Photography and the Liberation Struggle in South Africa


We are not dealing with sets of statistics. We are talking about people of flesh and blood, who laugh and cry, who love and hate, who enjoy being cuddled. We are talking about men who want to be with their families, husbands who just want to work to be able to feed their children. 1

-Archbishop Desmund Tutu

The following article seeks to better understand how photographs have been used in South Africa as ideological and consequently political weaponry. Questions we will pose include; how has the colonial state employed photographic imagery to construct and preserve white hegemony? How have people opposed to exploitative white supremacy utilized photography to undermine the photographic discourse created by the State, and the racist ideology that discourse supports? What countermeasures has the State engaged in to stifle photographic subversion? How have resistance photographers circumvented those countermeasures? And how did resistance photography contribute to the liberation struggle?

The struggle for liberation in South Africa can be viewed from various perspectives, one of which is behind the viewfinder. Violent phrases such as "hitting back with the camera" or "using our cameras continuously as guns" sprinkle the scant literature on photography in South Africa. 2 Resistance photography has received little attention from academics, however it was an important element of the struggle for liberation in South Africa. 3

Apartheid managed to endure forty-six years in South Africa partly because of a historically normalized visual discourse and stringent censorship. 4 While many authors critically elaborate on the intimate relationship between apartheid and censorship, their collective focus is overwhelmingly on print media and fictional literature. 5 The connection between written discourse and ideology is often made explicit; yet the question of how the government of South Africa molded a visual discourse to support their ideology is hardly ever asked. 6

Bill Nichols analyzed how ideologies manipulate a visual discourse to allow for its own implementation in his work, Ideology and the Image . Nichols wrote, "Ideology uses the fabrication of images and the processes of representation to persuade us that how things are is how they ought to be and that the place provided for us is the place we ought to have." 7 Nichols' statement is illustrated by photography in South Africa before World War two. The beginning of chapter one will elaborate on how the colonial state harnessed photographic images to normalize a segregated pigmentocracy.

The visual discourse that buttressed the policies of apartheid included all visual facets of society, ranging from visual media such as television broadcasts and cinema, to the visual configuration of physical reality in architecture and city planning, to the visual arts such as painting and sculpture. This paper will explore only one portion of the greater visual discourse - still photography.

The term resistance photography will be used to signify photography that in any way challenged the beliefs, policies, or actions of the South African government. Such a general definition functions despite the political complexities in South Africa, because apartheid South Africa can be essentially understood in binary terms. The editors of Staffrider wrote, "In South Africa the neutral option does not exist - you stand with your oppressors or against them." 8 The only classifications of resistance photography used in the following pages will be photojournalism and documentary photography. Resistance photojournalism differed from resistance documentary photography because of: the primacy of text in photojournalism, the limited number of photographs included in a piece of photojournalism, the more direct form of highlighting injustice and inhumanity in resistance photojournalism, and the more rigid conventions of framing of photojournalism.

Photography was chosen for this investigation because it continuously played a role in the subversion of the hegemonic visual discourse the Nationalist party molded to support apartheid. Television networks such as the South African Broadcasting Company were controlled by the state. While film and video were compelling media of resistance, and instrumental in garnering anti-apartheid sentiment internationally, opposition films and videos were censored with greater success. 9 Commercial imagery overwhelmingly catered to the oppressive class, so little could be expected from it as a form of resistance.

Photography was a powerful tool of resistance for many reasons. Much of its power lay in its ability to expose the humanity of non-white racial groups that apartheid concealed at all cost. Resistance photography allowed whites to see the conditions their government's policies forced Africans into, and reflect on the inhumanity of apartheid. One of the more famous resistance photographers, Omar Badsha commented, "The Whites are more oppressed than the blacks in this country. Because they can't feel. They have lost their humanity." 10 For "coloureds" (people of mixed race), resistance photography allowed them to see the injustices their parents suffered. "Separate development," as its supporters referred to it, created a reality in which different races were estranged from each other's reality. Allister Sparks, the acclaimed South African journalist, commented:

The fundamental point that's got to be made about South Africa is that it's two countries in one. It often seems to me to be a place that H.G. Wells might have invented where people live in different time frames and they don't see each other and they perceive different realities. I live ten minutes drive from Alexandra Township, but the smoke and thunder of the violence there doesn't waft across my suburban garden. 11

In summary, photography's ability to expose what the South Africa government tried to conceal, the injustice and inhumanity of being African, made it an effective medium of resistance in apartheid South Africa.

The camera is endowed with the power to testify. In the introduction to Imijondolo, a photo-essay about forced removals by Omar Badsha, Archbishop Desmond Tutu writes:

I believe that when the Germans were asked how they could possibly have permitted Hitler and the Nazis to perpetrate the horrors of the holocaust, they replied that they did not know that those things were happening. It is possible for many South Africans and others to plead a similar ignorance about the evil consequences of apartheid and the policies being applied against black people. After all these things happen out of sight. 12

By moving the horrors of apartheid within view, photographs not only lured the dominant class into observing suffering and injustice, which they would otherwise be oblivious to, but also mitigated the credibility of an outright denial of abuses of human rights. Denial was indeed an issue in South Africa. One journalist described an experience where he wrote an article about a riot scene he witnessed, which was never published because his editor did not believe him. 13 Resistance photographs served as compelling testimony against claims of denial. Photographer Ben MacLennan wrote, "I am taking photographs because one day when something happens and there are changes in South Africa, I want to insure that people won't be able to say 'We didn't know. We weren't told these things were happening.' 14

Photographs have an intimate relationship with history. Walter Benjamin wrote, "photographs become standard evidence for historical occurrences, and acquire a hidden political significance." 15 Photography in many ways is the first drafter of history. Resistance photographer Paul Weinberg commented, "overnight you can become the repository of your history. You have a responsibility to understand the importance of your documentation, the record...the historical record." 16 Anton Kaes, writing about the influence of film in constructing "a tolerable master narrative" about Nazi Germany commented "Cinematic representations have influenced - indeed shaped - our perspective on the past; they function for us today as a technological memory bank. History... has passed into the hands of those who create these images." 17 The control of imagery becomes the control of history, which lies at the root of ideology.

The relatively low cost of producing a still photograph and the constant potential to mass-produce that photograph combine to characterize photography as intrinsically democratic. 18 Those struggling for liberation harnessed this democratic characteristic in many ways. Photographs transcended the divisive policies of apartheid and empowered political efforts to organize and mobilize the resistance. Chapter two will elaborate on how photographs partly assumed the role of unifying and energizing oppressed South Africans in the void created by banned political parties and the dissolution of other types of resistance groups. Omar Badsha commented about organizations realizing the power of photography: "The bread strike, they now want photographs of the whole event, to put together in a booklet, so that the other factories, that were not part of the strike can be mobilized." 19

Finally photography as a means of self-expression shared in the greater creative branch of the liberation struggle. Joyce Ozynski, an editor of Staffrider, a publication dedicated to literary and artistic work from the oppressed communities in South Africa, wrote that photography is "equal in expressive significance to prose, poetry and art." 20 Acting as a "mimetic and prophetic" force, photography, like music, drama, dance and literature stood on the front lines of the liberation struggle. 21

There will be no statistical evidence to support a definitive claim in the following pages. It is impossible to gauge exactly how crucial the manipulation of photographic images was in the establishment of apartheid or neatly describe how photographs contributed to the liberation struggle. However, through a synthesis of primary and secondary sources, including interviews with many resistance photographers, I will show that photographs played a significant role in both the construction and subversion of apartheid. In chapter one I will trace the role of photographs in constructing a colonial photographic discourse that provided the foundation for the photographic discourse of apartheid, and the legislative efforts of the apartheid regime to control images. In chapters two and three I will chronicle resistance photography and show how it was instrumental in mobilizing opposition within the country and securing international support for the anti-apartheid movement. I present this paper as an exploration of the power of images in the context of ideological construction and deconstruction, and as another lens through which to view the South African liberation struggle.

• 1 Omar Badsha and Francis Wilson, South Africa: the Cordoned Heart (New York: Gallery Press and Norton, 1986), xiv.
• 2 Social Documentary Photography: South Africa Through the Lens Staffrider  (Johannesburg: Raven Press, 1983), 36; and Transcript of conversations with Omar Badsha, 9/1985-11/1985, 8.
• 3 Note: Salley Gaule of the University of Witswatersrand is the only scholar who has focused strictly on photography in South Africa.
• 4 William Hachten, "South Africa Uses Censorship and Propaganda as Weapons of Political Warfare." In Getting the Real Story: Censorship and Propaganda in South Africa , (Calgary: Detselig Enterprisers Ltd., 1990), 135-137.
• 5 See Jonathan Paton (1973), A.J.Coetzee (1974), Walter Saunders (1973), D.V. Cowden (1960), Alex Hepple (1960), Gerald Sperling and Jamed McKenzie (1990), JCW van Rooyen (1987), and Kenya Tomaselli and Eric Louw (1991).
• 6 Note: Even in books and critical essays published about censorship and apartheid, photography is not even indexed. 
• 7 Bill Nichols, Ideology and the Image , (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1981) 1.
• 8 Social Documentary Photography: South Africa Through the Lens,"  Staffrider  (Johanessburg: Raven Press, 1983), 36.
• 9 Kenya Tomaselli, "Myth, Race and Power: South Africans Imaged on Film and TV," 1986.
• 10 Transcript of a conversation between Chris Ledechowski and Omar Badsha, 11/1985, 1
• 11 Allister Sparks, speaking in afternoon session of a symposium for an opening of The Cordoned Heart photo-exhibit at the International Center for Photography, May, 9 1986, 132 of transcript.
• 12 Omar Badsha, Imijondolo (Johannesburg: Afrapix, 1987 ), 1
• 13 Kenya Tomaselli, Ruth Tomaselli and Johan Muller, The Press in South Africa (London: James Currey Ltd., 1989), 29-30.
• 14 Special Collections, The Cordoned Heart Exhibit installation
• 15 Cited in: Susan Sontag, On Photography (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1973), 184.
• 16 Transcript of a conversation between Omar Badsha and Paul Weinberg while driving from Durban to Cape Town, 6.
• 17 Anton Kaes, From Hitler to Heimat: the Return of History as Film (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1989), ix.
• 18 Susan Buck-Morss, The Dialectics of Seeing: Walter Benjamin and the Arcades Project (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1989), 133.
• 19 Transcript of a conversation in an automobile between Omar Badsha and Paul Weinberg, driving from Durban to Cape Town.
• 20 Andries Walter Oliphant and Ivan Vladislavic, Ten Years of Staffrider: 1978-1988, (Johannesburg: Raven Press, 1988), i and 263.
• 21 Ingrid Byerly, "Mirror, Mediator, and Prophet: The Music Indaba of Late-Apartheid South Africa," Ethnomusicology (Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 42:1, 1998), 31.

Last updated : 19-Aug-2016

This article was produced for South African History Online on 03-Apr-2011