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The Terrorist Album by Jacob Dlamini – Review

The Terrorist Album by Jacob Dlamini – Review

Jacob Dlamini’s book gives an account of Apartheid South Africa’s brutal campaign against the alleged enemies of the state that it hunted, interrogated, tortured and assassinated. Review by Stephen Williams

As South Africa moved towards a democratic dispensation by the early 1990s, the apartheid state systematically attempted to cover its tracks. No less than 44 tons of documents were consigned to industrial furnaces in order to obliterate the records of its obscene racist system. Yet crucial documents survived the purge – among them ‘The Terrorist Album’ – an index of photographs and profiles compiled by the security forces to track alleged enemies of the state. These photographs, many taken from hated, government-decreed identity documents, were matched to profiles that detailed the insurgents’ lives and movements, leaving vital evidence of the obsessions of the apartheid police state. 

In 1992, an order from the head office of the South African Security Police demanded the destruction of “all operational records, including copies of the album,” but the three out of 300 copies that are thought to have survived sit at the heart of Jacob Dlamini’s account of the apartheid state and the enemies that it hunted, interrogated, tortured and assassinated. 

“Officially, the police used the album to do nothing more than keep track of people who left South Africa without the permission of the state,” notes Dlamini. “But to be in the album was to be a terrorist.”

Death sentence

At its most extreme, inclusion in the album could amount to a death sentence. Craig Williamson, an apartheid spy questioned at the Truth and Reconciliation Commission during his application for amnesty, revealed that anti-apartheid academic and activist Ruth First was targeted for assassination by parcel bomb – a murder carried out in Maputo in 1982 – based on her inclusion.

While Williamson was adamant that the album was principally used for intelligence gathering rather than as a ledger of “targets of elimination”, he admitted to Dlamini that First’s inclusion made her “fair game”. 

Yet the book also reveals the cat-and-mouse nature of the underground war between spies and activists. Williamson himself was included in the album after his police handlers branded him a terrorist to cover his tracks after his unmasking in Europe in 1979, even as he returned to the security forces. In 1981, while interrogating Andrew Boraine, president of the National Union of South African Students, who had been arrested and held in solitary confinement, Williamson slapped a copy of the album on the table and gloated about his inclusion: “That’s me! That’s me!”

The album was not a static document, and was updated every six months as the state shifted its focus from targets who had been detained, punished or eliminated. It proved a particularly useful tool in the savage interrogation of detainees, who were questioned and tortured to reveal the identities and locations of those documented. Former security police member Eugene Fourie hints at the terrifying pressure exerted on detainees to give up their comrades in a system where torture and psychological terror were routine. 

“If you come in with all those photos, it doesn’t matter how stubborn this man is or how helpful he is, the biggest surprise for me was that everybody tried to show you how much they know about every person. It was for them a proud thing to say, ‘I know this man,’ and to give you all the information to show that he is a clever man. Because you’re a lonely man, only you and him, nobody else, only you and him, nobody listening, so he can talk.”

Dlamini reserves judgement on Fourie’s claims about the album’s efficiency. “We cannot, however, measure the efficiency of the album solely by what Fourie and his colleagues were able to make their captives do… Insurgents had their own ways of measuring their efficiency against that of their enemies.”

Systemic brutality

Yet the tragic human cost of the album is all too clear. One of the many victims of the security police was Odirile Meshack Maponya, a schoolteacher and talented singer who was included in the album in 1977 after he left the country to join the military wing of the ANC.

Trained in guerrilla warfare in Angola and the Soviet Union, Maponya became one of the most active and highly sought after insurgents in South Africa. By the time he died in 1988, killed when the bomb he was trying to plant outside a whites-only cinema in Pretoria exploded prematurely, he had been on the police’s most-wanted list for 11 years.

Maponya’s story is a disturbing case study in the all-encompassing nature of the security forces’ pursuit against opponents. The police turned his father Joseph Maponya into an informer paid to spy on his family; tortured his brother Japie Maponya to death in 1985, depositing his corpse on the border with Swaziland; murdered his ANC colleague Stanza Bopape in 1988 and fed the body to crocodiles; arrested and tortured his brother Itumeleng and cousin Tiro Tumane; and detained almost every member of the family after Maponya’s death in April 1988.

Through horrific stories like this, Dlamini’s account reveals the sheer scale of the system of surveillance and violence erected by the apartheid state between 1960 and 1994, the darkest period in the history of South Africa. This blood-soaked era still casts a long shadow; a shadow that manifests itself in the systemic institutional racism and police brutality that continues to blight South Africa. 

Dlamini, the  former political editor of South Africa’s Business Day newspaper, limits his analysis to South Africa’s grim apartheid history. Yet there was a certain timeliness to this book’s publication just a couple of weeks before the horrific death, at police hands, of George Floyd in Minneapolis.

For many, Floyd’s death was proof that institutional racism and police brutality against people of colour remains systemic across the world – and that the police will always attempt to conceal their tracks.

The Terrorist Album: Apartheid’s Insurgents, Collaborators, and the Security Police by Jacob Dlamini is published by Harvard University Press, ISBN 9780674916555

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Written by Stephen Williams

Stephen Williams is a freelance journalist, based in London. A specialist on Africa, his remit also includes the Middle East and North Africa. Williams currently works for a number of London-based print publications including New African magazine.

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