Review: Vivien Horler
The Terrorist Album: Apartheid’s insurgents, collaborators and the Security Police, by Jacob Dlamini (Harvard University Press)
To be in the Terrorist Album meant you were fair game.
Those are the words of the notorious apartheid spy Craig Williamson, who was behind the murders of Jeanette Schoon Curtis and Ruth First.
Or as author, academic and former journalist Jacob Dlamini puts it: “To be on its pages was to be marked for death.”
In 1993, a year before the first democratic elections, the apartheid government ordered the destruction of a huge body of state records and documents “in an attempt to remove incriminating evidence and thereby sanitise the history of oppressive rule”, according to the final report of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. Much was incinerated in Iscor’s industrial furnaces in Johannesburg and Pretoria.
Among the documents burnt were 500 copies of the Terrorism Album, a folder of some 7 000 photographs of people the apartheid government deemed to be “terrorists”. In fact all you had to do to get into the album was to leave South Africa illegally. Copies were sent to police stations all around the country.
Despite the Security Police’s reputation for efficiency, three copies of the album escaped the purge: one is in the National Archives in Pretoria, one is with the National Prosecuting Authority, and one is privately owned.
Two of the copies were found by TRC investigators in the late 1990s in a pile of apparently discarded documents in offices that had been used by the Venda Security Police.
The album is mute, yet the people who compiled it and the people who were in it, were able to speak, and Dlamini interviewed a number of them, their stories forming the basis of this book.
It was not, however, easy. “…… in a number of cases, asking individuals to make the album speak entails directing them to look at photographs last seen while they were in detention or going through unspeakable torture”.
When someone was detained or arrested, Security Police often asked them to go through the album to see whom they could identify, where they had last been seen, and what they had been doing.
Retired security policeman Eugene Fourie said this process – getting the detainee to go through the thousands of pictures in the album – would usually take about three weeks, but in some cases, like that of Glory Sedibe, it took two months “because he knew so many people and he knew so much about MK that he had a lot to say”.
It is hard to know how “useful” the album was to the security establishment – often the mug shots were old and did not age with their subjects, making them hard to recognise. Sometimes the pictures had been taken for dompas applications when the subject was as young as 16. In one case, that of Phumla Williams, she entirely failed to recognise the picture of herself Dlamini showed her.
Among the former detainees Dlamini interviewed for this book are Lumka Yengeni, Paula Ensor, Eric Abrahams, Phumla Williams, Barry Gilder, and Aboobaker Ismail (nomme de guerre Rashid Patel). These last two, one dark, bearded and Jewish, and one bearded and of Indian descent, were regularly confused by detainees shown their pictures.
Dlamini also spoke to a number of former security policeman, including Williamson.
The result is thoughtful, disturbing and eventually page-turning account of a facet of South Africa’s violently oppressive apartheid in its dying years.
As an aside, Dlamini has praise for the TRC, and cautions against those who see the commission as a failure. “Critics who blame the commission for bringing about neither truth nor reconciliation fail to see the unglamorous but important work the commission did to prevent the total destruction of the apartheid archive… We know more how apartheid functioned – who gave the orders and who did what – than we did before the commission began its work in 1996… the commission narrowed the range of lies that could be told about the apartheid past.”
- Dlamini is currently an assistant professor of history at Princeton University, and won the 2015 Alan Paton Award for his book Askari.