Jacqui Quin and Leon Meyer: The life of a photograph

Posted on August 7, 2014

This is the caption to the photograph that appeared in the Sunday Times on 22 December 1985. It's a haunting image, starkly dramatic, shot at an angle by a photographer standing somewhere behind and to the right of his subjects, seeing them head first. Joe lies with his head turned to the left, eyes closed; he could be sleeping. Jacqui's head is turned to the right, her eyes are half-open, her lips slightly parted; she could be waking.


The article that accompanies this photograph tells the story of the murder of Jacqueline Quin and her husband Leon Meyer, an Umkhonto we Sizwe (MK) commander known in exile as 'Joe', and of Nomkhosi Mary Mnisi, Lulamile Dantile, Vivian Stanley Mathee, Monwabisi Themba Mayoli, and three Lesotho nationals Mankaelang Mohatle, Boemo Tau and Amelia Leseuyeho. It also describes how Phoenix, Jacqui and Leon's one-year old daughter was left alone and unharmed by the murderers. Although there was much speculation at the time it was not known for certain, until almost a decade later, that the victims had been murdered by a group of Vlakplaas operatives under the leadership of Eugene de Kock. For more about this see Jane Quin's post De Kock ordered my sister's killing - and no, his debt is not paid.

The life of the photograph

As all archivists know, every record has a life. It's created, used, filed and then appraised to determine whether it should be destroyed or consigned to the archive. The life of this particular picture took a couple of unexpected turns as it made its way in the world. It didn't, like others published in the same edition of the newspaper slip quietly into obscurity, to lie dormant in the archive. It left its mark on the family and on the photographer and it took on another life, inspiring a novel and being implicated in some way or another in a bombing.

The photographer

Trevor Samson, the Agence France Presse (AFP) photographer who took this picture, has tried to block out the memories of the day he shot it saying, 'It's the only way to cope'. Pressed to describe the circumstances under which he came take the photograph, he explained how he and other journalists flew to Maseru in a plane chartered by a TV agency, hired a Kombi and drove to the houses where the victims had been shot, before being directed to the mortuary. Samson's voice trembles as he describes the event as profoundly traumatic, the first and only occasion on which he has been in a mortuary. He tells me that even today, the smell of ‘Handy Andy' takes him back to the tragic scene, time and time again. The indelible imprint of sensory memory is powerfully echoed in the testimonies of Leon Meyer's brother Chris, and his sister, Dawn Botha, to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC). Our bodies remember what our minds try to shut out.

Another aspect of this grim day that stands out vividly in Samson's memory is of how the shocked the policemen stationed at the hospital mortuary insisted on showing the journalists everything they could, saying, 'You have to see this!'

Although the subject matter of is deeply disturbing, the photograph it is powerful and strangely beautiful, almost baroque, in its dramatic composition and lighting. Samson chose to shoot the photograph at a moment when the scene was illuminated by the lights set up by a TV crew, the stark contrasts of light and dark heightening the innate drama of the scene in a way that somehow seems to dignify, rather than sensationalise the subject. Taken in a blander light the scene might have just seemed rather tawdry.

Part of the power of this photograph lies in the in which the photographer has framed Quin and Meyer, excluding any extraneous detail. Although viewers might wonder what lies beyond the frame, or what is happening on the periphery, there are no clues. In contrast, a glimpse of the same scene, spotted fleetingly in Episode 4 of the SABC's TRC Special Report, shows metal lockers standing behind the bodies and includes footage of men, in uniform and in civilian clothes, walking past and around the bodies, leaning over to take a closer look. This has the effect of objectifying the victims, reducing rather than exposing their humanity.

Samson says that he never looked at the image after that day and doesn't ever want to see it again. But then, he doesn't need to; he will never forget the experience, no matter how hard he tries to block it out, it's embedded in his memory. Reflecting on our conversation later, I think how important it is that images like this live on in the archive, but I am troubled by the toll that creating these have taken on those who have borne witness to an unrelenting parade of atrocities, documenting unspeakable acts of violence in words and images. The archive of our difficult and traumatic past has come at a high price to many.

The Sunday Times and its readers

After shooting the photograph Samson went to a hotel in Maseru, and wired the image directly to AFP in Paris. Within hours the photograph was made available to AFP subscribers around the world, marking its first entrance into the world. It was picked up almost immediately by the Sunday Times and published with the lead story headlined in the newspaper two days after the murders.

Some of those who saw this photograph must have been enraged, seeing it as a flagrantly disrespectful invasion of the rights of the victims and their families to privacy and dignity at a time when they were at their most vulnerable. There must surely have been heated debate about this issue in the newsroom. When does the right to know and to tell override the right to privacy?

Questions must have been asked about what motivated the Sunday Times to publish this particular photograph. Was it because of the human-interest angle - a mixed-race couple at a time when marriages across the colour bar were forbidden and a baby that had survived a bloody massacre? Did the publication of the photograph imply tacit support for the ruling party's ‘total onslaught' or was the newspaper trying to drive home another message: that the struggle for liberation transcended the barriers of class, colour, and creed. Was the Sunday Times trying to bring home the horror of atrocities committed by the apartheid regime believing that it was in the public interest to override private sensibilities?

The family

As may be expected, the family found the publication of the photograph deeply troubling. One member of the extended family first heard about the tragedy when her shocked daughter phoned to say that she had seen and recognised the couple in the picture in the newspaper that morning. Other family members, friends, colleagues and comrades of the deceased must also have been among the thousands who purchased a copy of the Sunday Times that day. One wonders how they reacted. Did they pore over the photograph looking for clues to a seemingly senseless act? Did they set the paper aside quickly to avoid seeing too much? Did they weep or rage?

One of Jacqui's aunts alerted to the publication of the photograph, and saved from encountering it unprepared, says that, 'It was terribly distressing to see that she didn't look calm or peaceful, as one would like a daughter, or a sister or a niece who has died to look.' It's an image that has continued to haunt her. She kept the yellowing newspaper clipping folded away in the top of her cupboard for several years, explaining that she'd found it so distressing that she never wanted to look at it again, but couldn't bring herself to throw it away. Eventually, she passed it on to another member of the family. Jacqui's aunt, like Samson, and probably many others, made a deliberate choice not risk a re-encounter with a record they knew would force them to relive the traumatic event all over again.

For the families and others close to the deceased, this photograph will always be remembered for its association with a deeply felt personal loss. For them, it's the stuff of nightmares. But what about others who found themselves unexpectedly confronted with the painful record of a traumatic experience? How did they respond?

The bomber

The photograph enters into the world again in April 1986, when mention of it is made in the trial of Andrew Zondo, a young MK cadre who saw it in the Sunday Times the day before he deposited a bomb in a rubbish bin inside the Sanlam Shopping Centre in Amanzimtoti, killing five civilians and injuring another 40.

When he appeared in court, charged with five counts of murder, Zondo described how he had been instructed to carry out an attack in retaliation for the December 1985 Maseru raid. Admitting that he knew that it was against ANC policy to injure or harm civilians, a position confirmed by the ANC in its submission to the TRC, Zondo explained how he went to Amanzimtoti in search of a government installation to target. After checking out the police station and the post office and deciding that he could not carry out a retaliatory act there on his own, he went to the nearby mall. In his statement to the court he says that, while having something to eat he 'saw people who were reading the newspaper which carried a picture of the woman who was shot in Lesotho, leaving her nine month old baby. Then I bought a newspaper myself. On returning home I thought I will come back here and put my limpet mine'.

This account, quoted on page 46 of Fatima Meer's book, The Trial of Andrew Zondo seems to suggest a causal link between the photograph and Zondo's choice of target, but this is not necessarily the case. On page 108 of the same book, Meer quotes Zondo as describing how coming out of the restaurant he saw a 'South African Airways (SAA) mark outside the travel agency' and, because he associated SAA with the government, decided that 'this is the place I'm going to use for retaliation'.

While the photograph may or may not have played a role in determining Zondo's decision, the fact that he mentioned it in his statement to the court means that it must have had a significant impact on him. It's possible that it triggered his own traumatic memories of living in Maputo at a time when the South African Defence Force mounted a series of cold-blooded cross-border raids, killing South Africans in exile and Mozambiquan citizens amongst others.

Zondo was found guilty as charged and executed on 19 September 1986. In 2006, the road that runs past the shopping centre was renamed after Zondo, in recognition for the role he played in the struggle for liberation.

The author

The photograph enters the world next in 1989, when Thoughts in a Makeshift Mortuary, a novel by Jenny Hobbs is published. Like Zondo, Hobbs recalls seeing the photograph in the Sunday Times saying, 'It was a Sunday morning just before Christmas. We were on holiday and there was this awful photograph, the worst I've ever seen, of this young couple who had been shot by cross-border terrorists.' Describing the deep impression the image made on her Hobbs explains that she had daughters of a similar age and says, 'I was so appalled by the vision of a young woman like them assassinated in her home, that I kept the cutting and subsequent articles about the funeral in Lesotho. Two weeks later I sat down one evening and started writing this fiction.' She adds that, 'It was the horror of the cross-border raids being planned and executed by shadowy men sent by the Nationalist government, and the terrible toll that monstrous policy was taking on innocent people, that drove me on.'
While Hobbs has acknowledged the photograph as the impetus for the novel, she has not, as far as I can ascertain, ever acknowledged the photographer by name: Samson seemed quite taken aback to hear that his photograph had spawned a book.

Thoughts in a Makeshift Mortuary was published by Michael Joseph in 1989 and in paperback editions Grafton in 1990 and in by Umuzi in 2014. It was translated and published in two editions in Germany under the title Tief im Süden in 1995.

The novel is dedicated to 'Jackie, and to the many young South African women like her who follow their convictions and their hearts through the barricades that so artificially divide us.' Although Hobbs has been diligent in asserting that her narrative is fictional and the characters 'imagined, not based on the people involved'. Jacqui's family are uncomfortable with it and her mother has chosen not to read the novel. She and other family members feel bitter that the author is capitalising on their pain and appropriated their tragedy for her own purposes. Hobbs seems to think otherwise. On her website she expresses the hope that the novel will makes people remember the sacrifices that Jacqui and many others made, and their bravery. Quin's mother, in her testimony to the TRC, asked for a memorial to ensure that Jacqui and Leon's story and the reasons for their deaths are remembered. Hobbs' novel may bring this to mind but can a work of fiction ever be a fitting memorial?

The photograph may yet enter the record again, through another route. Hobbs has recently granted an option to write a film script of the novel to Sandy Ani-Adjei, (stage name Alexander Arthur), a Ghanaian-born British actor and screenwriter who discovered an old paperback copy while helping a friend clear out his UK attic.


To really know or be a record, or appreciate its full import, one has to understand the story of its life and trace its journey through the world. As the biography of this photograph makes evident, those who create records are not always able to foresee or control the ways in which the record acts on or is acted upon by others. It demonstrates the power of the record to both communicate and evoke trauma: to document and provoke action.

Over and above all that, this photograph reminds us that Leon Meyer and Jacqui Quin paid the ultimate price for the role they played in shaping a better world for all South Africans.

Jo-Anne Duggan is the director of the Archival Platform. She has both a professional and a personal interest in this story. Jane Quin who wrote De Kock ordered my sister's killing - and no, his debt is not paid is her cousin, as was Jaqui Quin.


Evidence presented to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of South Africa by the families of the victims and by perpetrator seeking amnesty reveals much of the story that was previously veiled in secrecy.

On 19 December 1985, a seventeen-strong team of Vlakplaas operatives led by Eugene de Kock crossed the border into Lesotho where they attacked people attending a party organised by an informer, Elvis Macaskil, killing Nomkhosi Mary Mini, Lulamile Dantile, Vivian Stanley Mathee, Monwabisi Themba Mayoli, all South African ANC members and three Lesotho nationals Mankaelang Mohatle, Boemo Tau and Amelia Leseuyeho. On being informed that Leon Meyer, an MK commander and the main target of the attack and his wife Jacqueline Quin had already left the party, de Kock sent two operatives to their house to kill them. Their one-year old daughter, Phoenix, was left unharmed.

In 1996 Eugene de Kock was tried and convicted on eighty-nine charges and sentenced to 212 years in prison. Neither he not any of the other involved were charged for his role in this raid.

Eight of those involved in the planning and execution of the raid applied to the TRC for amnesty these included: Vlakplaas operatives Butata Almond Nofamela, Eugene Alexander De Kock, Willem Albertus Nortje and Izak Daniel Bosch who were in the group that executed the attack; General Johannes Velde van der Merwe, head of the Security Police and; Brigadier Willem Frederick Schoon who issued the instruction to de Kock.

Van der Merwe's application was refused on the grounds that he had not made a full disclosure. De Kock, Nortje, Bosch, Vermeulen and Schoon were granted amnesty for their role in the killing of seven of the victims. All the applicants were refused amnesty for the killing of Mary Mnisi and Jacqui Quin because the Committee was not satisfied that the circumstances under which they were killed was covered by the requirements of the Act. Nofamela, whose testimony exposed the activities of the Vlakplaas operatives was subsequently granted amnesty for all the politically motivated he had committed.
The applicants implicated a number of other persons in the planning and execution of the raid. These included: the two Vlakplaas operatives said to have been responsible for killing Meyer and Quin, Anton Adamson, deceased, and Joe Coetzer, who refused to testify; the head of the former National Intelligence Service, Neil Barnard; former Minister of Law and Order, Louis Le Grange; former Deputy Commissioner of Police, Lieutenant General Basie Smit; Askaris Letsatsi, Thabiso and Gregory Radebe; Captain Fouche, of the Special Branch, Ladybrand and; former President P.W Botha.

For more information about the TRC, including recordings and transciptions of oral testimonies see the website of the Department of Justice , the South African History Archive (SAHA) and the South African Broadcasting Corporation (SABC)