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The Hidden Faces of Apartheid

Uncovering the secret crimes of the apartheid security police

The Terrorist Album: Apartheid’s Insurgents, Collaborators, and the Security Police by Jacob Dlamini. Harvard University Press, 400 pages.

Ruth First fled apartheid South Africa in 1964. A political activist and communist party member, she had spent much of the previous year in prison, as part of a larger crackdown on dissent. (She was the first white woman to be held under a draconian new Ninety-Day Detention Law.) After a spell in exile in the United Kingdom, First moved to Mozambique in the late 1970s to take up a teaching position at Maputo’s Eduardo Mondlane University. All through this time she remained involved in the anti-apartheid cause, though she never took up arms like her husband, Joe Slovo, who was then chief of staff of the African National Congress’s (ANC) military wing.

In the eyes of the South African security forces, however, First was a terrorist. On August 17, 1982, they sent a parcel bomb to her university. She retrieved the package from her cubby hole, slit it open at her office, and died on the spot. First “was not moving and lying totally still,” Bridget O’Laughlin, a fellow academic who survived the blast, remembered years later. “She was wearing her red blazer, white skirt and her favorite Italian shoes.” The explosion blew out a wall of the room. 

First’s killing had been arranged by Craig Williamson, a South African Police (SAP) major based in Pretoria. More than a decade later, in September 1998, he testified at his amnesty hearing during the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC)—a court-like body set up to shed light on human rights violations under apartheid—that he had acted on orders from his direct superior, one Brigadier Piet Goosen. “Ruth was known and referred to in security circles as Ruth Slovo,” Williamson said. “Her photo also appeared under that name in the Terrorist Album.” The presence of the fifty-seven-year-old university professor in this dossier, Williamson later explained to historian Jacob Dlamini, meant that she was “fair game.” 

The Terrorist Album was the name given by the apartheid Security Police to the compendium of mugshots of people it considered enemies of the state; they began amassing thousands of these black-and-white photographs in the 1960s. Into its pages went novelists (Bessie Head) and trained combatants (Chris Hani), journalists (Eric Abraham) and academics (Ruth First): disparate individuals united by their opposition to the regime. Once identified as a terrorist, their photographs were indexed by factors including apartheid’s system of racial classification and placed in a 12 x 9-inch book, copies of which circulated covertly within corridors of the Security Police. “Right up to the end of apartheid in the early 1990s, the album was constantly in production,” Dlamini notes in his new book, The Terrorist Album: Apartheid’s Insurgents, Collaborators, and the Security Police. It was “continually in the making as mug shots were added and subtracted, apartheid opponents arrested and killed.” 

The Terrorist Album played a starring role in apartheid’s terror regime, helping determine who was abducted, tortured, and killed by the state.

In 1966, the United Nations General Assembly labelled apartheid a crime against humanity; seven years later it adopted the Apartheid Convention, denouncing the South African government for “inhuman acts resulting from policies and practices of. . . racial segregation.” While this was a condemnation of regime’s ugly public face, less attention was paid to its security establishment’s reign of hidden terror: its recourse to  kidnappings, bombings, cross-border attacks (in Botswana, Namibia, Angola, and elsewhere), and death squads. These would remain largely under wraps for the next two decades—unlike, say, the atrocities committed by the Chilean dictatorship, which led to Augusto Pinochet’s arrest in 1998. F. W. de Klerk, the last apartheid president, shared the Nobel Peace Prize with Nelson Mandela in 1993. 

In 1992, as the era of legislated white minority rule entered the final phase of its decline, apartheid securocrats embarked on a large-scale project to obliterate all operational records pertaining to gross human rights violations. (One recalls political scientist Achille Mbembe’s argument that the destruction of archives amounts to a “denial of debt.”) Orders from top brass were filtered down the chain of command by word of mouth; in eight months, the National Intelligence Service headquarters alone incinerated forty-four tons of paper and microfilm records in industrial furnaces in Johannesburg and Pretoria. But the instructions were not obeyed to the letter. Of the estimated five hundred copies of the Terrorist Album in circulation at the time, three survived what Dlamini describes as the “orgy of destruction.”

The Terrorist Album played a starring role in apartheid’s terror regime, helping determine who was abducted, tortured, and killed by the state. Yet it remains a neglected object among scholars of contemporary South African history. It merits our attention, Dlamini writes, “because it speaks like no other relic from the apartheid past of the ambitions of South Africa’s Security Police to document every known enemy of the state.” Dlamini’s compelling study chronicles the entangled political and policing histories out of which the album “emerged as a tool of state power and surveillance.” The Terrorist Album enables us to look anew at the brutality and bureaucracy that marked apartheid policing.

Jacob Dlamini, Pass photo, 1991.

Born in 1973, Jacob Dlamini grew up in Katlehong, a black township southeast of Johannesburg. As a historian, he has been interested in troubling the stories we tell about South Africa’s authoritarian past. His first book, Native Nostalgia (2009), explored the political place of memory. Drawing on memories of Katlehong in the ’70s and ’80s, Dlamini asked what it might mean for someone like him to remember his childhood and adolescence with fondness. The argument that tentatively emerges from the book is that black life in South Africa constituted more than just state repression. Apartheid might have been everywhere, but it was not everything. There was still music, art, literature, and “bonds of reciprocity” among neighbors that made it possible to “imagine a world without apartheid.”

Dlamini addressed a less intimate subject in his widely acclaimed follow-up, Askari: A Story of Collaboration and Betrayal in the Anti-Apartheid Struggle (2015). The book is about the white minority regime’s death squads, which were staffed by government police and askaris: anti-apartheid insurgents who had been turned through torture or had switched sides voluntarily. In total, there were around a hundred askaris remaining on the state’s payroll in 1993. Dlamini foregrounds the life of one such figure, Glory Lefoshile Sedibe (nom de guerre, “Comrade September”), a high-ranking ex-combatant who joined the state’s counterinsurgency campaign after he’d been abducted from a safehouse in Swaziland in 1986. By the time of his death at age forty, Sedibe had helped the state assassinate and abduct several of his former comrades.

Askari was written in response to the scant knowledge about apartheid collaborators; the identities of most askaris were lost in the industrial-scale arson of the operational files of the Security Police. In that sense, it is an investigative book. Yet Dlamini’s study also raises deeper, unsettling questions about the nature of South Africa’s political settlement. By talking collaboration under apartheid, Dlamini draws our attention to the unfinished work of the TRC, which did not unmask what he describes as those “tainted by collaboration with our authoritarian past.” The corrosive effect of this failure, Dlamini argues, is that the public sphere remains contaminated with lies.

The Terrorist Album traces the evolution of policing in South Africa: how it grew more and more depraved in its desperation to counter the state’s political illegitimacy.

A few who collaborated with the regime, such as the late novelist Mark Behr, confessed of their own accord. But the rest slipped seamlessly into the new order, some even settling into positions in high office. To underline his point, Dlamini points to Peter Mokaba (1959–2002), a famous ANC youth leader, imprisoned for a period at Robben Island, who also—this is less well-known—worked for the regime as a spy. Mokaba was appointed deputy minister in Nelson Mandela’s first cabinet after the landmark 1994 elections. In 2012, president Jacob Zuma posthumously awarded him the Order of Luthuli in silver for his “valiant and gallant contribution to the national liberation struggle against apartheid.” Today, Mokaba has a 46,000-seat football and rugby stadium named after him in Polokwane.

In The Terrorist Album, Dlamini continues his exploration into the charred “remnants of the apartheid security archive.” But this is a more ambitious project, in scale and scope. Where Native Nostalgia and Askari largely took stock of various developments in South Africa during the latter half of the twentieth century, The Terrorist Album stretches much further back in time, to the 1800s. “The object that came to be called the Terrorist Album,” Dlamini tells us, “did not spring fully formed into the world.” Several histories are entwined in its emergence as a “tool of state power and surveillance.” In tracing the origins of the album, Dlamini chronicles the early history of photography in colonial South Africa, from German anthropologist Gustav Fritsch’s images of Xhosa leaders imprisoned on Robben Island in the late 1850s to the gradual, systemic adoption of mug shots by the police.

Dlamini notes that the South African police started incorporating photography into their criminal investigations as early as the turn of the twentieth century. A conman by the name of Fayedwa was the first to have his mugshot disseminated country-wide in 1912, in the pages of a journal called The State. (The article itself was titled, “On the Track of the Criminal,” and it exhorted the importance of fingerprinting to police work.) Then, soon after the amalgamation of the provincial police forces into the South African Police in 1913, successive heads of the Central Identification Bureau began lobbying the government for funds to “issue monthly or periodically a confidential photographic circular of criminals—expert forgers, burglars, swindlers, etc.” By the mid-1920s, a gazette with thousands of mug shots of wanted persons was being distributed to police stations across the country.

The Police Gazette and similar circulars that predated the Terrorist Album identified criminals as racial types. Africans, on the whole, were deemed to be untrustworthy. These petty criminals, Dlamini writes, “represented a type of human (the native) whose cunning remained politically harmless even as it required the constant attention of the state.” Matters changed when the National Party (NP) came to power in 1948 and ushered in apartheid. Although South Africa is steeped in centuries of institutionalized racism, apartheid was perhaps its ugliest expression. Its raft of repressive laws aimed to create a white utopia where indigenous peoples would be merely “hewers of wood and drawers of water.” The NP moved quickly to criminalize political dissent; within a year or two it had passed legislation against high treason and banned the Communist Party of South Africa. This is when the language of terrorism entered the state’s lexicon. But, Dlamini argues, it was the tightening in 1952 of the universally disdained pass laws designed to restrict the mobility of black citizens that led to “the biggest turning point in the history of politics and policing in South Africa.”

Novelist Bessie Head.

On March 21, 1960, the SAP opened fire on a crowd of protesters who had gathered outside Sharpeville police station. The protesters had congregated without their pass books—known colloquially as a dompas—and were presenting themselves for arrest when the police started shooting. Sixty-nine people were killed and hundreds injured. The Sharpeville massacre led to the banning of the ANC and the Pan Africanist Congress (PAC), which had organized the protests. “The ban, as well as the detention of an estimated two thousand individuals, drove thousands of South Africans into exile,” Dlamini writes. “More importantly, the ban led to the adoption by the ANC and the PAC of violence as a form of struggle.” In 1961, the ANC founded its military wing, Umkhonto we Sizwe.

To combat this nascent insurgency, the state dramatically increased the powers of the police. New training methods in counterinsurgency and riot control were introduced in tandem with legislation that, among other things, allowed the police to imprison suspects for as long as ninety days without trial. The state also passed the Terrorism Act in 1967, which, according to Dlamini, “offered such a general definition of terrorism that any act that called the status quo into question could be considered an act of terrorism.”

It is out of this turbulent domestic period that the Terrorist Album emerged as an instrument of state power and surveillance. Officially, the album was meant to do nothing more than keep track of people who left South Africa without government permission. But it outgrew its purpose as the Security Police increasingly became obsessed with the threat posed by politically active exiles. The banning of the ANC and the PAC pushed the liberation movements underground, and they subsequently established operational structures outside the country. Importantly, the ANC and the PAC’s turn to violence also coincided with a wave of struggles for independence sweeping across the continent at the time. “The apartheid government saw it as a major [existential] threat that necessitated a change of focus,” Dlamini notes, “from looking for enemies within the country’s borders to finding them without.” Abram Tiro (in Gaborone, Botswana) and Adolphus Boy Mvemve (in Lusaka, Zambia) were the first of South Africa’s exiles to be killed by the state in 1974. Both were assassinated with letter bombs. And they would not be the last.

The guardians of the white minority regime in South Africa might have worshipped at the altar of racial purity, but the struggle against apartheid comprised of conscious political actors of all stripes.

To get at a clearer picture of how the album “acted in the world,” Dlamini draws on informer reports, TRC archives, confidential police correspondence and memoranda, and photographs. He also speaks to retired apartheid operatives, whose words, he admits, cannot be trusted. A case in point is Jac Büchner—a retired two-star General who testified at the TRC to being a “reasonable or a good interrogator”—who here downplays the importance of the album as “nothing more than an aide-memoire, a simple tool used by the police to monitor fugitives.” Yet Dlamini’s book demonstrates that the album was integral to the regime’s offensive against its political opponents. To be framed as a terrorist by the Security Police was, after all, “to live in the shadow of death.” It meant you could die from a bomb blast, on Tuesday afternoon, in your favorite Italian shoes.

The presence in the album of fiction writer Bessie Head underlines Dlamini’s larger argument about the arbitrariness of apartheid violence. Head, then working as a reporter, was detained in police custody shortly after the Sharpeville massacre. “The Security Police forced Head to inform on friends in the PAC,” Dlamini writes. “And she suffered a nervous breakdown and tried to kill herself.” Head subsequently left the country for Botswana in 1964 on an “exit permit”: a document that gave her the legal right to leave South Africa on the condition that she signed away her citizenship and agreed never to return. And yet the Security Police still included a photo of her in the Terrorist Album. Why? We might search for logical motives, Dlamini writes, but the plain answer is that the state labeled Head a terrorist for no better reason than that they could.

The Terrorist Album traces the evolution of policing in South Africa: how it grew more and more depraved in its desperation to counter the state’s political illegitimacy. The story of Odirile Meshack Maponya, recounted here in depth, reveals what kind of rough beast the force morphed into. An activist and popular schoolteacher, Maponya’s mugshot went into the album after he joined the military wing of the ANC in 1977. Then on April 15, 1988, Maponya (nom de guerre, “Mainstay Chibuku”) was killed when a limpet mine he had intended to detonate at a whites-only cinema in Pretoria exploded on his own body. The Security Police, who for years had been on the hunt for Odirile as a suspect in the murder of a law enforcement official, confiscated his mutilated body and buried his remains in a pauper’s grave. “The police left a trail of destruction in their pursuit of [Odirile] Maponya,” Dlamini tells us:

They turned his father, Joseph Maponya, into an informer paid to spy on his family, killed his brother Japie Maponya in 1985, murdered his ANC colleague Stanza Bopape in 1988 [and dumped his body in a crocodile-infested river], and arrested and tortured his brother Itumeleng and cousin Tiro Tumane.

Dlamini’s book, salvaged from the remnants of apartheid’s security archives, casts a light on countless such episodes of state violence that had remained hidden until now. The human loss it uncovers is painful, yet there is also a hopeful side to the story. The guardians of the white minority regime in South Africa might have worshipped at the altar of racial purity, but the struggle against apartheid comprised of conscious political actors of all stripes. The Terrorist Album embodies this contradiction. Classified along racial lines, the thousands of mugshots compiled by the Security Police, Dlamini notes, were nevertheless black, brown, white—and everything in between. The album offers us a portrait of a “cosmopolitan and democratic vision for South Africa”: the very thing the men who compiled it were fighting against. 

Seven minutes south of where I live in Cape Town is a stretch of road named after Imam Abdullah Haron, a forty-five-year-old Muslim cleric and anti-apartheid activist. In 1969, the Imam was detained under the Terrorism Act, and subjected to repeated torture. He died in police custody four months later. To cover up his death, the Security Police said he’d fallen down a flight of stairs. Such deaths, and the lies that trailed them, were so commonplace that they provided the writer Chris van Wyk with the raw material for one of the most read South African poems. “In detention” begins:

He fell from the ninth floor
He hanged himself
He slipped on a piece of soap while washing

No one was held responsible for Imam Haron’s killing, nor for the scores of deaths of political activists in police custody throughout apartheid. Jacob Dlamini’s The Terrorist Album arrives at a time when this widespread cover-up is once again the subject of public conversation in South Africa. In part this is because of the reopened inquests into the deaths of Neil Aggett, a doctor and trade union organizer found hanging in his cell in February 1982, and Ahmed Timol, a twenty-nine-year-old activist who died in police custody days after being stopped at a roadblock in Johannesburg. “We, as South Africans, are about to enter a door that will rekindle painful memories,” Judge Billy Mothle remarked at the reopening of the inquest into Timol’s death. “A door that invites us to embark on a journey which will cause all of us to confront the sordid part of our history.” Dlamini’s project helps keep that door open, even as the new South African state does its best to close it forever.