call of Africa saw Dulcie move to work full-time at the ANC headquarters in Lusaka, in the Regional Political Committee. She was elected as chairperson of the preparatory committee of the ANC Women’s League conference to be held at Kabwe, Zambia and in Luanda, Angola. It was all part of the 25th Anniversary celebrations of South Africa’s Women’s Day. She was also chosen to join Mittah Seperepere in representing the ANC Women’s Section at the World Congress of Women for Equality, National Independence and Peace held in Prague, Czechoslovakia in October 1981.

This was the context in which Dulcie September was appointed as ANC Chief Representative in France, Switzerland and Luxembourg in 1983. It was necessary for Dulcie as a Chief Representative to undergo military training and she completed a short course in the Soviet Union.

As Chief Representative, one of her main duties was to rally support inside France, Switzerland and Luxembourg for disinvestment and to push for full economic sanctions against the South African government. At the time France provided a substantial proportion of South Africa’s military aircraft and naval aircraft.

Cuba had always been a source of inspiration for Dulcie September and on 11 October 1985 when Alex la Guma, the ANC Chief Representative to Cuba passed away, Dulcie went to Havana to support and comfort Blanche la Guma. Within the next 9 months Dulcie was deep in action on the international front pushing for the imposition of sanctions by France and the international community against South Africa.

Over the next two years Dulcie took on both the French and South African governments by helping to build one of the most formidable anti-Apartheid movements in Europe, based in the three countries that fell directly under her mission. It had a knock-on effect on the rest of Europe. She built a campaign around the arrest and incarceration of Pierre Andre Albertini for ANC linked political activities. At the time of his arrest by the apartheid authorities Albertini was employed as a lecturer in French at the University of Fort Hare, as part of a French Government’s exchange programme. Dulcie’s campaign called for his release. This was a hook for beefing up the sanctions campaign and quickly she emerged as being a threat to powerful forces in Europe’s arms dealing underworld.

Dulcie began to feel the heat. Next door in Belgium the ANC Chief Representative Godfrey Motsepe escaped two failed assassination attempts. But Dulcie turned down offers by the ANC leadership to move her away from harm. On 29 March 1988, at the age of 53 Dulcie September was assassinated just outside the ANC office in Paris. She was shot five times from behind with a 22 calibre silenced rifle, as she was opening her office after collecting the mail.

Twenty thousand mourners came to pay tribute at her funeral. Dulcie has been memorialised across the world in street and place names; she has been the subject of books and articles; and the subject of artistic works including plays, dance, graphic art and song.

She was a no-nonsense young girl from Cape Town, who as a women was strengthened by her imprisonment and banning orders. She strode across the world stage and stood up to the sinister bullying forces of apartheid. September fought and died so that new generations may be free.

Dulcie September’s murder was believed to have been carried out by hitmen on orders of the apartheid regime, possibly with the complicity of the French secret service and or international criminal networks operating in the arms, nuclear energy and oil arena.

A solo play about her life written by Basil Appollis and Sylvia Vollenhoven and performed by Denise Newman was invited to be performed in Paris at a French cultural festival. Cold Case – Revisiting Dulcie September won the inaugural Adelaide Tambo Award for Human Rights in the Arts.

References

ANC Biography Brief; Dulcie September 1935-1988; www.anc.org.za
Groenink Evelyn; Dulcie, Hani, Lubowski – A story that could not be told (2013).
ANC Today; Dulcie September: A dedicated cadre cut down by act of cowardice; (August 2002).
Khumalo Fred; A muse for the misunderstood; (Sunday Times, 15 September 2009).