When Stellenbosch resident Stephanie Arendse cast her vote in the first democratic election on April 27 1994, she was doing so for her sister, anti-apartheid activist Dulcie September, who did not live to see the free South Africa she had dedicated her life to fighting for.
Ms September, the ANC’s chief representative in France, Switzerland and Luxembourg, had been shot dead on March 29 1988 in Paris at the age of 52.
Nobody has been brought to book for her murder 33 years later and there is speculation that Ms September may have been killed because of her investigations into arms trading.
Looking back on Ms September’s legacy as the country marked Freedom Day and 27 years of democracy on Tuesday, her nephew, Michael Arendse, eldest child of sister Stephanie, said when he thinks about what his aunt stood for the word that comes to mind is “change”.
“For her it wasn’t just about an anti-apartheid struggle, it was also about women’s rights, children’s rights, a society where there is equity and social justice. She wanted for us as South Africans to live in a socially just society where you are not judged by your race or class or any other measure that would diminish your dignity.”
Ms September, who lived with her family in Denchworth Road, Belgravia Estate, attended Klipfontein Methodist Mission School, Central Primary School in Athlone and was one of the first pupils at Athlone High School. She qualified as a teacher at Battswood Teacher Training College in Wynberg and taught Grade 1 and 2 classes at Bridgetown Primary School in Athlone.
As a teacher, Ms September became actively involved in the fight against apartheid and its discriminatory practices in education.
She was a member of organisations such as the Cape Peninsula Students’ Union (CPSU), Athlone branch of the Teacher’s League of South Africa (TLSA) and the African People’s Democratic Union of Southern Africa (Apdusa).
However, it was the massacre of protesters in Sharpeville, Gauteng, on March 21 1960, that signalled a turning point for activists such as Ms September who felt that it was a time for more action and less talk.
Ms September joined a study group called the Yu Chi Chan Club, named after the Chinese term for guerilla warfare. When the club was disbanded, it was replaced by the National Liberation Front (NLF), founded by Dr Neville Alexander.
It was while a member of the NLF that Ms September was arrested on October 7 1963 and detained without trial. Along with nine others, Ms September faced charges relating to conspiracy to commit acts of sabotage and incite acts of politically motivated violence. She was sentenced to five years’ imprisonment on April 15 1964.
After serving her jail sentence, during which she suffered severe physical and mental abuse, Ms September still faced a five-year banning order which saw her placed under house arrest and not able to take part in political activity or work as a teacher.
Frustrated, Ms September applied for an exit permit, and left for England on December 19 1973, never to return home.
It was while in London that she joined the ANC and worked tirelessly in the anti-apartheid movement, contributing to numerous organisations and campaigns.
She returned to the continent to work at the ANC’s headquarters in Lusaka, Zambia, in 1981 and was appointed to her final post in Paris in 1983.
Mr Arendse, 55, a freelance arts manager, from Walmer Estate, said as we remember his aunt’s legacy, it is important to note that she was not alone.
“She was part of a community of people who made sacrifices in the anti-apartheid struggle. We need to keep in mind that it isn’t only the legacy of Dulcie September but of all those other activists, what they did to help get us to where we are today. We need to remember their contribution.”
Mr Arendse was only seven years old when his aunt went into exile.
“We got to know her briefly,” he said.
“I remember this woman who was always making lots of jokes. She spoiled us and was very nice to us. We were small so we didn’t understand what was going on. Over the years my parents never told us that she was involved in the ANC (which was then banned in South Africa). It was only really about two or three years before her death that we were told. I was under the impression that because she was a teacher she was doing secretarial work in the ANC office. I didn’t know she was doing the kind of work that she was doing.”
Mr Arendse’s mother, Stephanie, who passed away in 2016, only saw her sister alive one more time when she and husband Dr Renatus Arendse visited her in London in 1979.
Mr Arendse recalls his aunt asking her sister to bring her some items of clothing, including a new pair of jeans.
In exile, Ms September often crossed paths with Dr Arendse’s brother Randolph, who was active in the anti-aparthied movement in Switzerland.
Ms September had spent her last Christmas, just three months before she was murdered, at the Arendse home in Switzerland.
The family didn’t know it at the time but she was hiding out, said Mr Arendse, having already experienced threats to her safety.
The news of Ms September’s death came to the family in a roundabout manner.
“My mother learnt from an uncle of hers, Michael September, in Canada, where it was already on TV. He phoned to say so sorry to hear this. Fortunately it came from a family member.”
Mr Arendse’s youngest brother, Clement, had answered the phone and called his mother.
“He said he just heard a shriek.”
The news devastated Mr Arendse’s mother. “She took to bed for three days,” he said.
“It was clear that in my mother’s life, my aunt’s death had left a void. My mother never really spoke about it. She obviously missed her sister. They were very close,” he said.
Mr Arendse’s parents as well as his aunt and uncle in Switzerland, Francine and Randolph, were among the thousands of mourners who attended Ms September’s funeral in Paris.
Ms September was cremated at the Pere Lachaise cemetery and her ashes were brought home by Mr Arendse’s parents to be scattered over the graves of her parents, Susan and Jacobus September in Maitland cemetery, her remains making a full circle as she had been born in Royal Road, Maitland.
As Ms September had no children, the Arendse family knew they would have to keep her memory alive, especially as the case was never solved.
Mr Arendse said as happy as they were with the transition to democracy taking place in the country in 1994, they were sad his aunt wasn’t there to experience it.
“I always remember my mother said that the first time that she went to vote in 1994, she voted ANC and that vote was for aunt Dulcie, after that she will decide whoever she wants to vote for.”
Mr Arendse said he has been to Paris several times as a tourist and to attend events to commemorate the anniversary of his aunt’s assassination. “Whenever I go, it is always tinged with sadness. She’s always in the background.”
A murder unsolved
When it comes to the murder case, Mr Arendse said, at the very least they would like to see an inquest opened in both France and South Africa. With the help of the Legal Resources Centre, another submission has been made in France. Ms September’s name is also on a list, drawn up in conjunction with the Foundation for Human Rights, of cases that it is hoped the National Prosecuting Authority (NPA) will reopen and investigate.
“The difficulty is the killing took place in Paris, but we are not going to give up. We are going to try all the avenues and see what can be done.”
Perhaps there might finally be some closure for the family about why their aunt was killed.
“One thing that has been established is that at the time of her death she was investigating arms dealing between the apartheid South Africa and France. The suspicion is certainly that the death is related to what she was investigating. I suspect that is one of the reasons why her assassination has not been solved. It has all sorts of implications for relations between France and South Africa. Interestingly, the apartheid government had a good relationship with France and the post-apartheid government has a good relationship with France.”
Regarding any threats to safety in pursuing the case, Mr Arendse said: “That’s always at the back of one’s mind, but I am not going to let that stop me.”
Ms September’s story is the subject of a two-part documentary, Murder in Paris, which was screened on SABC 3 last month.
Director Enver Samuel, 55, from Johannesburg, said the tragedy of South Africa is that we don’t know the unsung heroes and heroines of the struggle.
Mr Samuel, who is also the director of Indians Can’t Fly and Someone to Blame – The Ahmed Timol Inquest, said his aim is to tell their stories.
The documentary came about after a chance meeting in Bern, Switzerland, on Freedom Day 2017, with Randolph Arendse who had seen Indians Can’t Fly.
It took four years to make with filming in Cape Town, Johannesburg, Pretoria, Alice in the Eastern Cape as well as London, Paris and Lausanne in Switzerland.
Mr Samuel said during his research it appeared Ms September’s name had been erased from our history and he was intrigued to find out why.
“Dulcie was an amazing woman. She was a liberation fighter. Within the ANC she fought for the voices of women to be heard.
“She was a school teacher from Athlone who didn’t take nonsense.”
Mr Samuel said they were also rolling out a social impact campaign to take Murder in Paris to schools and the first screening will be at Athlone High School ahead of Youth Day.
They have also devised an educational guide on Dulcie September.
The main protagonist in the documentary is veteran investigative journalist Evelyn Groenink, author of Incorruptible, The story of the murders of Dulcie September, Anton Lubowski and Chris Hani.
Ms Groenink, 60, from Pretoria, was part of the anti-apartheid movement in Holland and deputy editor for Dutch Anti-Apartheid News when Ms September was murdered.
Asked why she had continued investigating the case of Dulcie September’s murder for almost 30 years, she said: “I had no idea that it was going to take 30 years. Immediately after the assassination, the story seemed clear: apartheid death squads had murdered our comrade. I thought I was doing a passionate, but simple, story of outrage against apartheid, the white minority regime and its death squads. When the truth turned out to be somewhat more complicated, I got intrigued.
“That said, I did not spend 30 years working on this continuously. I had to make a living too. I just kept coming back to the case, because it kept yielding surprises. As you will read from the book, it even led me to the Chris Hani murder.”
Asked what she would tell Ms September if she could send her a message, Ms Groenink said: “Dulcie September did not accept lazy, lackadaisical behaviour and demanded that everybody do their homework, and carry out their duties in a principled, ethical, and courageous way, just like she herself did. I therefore don’t know if I should send her a message or whether we should rather all listen to her message in this regard, because it seems as if South Africa needs to hear it now more than ever.
“But if I had to convey anything to her from me, I would encourage her to haunt those in the ANC who are lazy and lackadaisical today: the fake leaders who live the good life at taxpayer’s expense while leaving citizens without water, without employment, and surrounded by sewage in the streets. They deserve to be haunted, particularly by the memory of someone like Dulcie September.”