South Africa

Book Review

The Terrorist Album: Restoring history and memory from the furnaces of apartheid

In his third, much-anticipated book, ‘The Terrorist Album – Apartheid’s Insurgents, Collaborators, and the Security Police’, author and scholar Jacob Dlamini surgically dissects the myth of the all-powerful apartheid state, its attempts at covering up its crimes and obliterating history itself.


“The story of apartheid is, amongst other things, the story of the systematic elimination of thousands of voices that should have been part of the nation’s memory.” – TRC Final Report 

In 1993, former officials and agents of the apartheid state embarked on an “orgy of destruction”, incinerating around 44 tonnes of paper and microfilm records held by the National Intelligence Service (NIS).

The order had been given in March 1992. This much we know from evidence given later at the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC). 

But while who exactly issued the order is lost to history, enough evidence remains of how apartheid “corrupted individuals, ruined lives, and destroyed a country”.

This purge of its misdeeds, the TRC noted, this “paper Auschwitz”, had been a conscious effort to “deliberately and systematically destroy a huge body of state records and documentation in an attempt to remove incriminating evidence and thereby sanitise the history of oppressive rule”.

It took eight months to feed this official archive into the furnaces of Iscor, the state-owned steelworks in Pretoria and Johannesburg. The task was so large that private furnaces at Sappi and Nampak were also used.

Of the 500 copies of what was to become known as the Terrorist Album, a compendium of around 7,000 headshots which was secretly circulated to Security Branch offices across South Africa, only three survived.

“In the course of putting those portraits together, they assassinated individuals, tortured thousands and, in at least two cases recounted here, turned fathers into informers charged with spying on their sons,” notes Dlamini of the album.

It is Volume 340 of this compendium of “undesirables” that Dlamini sourced and which has since offered the author a trapdoor of sorts into South Africa’s shameful past.

As an author, Dlamini, currently an assistant professor of history at Princeton University and with a doctorate in history from Yale, has, in his previous best-selling books, Native Nostalgia and Askari, attempted to salvage the complexities of South Africa’s brutal past through the lives of ordinary people.

In Askari, for which Dlamini was awarded the Alan Paton Prize in 2015, the author explored the life of “Comrade September”, an ANC operative who had been abducted by apartheid Security Police and “turned”, becoming an Askari.

Dlamini traced how September had been forced into an eternal moral twilight, betraying former comrades, and the lasting impact of this on September himself as well as the South African political landscape after 1994.

Dlamini brings to his texts the keen eye of the journalist coupled with the curiosity of the historian. His ability to offer a grand narrative using “a small object to tell a big story about South Africa between 1960 and 1994” is what renders this book a monumental work of remembrance.

The intention of the book, Dlamini informs us, is “to cut apartheid down to analytical, moral, and political size, thereby challenging the myths that continue to surround popular understandings of apartheid”.

The book will be released in South Africa in June.

The idea for The Terrorist Album was sparked by Dlamini’s continued investigation of files and remnants of the apartheid security archive that escaped destruction.

A copy of the Terrorist Album, now housed in the National Archive, provided the author (and his readers in turn) with a window, not only into the obsessive record-keeping but also of the stupidity and the sanctification of oppression.

The book is an attempt at restoring the lives and remembering the suffering of some of the faces staring from its pages. 

It comes at a time, the author notes, “when memories of the apartheid past and its depravities threaten to disappear forever – unless we, taking inspiration from Walter Benjamin, recognise and seize them in the present.”

But the book is not only about the Terrorist Album. It is a history of photography and fingerprinting, particularly of the colonial era and attempts by authorities to control movement and “capture” individuals on paper and in likeness.

“By tracking the history of apartheid violence through objects, the book also shows the arbitrariness and extent of political repression in South Africa. 

“As was the case with all authoritarian governments in the twentieth century, notably in Eastern Europe and in Latin America, apartheid South Africa actively produced the stock figure of the dissident and then used objects such as the album to implicate individuals in the commission of all sorts of political and social crimes.”

Dlamini begins to bring a more layered understanding of the one-dimensional mugshots by finding the human voices and the stories behind their mute presence.

Writer Bessie Head features in the album. She was forced into exile in Botswana after Security Police forced her to inform on her comrades in the PAC. 

Head later suffered a nervous breakdown and tried to commit suicide as a result of the trauma.

Writes Dlamini, “Head’s terrorist portrait was not, in fact, a formal mugshot (certainly not the photograph she would have submitted with her passport and exit-permit applications). It was a cut-and-paste job. 

“The image in the album shows Head smoking, her right hand raised, and her index and middle fingers parted as she prepares to pull the cigarette out of her mouth. 

“Her head is tilted rightward. Head, in a floral dress with an open collar, has an afro the sides of which are touched with white. Her eyes look heavy with worry. I can tell you about these details because I have a copy of the original photograph the police cut and pasted into the album.”

Why, Dlamini asks, did the security police include “an impecunious writer estranged from the anti-apartheid movement as a terrorist”?


Interviewing Williamson and other apartheid operatives would be pointless, says Dlamini, as “they cannot be trusted.”


Eric Abraham, better known in South Africa as an award-winning producer and the founder of the Fugard Theatre in Cape Town, also features in the Terrorist Album.

He earned a place for his resistance and activism and by leaving South Africa clandestinely in 1977 to escape house arrest.

Except Abraham was conned by apartheid spy Craig Williamson, who facilitated Abraham’s flight into exile.

Williamson and the state’s idea, writes Dlamini, was to use Abraham, “a genuine activist living in fear for his life”, as cover for Williamson’s attempt to infiltrate the anti-apartheid movement overseas.

“Having planned all this – without Abraham’s knowledge – the police then added his mugshot to the album, placing him alphabetically on the very first page. Having helped the twenty-two-year-old Abraham break the law, they then branded him a terrorist.”

The true extent of Abraham’s anguish is set out by Dlamini as he traces Abraham’s betrayal by his own father.

Then there is activist and schoolteacher, Odirile Maponya, who also left South Africa in 1977 to join the ANC and MK. 

Maponya became “one of the most active insurgents in South Africa” before his death in 1988 when a bomb he placed near a cinema in Pretoria exploded prematurely.

“In their pursuit of him, 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 and deposited Japie’s corpse on the border with Swaziland, murdered his ANC colleague Stanza Bopape in 1988 and fed that 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.”

And so the lifeless photographs come to life to tell their story, a story in fragments, but a story no less vital in these forgetful times.

Interviewing Williamson and other apartheid operatives would be pointless, says Dlamini, as “they cannot be trusted.”

“But we can treat the album as what it is – a relic of repression – and use a variety of our senses to apprehend its materiality, its meaning, and its purpose.”

By moving back and forth between the album and some of the men and women it sought to reduce to two-dimensional figures, said Dlamini, we are able to examine “its successes and failures, and use the object to shed light on the functioning and self understanding of the apartheid state between 1960 and 1994 – the most violent period in the history of modern South Africa.”

South Africa, says Dlamini, owes the TRC a debt of gratitude.

While some might view the process as a failure and critics charge that the TRC brought neither truth nor reconciliation, the “unglamorous but important work of the commission did prevent the total destruction of the apartheid archive.

“We know more about how apartheid functioned – who gave the orders and who did what – than we did before the commission began its work in 1996.”

Dlamini writes, “While the dream of a democratic and egalitarian South Africa disappears into a twenty-first-century hellhole of corruption and increasing economic inequality, apologists for apartheid have taken to saying something along these lines: ‘The apartheid state might have been authoritarian and brutal but at least it was efficient’; or ‘Blacks were better off under apartheid’; or ‘the apartheid police were murderous bastards but they at least knew what they were doing.”

These revisionist claims were similar to those made in defence of the Italian fascist dictator Benito Mussolini, “under whose dictatorship the trains supposedly ran on time.

“We give the apartheid state too much credit, however, by assuming that it was efficient. It was not. This did not make it less brutal. But efficient it was not. It could not always tell its friends from its enemies, its Indians from its whites. We only have to look at the album, feel its pages, and listen to its voices to know that.”

The triumph of the Terrorist Album, “viewed from the vantage point of the twenty-first century,” writes Dlamini is “there is a sense in which the album – with its collection of black and white, young and old, liberal and radical  – offers against itself and its compilers a collective portrait of the hope and idealism that animated the anti-apartheid movement of the twentieth century.”

Read against itself, the album offered “a vivid portrait of a cosmopolitan and democratic vision for South Africa. This raises the question of how a state that defined itself as white supremacy’s last hope in Africa dealt with opposition that came not in predictable black but in a rainbow of colours.”

Dlamini’s writing is lucid and captivating, moving between historical fact and careful biographical reconstruction. It is an invaluable addition to the greater and ongoing project of restoring to South Africans a history that some sought to erase and evade.

The Terrorist Album – Apartheid’s Insurgents, Collaborators, and the Security Police” is published by Blue Weaver and Harvard University Press. The South African edition will be launched in Cape Town, Gauteng and Durban in June. DM


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