Apartheid’s Paper Trail

Why did some Black South Africans directly collaborate with their oppressors, and what was their experience like?
Apartheid in South Africa

The tangled history and reverberating afterlives of South African apartheid have generated an exceptionally rich archive. One could spend a lifetime reading books on Nelson Mandela, the African National Congress (ANC) and the anti-apartheid struggle it commanded, the subsequent Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) and the evildoing of the defenders of apartheid it exposed—not to mention the corruption, malfeasance, and incompetence of the postapartheid government that mars contemporary life in a free South Africa.

But like all histories, South Africa’s has long contained a major gap: in this case, around some Black South Africans’ complicity in and collaboration with apartheid. Over the course of little more than a decade, the historian Jacob Dlamini has published three remarkable books that invite a long-overdue reckoning with this topic. Dlamini navigates the underside of apartheid and its long shadow by asking difficult questions that few other scholars or journalists have had the nerve to investigate. His first book, Native Nostalgia (2009), while attentive to the horrors of living under apartheid, nevertheless considered how many ordinary Black South Africans—including himself—maintained a fulfilling existence in their segregated communities, untethered from, if not immune to, white supremacy. Five years later, in Askari: A Story of Collaboration and Betrayal in the Anti-Apartheid Struggle (2014), Dlamini broached the uncomfortable silence around one of the most pressing questions of the apartheid era: Why did some Black South Africans directly collaborate with their oppressors, and what was their experience like?

In his latest work, The Terrorist Album: Apartheid’s Insurgents, Collaborators, and the Security Police (2020), Dlamini revisits this question of collaboration but turns his attention more fully to the nature of the apartheid state and the bureaucratic, if no less nasty, security apparatus that netted the ANC defectors who animated his previous book. By unearthing the history of a single artifact of that state—a “Terrorist Album” of mug shots of anti-apartheid exiles—he asks how we might “read the apartheid security archive in the post-apartheid period” in all its untidy reality.

Dlamini’s engagement with the photo album introduces some difficult ethical questions around his research methods: most notably, whether it is fair to coax from “mute” subjects details they sought to withhold from authorities during their detention, and to what extent calculated acts of individual complicity should stand in for broader historical phenomena. Yet the risk is worth taking, as The Terrorist Album powerfully extends Dlamini’s ongoing inquiry into the apartheid security state and those who made it function. Together, his books form an elegant triptych that illustrates in broad strokes the problem of complicity with authoritarian regimes—a project that resonates well beyond South Africa, in contexts such as Stalinist East Germany or Cambodia under the Khmer Rouge. Most of all, Dlamini’s corpus unsettles what he calls “the dictates of a nationalist romance” that overdetermines contemporary South African historiography. Only by such a departure, his work suggests, can South Africans come to grips with the persistent problems of the postapartheid era.

Constructed around his own fond memories of growing up in apartheid South Africa, Dlamini’s first book, Native Nostalgia, operates both to disaggregate Black South Africans and to collapse moral categories. Dlamini has equal impatience for an apartheid ideology that “treated black people as an undifferentiated mass” and for an alternative anti-apartheid narrative that assumes all Blacks heroically opposed the regime. As he says, there was always “a fine line between resistance and collaboration,” and “some people could be both resisters and collaborators at the same time.”

Native Nostalgia raised some hackles, of course. Some commentators mistakenly imagined that Dlamini had swallowed the South African street wisdom, hawked by critics of the current regime to credulous journalists, that things were better under apartheid. But throughout the book, he is at great pains to remind readers of the fundamental daily brutalities of apartheid. That did not, he insists, imply that it extinguished every aspect of Black humanity, especially the vibrant quotidian life that could be found—then and now—in the country’s “townships.” These peri-urban communities, established as restricted residences for Blacks whose labor South Africa’s privileged whites demanded as factory workers, municipal employees, and domestics in the country’s “white” cities, remain the heart and soul of Black urban life in South Africa. Soweto (where Nelson Mandela lived), of course, really a cluster of adjacent townships 15 miles south of downtown Johannesburg, is the first among equals in this regard.

Dlamini grew up in Katlehong, part of a smaller conurbation east of central Johannesburg, near the old (white) mining suburbs of Germiston and Benoni. Native Nostalgia is his memoir cum ethnography of life there during the 1980s, the waning days of the apartheid regime (although no one knew that for certain then). These memories, many of them amusing in a Trevor Noah kind of way, others quite poignant, are studded with gestures to theorists of remembrance and reckoning: Theodor Adorno, Walter Benjamin, Svetlana Boym, Andreas Huyssen, Henri Lefebvre, Achille Mbembe … you get the idea. The flashing of academic credentials does little to undermine the powerful insights about the ambiguity of daily life under apartheid. Some people resisted the regime; some collaborated in ways large or small; most just found a way to get on with their lives under difficult circumstances.

Why did some Black South Africans directly collaborate with their oppressors, and what was their experience like?

Askari, published five years later, shifts ground from autobiography to biography. Here, Dlamini focuses on the saga of Glory Lefoshie Sedibe, a notorious “Askari,” or ANC turncoat, who ended up working closely with Eugene de Kock, the most heinous of apartheid’s police killers.1 Although Sedibe’s testimony before the TRC—as a victim, not a perpetrator, Dlamini points out—frames the book, Dlamini’s account is about the nature of collaboration more generally. He notes that, for example, “as in Eastern Europe, apartheid depended far more on collaboration to work” than did the military juntas of the Southern Cone or Central America. Indeed, he advances the somewhat heretical—if no less true—reminder that “for most black South Africans, the face of apartheid was black.” The Askaris were but the cruelest visage of a vast apparatus of Black police, apartheid functionaries, Bantustan bureaucrats, informers, and assassins.2

Despite the nod to the banal civil servants of evil, Askari rivets its attention on people who, like Sedibe, initially fought against apartheid as trained members of the ANC’s armed wing, Umkhonto we Sizwe (MK), but then were captured and “turned” by the apartheid security apparatus. They numbered in the hundreds. Many of them, including Sedibe, worked at Vlakplaas, de Kock’s infamous torture farm. Others returned to the field as double agents; by Dlamini’s account, the ANC was riddled with impimpi—police informants and spies. Many have yet to be outed, even today. By focusing on those who, for a variety of motives—some venal, some existential—fought on both sides of the apartheid divide, Dlamini rejects what he regards as “the simplistic binary of perpetrator and victim” advanced by the TRC and South Africa’s flawed efforts to come to terms with its violent and traumatic past. Indeed, he argues that in the refusal to reckon with the far grayer area of collaboration, the country has allowed far too many “apartheid collaborators to slip seamlessly into the new order.”

Dlamini does not avert his gaze from the brutal torture that inaugurated the process of transforming MK fighters into impimpi. Nevertheless, an all-important tool in the conversion of militants was far more mundane: a photo album. During the initial interrogations, apartheid’s security police would ask captured MK fighters to flip through the Terrorist Album to identify their comrades from the numerous photographs already held by the Security Branch. This was, it seems, a pedagogical exercise, designed to demonstrate to ANC partisans the panoptic vision of the state. Having captives scan the album rarely conveyed any especially useful information, which apartheid’s torturers often had at their disposal in any case. As Dlamini puts it in Askari, “For many captives, [viewing] the album initiated their first act of collaboration.” Their apparent willingness to point out active comrades and even disclose their whereabouts represented the first demonstration of loyalty to their new masters.


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A recurring walk-on character in Askari, the Terrorist Album plays the lead role in Dlamini’s latest book. At least one copy of this collection of mug shots depicting opponents of the regime miraculously escaped the furnace to which apartheid’s security apparatus consigned much of their paper trail during South Africa’s transition to democracy between 1990 and 1994. Dlamini located a copy in the state archives, and he uses this “relic from the apartheid past” as a window to peer into the operations of the most vicious and obscure corners of apartheid’s security state. He does not simply treat the album as one more archival trace of the past. Instead, he examines its history, usage, and afterlife as “an artifact—an object with a social life” of its own, akin to how an archaeologist might consider an unearthed potsherd as the skeleton key to a much larger buried, and thus formerly invisible, civilization.

What is achieved by such an excavation of the fundamental violence that governed apartheid? Dlamini suggests that, by delimiting and defining who fell under the state’s gaze, the album “shows the arbitrariness and extent of political repression,” not only in South Africa but in any state that “harbored bureaucratic ambitions designed to hide their lack of political legitimacy.” Indeed, he contends that such “bureaucratic” repression proved “crucial to the normalization of the violence upon which racial domination was founded” in South Africa. Comparable paper autocracies, most notably East Germany (ironically, the trainer of some MK militants), made mass collaboration a feature of their rules. Even far more disorderly repressive regimes, Dlamini notes, like those found in Guatemala or the charnel house of Cambodia under the Khmer Rouge, created and relied on what historian Kirsten Weld calls “paper cadavers.”3

Dlamini refuses to reduce the album to a tool of the torturers, though it surely functioned as such. “Read against itself”—that is, contra its original repressive purpose—the album also documents the resilience of the “cosmopolitan and democratic vision” of the future that animated the multiracial opposition to apartheid. And, in the effort to give voice to the paper cadavers in its pages, the book itself is something of a celebration of South Africa’s TRC, which, for all its faults, made such a reckoning with apartheid’s violence feasible.

Whether recalling township life, witnessing the moral contortions of informers, or taking us inside the minds of paper-pushing secret police, Dlamini is a reliable guide to the dimmer paths of the apartheid state in its dying throes.

Yet, how to compel the “mute” photographs compiled in this document to speak? Here Dlamini wrestles with a difficult ethical research question. If he relies on the album to prompt the memories of former detainees, is he not recapitulating their trauma? On the other hand, in using the album to extract buried secrets from former Security Branch police, he is, in a sense, turning the tables against them to help make sense of apartheid. Still, the album itself could never have come to life without its “curators,” as Dlamini says—people like Sedibe and other counterinsurgents who helped the police attach names and information to the faces in the photographs, as well as those whose countenances, frozen in time, appear on its pages. Dlamini himself must call again on such co-curators now to tell his story, through the means of oral history rather than interrogation.

To pursue those suspected of leaving the country illegally, presumably (in the eyes of apartheid’s masters) with the intention of attacking it from the outside, such curation required a team effort. Dlamini tracks one police file from its genesis in 1975 through to the end of apartheid, observing that the Security Branch’s futile search for their quarry drew on numerous informers who offered clues to his whereabouts. An entry in the album metastasized over the years as it drew on ever more collaborators, including former comrades, friends, lovers, even family members. Such entanglements, Dlamini observes, should caution us against treating apartheid’s sprawling security state only in terms of “efficiency and technocratic prowess.” As in other impimpistaats, like East Germany, complicity was intimate as well as bureaucratic, a view that permeates Dlamini’s other books as well. At the same time, “curators” proved unreliable. Under torture, they often told their interrogators what they thought they wanted to hear, or else might deliberately—and courageously—mislead them.

The “wholesale criminalization of political dissent” in South Africa was no invention of the apartheid state, of course. Dlamini positions the Terrorist Album within a long tradition of reliance on photography, “with its cloak of scientific objectivity and technical infallibility,” to register and track the criminal classes. In South Africa, police visual forensics were from the beginning tightly intertwined with the power of the colonial state and its facilitation of the mining industry and the pass laws that regulated Black labor. As was so often the case, with the advent of apartheid after 1948, the West—in this case, Great Britain—proved eager to train South Africa’s security police as part of a global anticommunist cordon sanitaire. Conveniently, South Africa’s Suppression of Communism Act of 1950 defined “communism” as promoting “hostility between the races”—that is, opposing racial segregation. With such a wide net to cast against apartheid’s perceived antagonists, Dlamini points out, “security files produce that which they seek to surveil”—enemies of the state.

Sometimes, it should be said, Dlamini makes a bit too much of the admittedly impressive technical prowess required to read secret police files. At one point, he notes that to understand such materials, one must consider if the document is genuine, who wrote it, and for what purpose—all questions historians ask of every source they handle, as a matter of course. To be frank, I am not sure The Terrorist Album adds much to the portrait of apartheid one finds in Askari, although it does take readers deeper into the twisted minds of the security police. Although the album itself serves as a kind of nodal point linking the many stories of militants, defectors, and interrogators that fill both books, at times it comes to resemble little more than a convenient plot device or, at best, an aide-mémoire for Dlamini’s informants. In the latter incarnation, this represents an interesting archival reappropriation of the album in the name of postapartheid truth telling, as the “mug shots speak anew” in a democratic South Africa. Given the album’s demonstrable fallibility as an identification device, Dlamini reasonably wonders if it might merely have been “a talisman employed by the police to show the reach of their power.” I suppose one could say the same about the researcher. As Dlamini himself muses, “is it fair to rely on the memories and the pain imprinted on the bodies of individuals” who opposed apartheid “for the task of archival recuperation?”


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This remains, of course, a dilemma confronting all those trying to come to terms with postauthoritarian orders, as Dlamini recognizes. Yet he is ever cautious to distinguish between collaborating, often under the duress of torture, and becoming an active collaborator, as Glory Sedibe and other Askaris did. Turncoats of any stripe become notorious when final accounts are drawn up, for they unload a society’s collective complicity onto the back of a single person. Hence, Luz Arce, who aided Augusto Pinochet’s secret police in hunting down her former comrades, became a stand-in for the many small acts of quotidian complicity engaged in, wittingly or unwittingly, by the mass of Chileans who found ways to live with the Pinochet regime.4 But from Santiago, to Rio, to East Berlin and beyond, the post hoc collaborative testimony of the tortured and still unbroken remains their final sacrifice in the name of the better world for which they once fought.

Collectively, Dlamini’s three books on collaboration paint a complex picture of apartheid’s ambiguous operation on the lives of those who lived and died under it, one that remains difficult to find anywhere else. Whether recalling township life, witnessing the moral contortions of informers, or taking us inside the minds of paper-pushing secret police, Dlamini is a reliable guide to the dimmer paths of the apartheid state in its dying throes. As those shadowed trails begin to fade with memory, we may need to rely ever more on his insights.


This article was commissioned by Joanne Randa Nuchoicon

  1. On Eugene de Kock and the death squads he oversaw, see Anemari Jansen, Eugene de Kock: Assassin for the State (Tafelberg, 2015); Pumla Godobo-Madikizela, A Human Being Died That Night: A South African Story of Forgiveness (Houghton Mifflin, 2003).
  2. “Bantustans,” also called “homelands,” were the 10 ersatz ethno-states established by the apartheid government. By assigning Black South Africans to residence in these entities by their putative “tribe,” apartheid planners effectively stripped them of South African national citizenship. Although the Bantustans had their own Black political leadership, their sovereignty remained entirely dependent on Pretoria.
  3. Kirsten Weld, Paper Cadavers: The Archives of Dictatorship in Guatemala (Duke University Press, 2014); Michelle Caswell, Archiving the Unspeakable: Silence, Memory, and the Photographic Record in Cambodia (University of Wisconsin Press, 2014).
  4. Luz Arce, The Inferno: A Story of Terror and Survival in Chile (University of Wisconsin Press, 2004). On memories of the Pinochet dictatorship more generally, see the important trilogy The Memory Box of Pinochet’s Chile, by Steve J. Stern, comprising Remembering Pinochet’s Chile: On the Eve of London 1998 (Duke University Press, 2004); Battling for Hearts and Minds: Memory Struggles in Pinochet’s Chile, 1973–1988 (Duke University Press, 2006); and Reckoning with Pinochet: The Memory Question in Democratic Chile, 1989–2006. (Duke University Press, 2010).
Featured image: Apartheid in South Africa (1982). Photograph by United Nations Photo / Flickr