Evelyn Groenink, lncorruptible: The Story of the Murders of Dulcie September, Anton Lubowski and Chris Hani (Privately published, 2018)

IN February 1990 we liberated the contents of the banned book cupboard in the local university library. Apartheid was dead and so, too, we reckoned was censorship. It was indeed in one sense, but much of the deeper structure would remain; official secrecy for a start. Violence and threatening behaviour remain as severe a means of censorship today as they ever did under the previous regime as any reporter or press photographer will tell you. And censorship post-liberation has been privatised by the rich and well-connected, who use the courts and the legal system to interdict media coverage and threaten to sue for defamation.

Mzala’s Gatsha Buthelezi: Chief with a Double Agenda has never been freely available in South Africa thirty years after publication by Zed Books in London. Scott Couper’s brilliant biography of Albert Luthuli is not for sale at certain outlets where the ANC has influence. And, coincidentally, it was also thirty years ago that the ANC representative Dulcie September was murdered in Paris. Dutch journalist Evelyn Groenink has struggled for many years to get her investigative work into this murder, and those of Anton Lubowski and Chris Hani, published. Only now has a manuscript first completed in 2001 been published; privately with distribution by Jacana, which did not have the financial or human resources to cope with a barrage of threats, legal and illegal, to go ahead with its planned publication. Some of these threats came from that political chameleon Pik Botha; and, in a bizarre legal episode, from the family of Hani’s convicted assassin. The possible appearance of a book clearly made a wide range of powerful interests very uneasy and their aggressive reaction was testimony to the success of Groenink’s investigations.

Having read her book we are unfortunately none the wiser as to exactly who committed the three murders. General and long-standing assumption pins the blame for September’s on a South African hit probably committed by subcontracted mercenaries; for Lubowski’s on a similar source, but involving the defence force’s perversely named Civil Co-operation Bureau; and for Hani’s on right-wing fanatics and the gun of Janus Walus. But all these scenarios have inconsistencies – and a degree of commonality. Why would the South African government want to kill September, a relatively obscure member of the ANC in exile? Why kill Lubowski when Namibian independence was inevitable? And while Hani was certainly a prime target in the febrile period just before South Africa’s first democratic general election, there is plentiful evidence that the hit amounted to more than a lone gunman. In all three cases key witnesses have proved hard to locate.

Groenink’s book is essentially a diary of her thirty-year search for clues and links, new evidence and possible answers. The depth and longevity of her commitment, tenacity, and willingness to pursue a vast cast of largely unpleasant and possibly dangerous characters are truly remarkable. Her general and plausible conclusion, having followed the money, is that the murders were linked to sanctions busting by individuals and outfits (and possibly governments) with a long view of post-apartheid trade. One name that persistently recurs is Alain Guenon, a French arms dealer with secret service connections in South Africa. Her most compelling case concerns Hani, who would surely have opposed the disastrous arms deal that seduced so many of his ANC comrades. She shows, with echoes of the 1963 assassination of John F. Kennedy, that the official version of a lone gunman whose speedy arrest was facilitated by an alert white neighbour simply does not stand up to the recollections of other plausible witnesses. The reality was probably something very different and Nelson Mandela’s appeal for restraint as a result of the actions of Retha Harmse could well have been based on myth. In the words of Maggie Davey, who was involved in Jacana’s aborted attempt at publication, the story of Groenink’s book demonstrates ‘how the interests of a few powerful constituencies can shift and shape our understanding of history’.

It used to be said in newsrooms that once the journalist becomes the story, journalism ends. This might now be viewed as somewhat old-fashioned a view, but there are parts of this narrative that reflect perhaps too much on personal detail, the undoubted bravery and commitment of the writer notwithstanding. This is apparently her first publication in English. Most of it reads extremely well, but there is the odd passage where her editor might have done her a favour. Some of the geographic descriptions are wayward and the index is – well, one can only describe it as hilarious; no doubt produced by a computer and left at that. It may be recommended to indexing course teachers as a cautionary case.

One tends to find in the published recollections of foreign anti-apartheid activists a distressing level of starry-eyed, innocent idealism. To her great credit Groenink avoids such naive sentimentality and concludes that the good, the bad and the ugly are to be found on all sides of political struggle. The ANC in exile emerges badly from her account: the Pahads (Aziz in particular), Frene Ginwala and Samuel Khanyile (aka Solly Smith who succeeded September in Paris and was an apartheid agent when sober) for starters.

Although she has no conclusive proof, Groenink can rest content in the knowledge that somewhere in the mass of evidence she has collected lies the truth. Almost certainly it resides not just at the South African end but with foreign interests, most likely French or British, and in the big money involved in oil and weapons trading. A number of commentators have pointed out that the Truth and Reconciliation Commission signally failed to address sanctions busting and big business. For all its loose ends Groenink’s investigative journalism makes a significant contribution to our understanding of the gangster, captured state that is South Africa today: a poisoned political well in Davey’s words. As so often is the case, our history is unhappily a matter of continuities as much as change.

  • See Maggie Davey, ‘Who killed Dulcie September?’ African Studies 69(1) 2010: 177–186, which is based on her 2009 Ruth First memorial lecture.