Friday Feature

Dulcie September

Dulcie Evonne September, born on 20 August 1935 in Athlone, Western Cape South Africa, was the eldest daughter of Jakobus and Susan September. Her years early were spent in Glenmore, Athlone where her interest in political activism began.

September started her primary schooling at Klipfontein Methodist Mission, and attended high school at Athlone High School. Her political consciousness was further raised by a number of her teachers at Athlone High who were active in civic and political organisations. When she completed high school at a night school and not at Athlone High, she enrolled at the Wesley Training School in Salt River. At the Wesley Training School, September trained as a teacher, and in 1955, she completed her Teacher’s Diploma.

September started teaching at City Mission School in Maitland, and in 1956, she went on to teach at Bridgetown East primary School in Athlone. A year later, September joined the newly established Cape Peninsula Students’ Union (CPSU), an affiliate of the Unity Movement of South Africa. CPSU was aimed at overcoming racial divisions and forging solidarity among students of different backgrounds. In 1960, September also joined the African Peoples Democratic Union of Southern Africa (APDUSA).

She eventually parted ways with her peers at the Unity Movement of South Africa, as she believed in action rather than debate and discussion about national and international politics. The Sharpeville massacre, and the consequent political crisis that gripped the country, had awakened a militant attitude among the people including September. She went on to become a member of the militant study group Yu Chi Chan Club, the name for guerrilla warfare, which Mao Tse-tung used. Yu Chi Chan Club was, however, disbanded at the end of 1962, to be replaced by the National Liberation Front (NLF) in January 1963. On 07 October 1963, while engaged in the activities of NLF, September was arrested and detained without trial at Roeland Street Prison. Together with nine other member, she was charged under the under the Criminal Procedure Act, the principal charge being "conspiracy to commit acts of sabotage, and incite acts of politically motivated violence". On 15 April 1964, September was sentenced to five years imprisonment, during which she was subjected to physical and psychological violence. After discovering that September and her fellow prisoners were exerting strong political influence over illiterate women prisoners, the authorities decided to move them to Kroonstad, which was reserved exclusively for political prisoners.  During her first year in prison, September set out to complete her senior certificate.

In March 1956, September appealed for release, but the Appeal Court in Bloemfontein dismissed her application. September was, however, released in April 1969. She was given a banning order by the apartheid government, effectively restricting her movement and her ability to participate in political activity and teach. Subsequently, September went to live with her sister in Paarl.

In 1973, having secured a teaching post at Madeley College of Education in Staffordshire, September applied for a permanent departure permit. She left South Africa the same year; and in London, she joined the activities of the Anti-apartheid Movement. As a member of the Anti-apartheid Movement, September was in the frontline of numerous demonstrations and protests. Later, she gave up her career in teaching to join the staff of the International Defence and Aid Fund for Southern Africa. In 1976, September joined the African National Congress (ANC), where she worked in the ANC Women’s League.  In 1979, International Year of the Child (IYC), she was elected chairperson of the IYC Committee of the ANC Women's Section in London. 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.  During June 1979, the United Nations (UN) Unit against Apartheid together with the NGO sub-committee passed a resolution to hold a seminar on Children under Apartheid in 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 Secretariat of the World Conference of the UN Decade for Women and UNESCO organised a seminar on Women and Apartheid in 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, and Mankekolo Mahlangu. Again in 1980, the ANC Women’s Section in London proposed September’s name for a seminar in Montreal, At the beginning of October, she went to Arusha, Tanzania, for a seminar of the International Labour Organisation.  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.

September and a colleague 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. At the end of 1983, September was appointed ANC Chief Representative in France, Switzerland and Luxembourg. 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.

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. 

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 arms dealers.

The 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. 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 at 28 Rue des Petites-Ecuries, as she was opening the office after collecting the mail. She was shot five times from behind with a silenced rifle. She was 53 years old at the time of her death.

After the news of her death, 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. 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. Alfred Nzo, the longest-standing secretary-general of the ANC, commented: "If ever there was a soft target, Dulcie September was one.”

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. 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. The Truth and Reconciliation Commission was also unable to shed light on the assassination of September.

In the following years, September was honoured through various means. In 1988, Jean Michel Jarre composed a song named ‘September’, dedicated to Dulcie September. The artist, Hans Haacke, dedicated his piece, ‘One Day, The Lions of Dulcie September Will Spout Water in Jubilation’ to Dulcie Septembers. Additionally, a square on the 10th arrondissement of Paris is named after Dulcie September, and was officially inaugurated on 31 March 1998, ten years after her death. A street in ClĂ©on, near Rouen is also named after her. In October 2011, Staffordshire University Students’ Union honoured Dulcie September by renaming their boardroom the "September Room" and erecting a plaque in her memory. A play named, ‘Cold Case: Revisiting Dulcie September’ is a tribute to Dulcie September.


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