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Extract: Gunning for Bessie’s head, from ‘The Terrorist Album’

The question of what made one a terrorist is easy to answer: any form of opposition to apartheid.

Harder to answer is the question: Who made one a terrorist? Among the people in the album is novelist Bessie Head, who left South Africa for Botswana in 1964 to escape the “fatal feeling of doom” that pervaded apartheid South Africa. The police had detained Head in 1960, making her one of the estimated 2 000 individuals taken into custody shortly after the Sharpeville Massacre on March 21 1960. 

That massacre opened a new chapter in the history of political violence in South Africa. It led to the banning of ANC and the Pan Africanist Congress (PAC); saw the introduction of systematic torture by the police; resulted in the adoption of violence by the ANC, the PAC, and other groups as a legitimate form of struggle; and drove thousands of South Africans into exile as the government unleashed a wave of repression that swept many, including Bessie Head, into the clutches of the Security Police.

Bessie’s head

The Security Police forced Head to inform on friends in the PAC, and she suffered a nervous breakdown and tried to kill herself because of this. When the police were done with her, they let her leave South Africa on an exit permit — a one-way ticket to statelessness whose holders had to renounce their South African citizenship. 

The permit, a piece of paper designed by the apartheid government to rid itself of individuals considered to be political problems, was a provision of the Departure from the Union Regulation Act, introduced in 1955 to give government control over the mobility of its citizens. The law gave the minister of the interior the power to decide who could receive a passport or travel document. Any person who left South Africa without a valid passport or exit permit faced between three months and two years in jail. Having granted Head her exit permit, the police included her in their album, thereby branding her a terrorist.

As an indication of the mix of bureaucratic meanness and callous indifference that defined the album, 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.

George Hallett, the late South African photographer famous for his portraits of African writers, took the photograph at a writers’ conference in Berlin in 1979. The Security Police likely clipped Hallett’s photograph and put it in the album after it appeared in a 1984 issue of Staffrider, an anti-apartheid literary magazine. But why include Head in the album? Why brand an impecunious writer estranged from the anti-apartheid movement a terrorist?

This is an extract from the introduction to Jacob Dlamini’s The Terrorist Album: Apartheid’s Insurgents, Collaborators, and the Security Police, published by the Harvard University Press

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Jacob Dlamini
Jacob Dlamini is a historian of Africa, with an interest in precolonial, colonial and postcolonial African History. He obtained a Ph.D. from Yale University in 2012 and is also a graduate of Wits University in South Africa and Sussex University in England.

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