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The Hidden Faces of Apartheid (Review)

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 been detained in prison for much of the previous year, 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.” 

Read entire article at The Baffler