Leonard Cortana

Dulcie September | Silence of the French

In 1988, South African freedom fighter and the Paris representative of the ANC, was murdered in front of her office.

As is the case for every political assassination, memorialising and spreading the legacy of the murdered person is sine qua non for justice. The process constantly evolves over time and involves actors from different backgrounds who might have never known each other but work together at turning the grievance into a fight.

To acknowledge the many lives that Dulcie September had in her lifetime, she needs to be remembered for all the identities that made her the fighter that she was: a daughter, a sister, an aunt, a political prisoner, a school teacher, a woman in exile, a political activist, a writer, a community organiser. Her life and political trajectories were rooted in the logic of exceptionality, drawing from her political awakening at a very young age to her political career as a Chief Representative of the ANC bureau in Paris.

As a researcher on the transnational circulation of assassinated political activists’ narratives, I look closely at the ways their life stories re-open wounded historical memories, the ones that many would prefer to sweep under the rug. As it involves many countries and her story keeps on circulating internationally, Dulcie’s memorialisation is complex and collides with different historical narratives, ‘truths’ and cultural traditions of thinking about racial justice, postcolonial struggles and supremacies.

Thus, researching about Dulcie’s story in my own country led me to dive into the archives of an episode of French history that I barely knew and remains largely undiscussed in the country. As many, I undermined the opposing discourses that prevailed in France, like in many other European countries, before the wave of sudden unconditional support for 'South Africa in the making' when Nelson Mandela got released. If these processes remain unquestioned, we become both victims and accomplices of historical amnesias whose powerful strategies participate in the erasure of Dulcie September off the history books.

In the mid 1980s, many activist movements against the apartheid regime intensified all over Europe. In France, Dulcie worked hard with her close collaborators such as Jacqueline Derens and Marcel Trigon. They were both members of the activist movement against Apartheid, la Rencontre Nationale Contre l’Apartheid (RNCA), which actively advocated against the apartheid’s crimes against humanity. All their archives are available today and offer an incredible window to the transnational networks of solidarity which fought the apartheid regime. As a media scholar, I was particularly astonished that the group sent a plethora of letters to French media outlets to criticise their biases and their unfortunate habit to simplify the political situation like two sides that spread terror equally.

Later, I watched many interviews where Dulcie constantly re-framed that the ANC must never be accused of being an 'half-legalist, half terrorist organisation' as too many politicians dared saying publicly. She insisted that the apartheid regime is the terrorist regime per se and the ANC is resistance, dignity and justice. As Jacqueline Derens explains well in her moving biography about Dulcie, she had an unwavering commitment to travel all over France to meet as many communities as she could to raise public awareness and spread her truth.

The year she was murdered, France was in the midst of the political campaigns for the 1988 Presidential elections. I looked bit by bit how different TV channels covered her assassination and the street protests that followed. Despite making the headlines for three consecutive days, she quickly became a set up shot in the narrative. They put her picture, shared her (wrong) age, in the best-case scenario retrieved some seconds of archival footage of one of her interviews and then cut. Cut to images of the apartheid regime or the reactions of the political candidates for the Presidential elections. Similar observation for the coverage of her funeral which raised many controversies around the visibility of some political parties before properly celebrating Dulcie’s life. After all, she was among the long list of other murdered activists in the “barbarian” history of the apartheid regime. It was, and still is today, easy to normalise the death of the ones who paid the price of their lives to fight for equality and justice.

However, as the film Murder in Paris shows well, Dulcie September is much more than a set-up shot in the story of the liberation of South Africa. She is an entire film. Her active work to denounce the illegal arms trade between France, other European countries and the apartheid regime despite the embargo declared by the United Nations is an important trace of a past which makes people uncomfortable until today. And it goes further. Dulcie’s fight resonates in the contemporary political landscapes of South Africa and France, the ongoing advocacy for racial and gender justice and the denunciation of corruption and the trade agreements which seriously endanger democracy. It also refers to the battle in France and South Africa to include more nuanced historical recounts of colonial and postcolonial times in schools and university curricula along with the celebration of the unsung heroes and erased figures of resistance.

Re-opening Dulcie’s cold case and de-classifying her archives are much more than fighting the impunity of the perpetrators of her crime, it is also doing justice to all the work she produced and the world she envisioned. President Emmanuel Macron’s promise to examine her case when he visited Dulcie’s exhibition at the Nelson Mandela Foundation in June 2021 is an important step forward that will hopefully find an echo in mainstream media. Since Dulcie’s murder happens before the commercialisation of the internet, the challenge today is to use adequately the film and the social campaign as a platform to share her inspirational legacy and fight all sorts of disinformation.

What is striking in Murder in Paris is its multilayered representation of movements. The film unfolds its narrative jumping oceans and decades in a snap, opening avenues to the many paths of Dulcie’s journey. What remains is a community of people who tirelessly bring memories to the surface to ask who ordered her murder and why. The passion and tenacity of our guide journalist Evelyn Groenink in her quest to agitate all the networks to piece together the elements that will lead to the truth(s) is a prime example of what can be achieved together as a community who participates in Dulcie's memorialisation.

Last April, the day after the verdict for George Floyd’s assassination, I organised a talk with Dulcie’s niece Nicola Arendse and Director Enver Samuel at the Berkman Klein Center at Harvard University. The date was a mere coincidence but participated in the emotional impact this event had on the US participants who discovered Dulcie’s story for the first time. References to other figures of resistance quickly emerged and Dulcie entered in a larger transnational imaginary of racial and gender justice. The circulation of her story is a powerful device to make her dialogue with other thirsts for restorative justice.

Similar thirst was contagious at the 'September Amnesia' event at the Nelson Mandela Foundation, where many panelists agreed that Dulcie’s story has planted seeds that will grow stronger in the next South African generations. The seeds’ metaphor is a common transformative mantra for many assassinated political activists and more particularly for the afterlife of Afro-Brazilian Councilwoman Marielle Franco that I follow closely. The assemblage of different activist communities that she advocated for and that I filmed during the one-year anniversary of her murder collide in one movement that both call for justice and spreads her legacy.

From the seeds shall emerge flowers and trees for Dulcie September. She is endless hours of work and intellectual productions, meetings and discourses. She is the history of South Africa, France and the ANC movement. She is the fight against racism and sexism. She is the texts and the poetry that she wrote. If she was alive today, she would be surely outraged that we have learnt so little from the past. And so are we. She is our powerful ancestor. Justice for Dulcie.

Leonard Cortana (Guadeloupe/France) is a Ph.D Candidate at NYU Tisch School of the Arts and a Fellow at the Berkman Klein Center, Harvard Law School. He holds undergraduate degrees in comparative politics and Spanish from Sciences Po Aix en Provence (France) and a EU Commission NOHA Masters degree in humanitarian assistance from Deusto University (Spain). Cortana earned a BA in cinema and aesthetics from Sorbonne University Paris 1.

A petition ‘Justice for Dulcie September’, adressed to the French Minister of Justice, has been signed by more than 1000 people. Please add your signature here.