This book is microhistory at its best. Dlamini, born into South Africa’s apartheid, discovered that a crude photo album containing more than 7,000 mug shots of “terrorists” and “enemies of the state” had been used to identify and keep tabs on opponents during the glory days of the regime. Supposedly, critical “intelligence” was derived from a mere photographic compendium.
After apartheid’s demise and future President Nelson Mandela’s release from prison, the security forces attempted to burn (in industrial furnaces) all traces—44 tons of paper and microfiche—of their operations and much of what passed for security files. They attempted, with good reason, to obliterate their past (just as many British colonial administrations tried to do elsewhere in Africa).
A South African police official called the album the “greatest form of terrorism” (xii). Three of its 500 copies unaccountably survived, with Dlamini hotly in pursuit. South Africa’s researchers in the Truth and Reconciliation Commission discovered two copies on a desk in the Venda homeland. Dlamini’s book is based on a digitized version, on interviews with the securocrats who compiled the album, on invigilations of Africans who cooperated with the police, and on interviews with several subjects whose faces appeared within the album’s pages. This book’s interdisciplinary character comes from its analysis of photographic representations as valid historical objects, and in giving them a form of agency that belies their black-and-white material substance.
The album was employed as an instrument of repression. But Dlamini shows how rudimentary and even misleading it was as an apartheid surveillance measure. Because the photos could not be updated, they barely resembled many of their subjects as time passed. Some of the individuals involved even had trouble identifying their own portraits in later years. Many photographs were attached to aliases or intentionally misleading noms de guerre.
The security police relied much more than they should have on the faces in the album, together with information supplied by African informants, by former African National Congress (anc) adherents, and by officials in neighboring countries who had been paid to tell tales about refugees, runaways, and proto- or crypto-terrorists. Much less all-knowing and efficient than they believed and claimed themselves to be, the security police nevertheless managed intermittently to capture anc infiltrators, torturing and otherwise compelling many of them to turn on their comrades, and they were able, at least intermittently, to reduce the anc’s military prowess and its ability to coordinate. But as the long search for Sechaba Setsubi, a graduate of Fort Hare University College and sometime teacher reveals (Chapter 4), the police were often clueless, easily misled, and manipulated.
The photographic compendium was created in the 1960s, just after the Sharpeville massacre and the prosecution of Mandela and others for treason in the Rivonia trial, and updated massively in 1985. It was intended to permit security forces to track all South Africans suspected of opposing apartheid, whether they were confirmed terrorists or, more likely, merely dissidents. Dlamini treats the material remains of the album and “linked objects” as “cracks through which to look afresh at the ruins of apartheid.” (6). The album contains the raw effigies of the microhistorical reconstruction that Dlamini so imaginatively accomplished.
Through a detailed examination of the lives and experiences of several persons featured in the album from a twenty-first century perspective, Dlamini provides an intimate, corrosive, and encapsulating appreciation of how the security apparatuses of apartheid attempted to keep order and maintain control. Thus, he shows his subjects entangled by the tentacles of the apartheid state. He shows how they were warped by their encounters, brutalized, imprisoned, deprived of a sense of self, or, for those fortunate few, spared by the apartheid government’s final decision to release Mandela and start afresh under African rule in 1989/90.
There are many good studies of South African politics, of South Africa under apartheid, of the police in South Africa during apartheid, of the anc and its military procedures from outside the country, and of the activities of the United Democratic Front and other resistance operations within the country. But very few studies capture as well as this one does what it was like to be on the run, to be captured and tortured, to be jailed, and to resume activities effectively (or not) at a later time. This book stands with the resistance literature from Europe during the world wars, and with studies of guerilla groups, as well as with analyses of how security contingents attempted to protect the pariah state from its opponents.
What Dlamini never discusses, however, is what difference the album made as an intelligence instrument in the war between the forces of apartheid and their determined antagonists. Did all of the assiduous tracing and retracing of dissidents make much of an impact on the larger battle to preserve the racist regime? Even if the makers and keepers of the album, as well as their police superiors, were convinced of its value, was it really just an exercise—as Dlamini occasionally hints—of bureaucratic make-work?
Whatever the answer to those questions, the album has given Dlamini a revealing optic with which to scrutinize the underpinnings of apartheid’s security framework. Dlamini’s profile of a police apparatus trying without lasting success to categorize and keep even with its antagonists is matched by his moving sketches of teenagers who went away to war and came back either emboldened or broken, the Janus-sided face of an album of intolerance.