Omar Badsha

Names: Badsha, Omar

Born: 27 June 1945, Durban, South Africa

In summary: A self-taught, award wining artist and photographer. Badsha played a active role in the South African liberation struggle, as a cultural and political activist and trade union leader.

Omar Badsha was born in Durban in 1945 and grew up in a Gujarati Muslim family.  His grandparents emigrated to South Africa from India in the late 1890s and the family forms part of the small influential Gujarati Vhora Muslim community. His father Ebrahim Badsha was a pioneer artist and a major influence on his son’s art and political activism.

Omar Badsha’s activism began in the early sixties at high school. He was in the forefront of all the major anti-apartheid campaigns in Natal and the Western Cape for close on 38 years and underwent periods of detainment and harassment. He was denied a passport for close on 25 years and had one of his books of photographs banned.

In the early 1970s, he was one of the small but influential group of activists instrumental in reviving the progressive trade union movement. He was involved in the establishment of the Trade Union Advisory and Co-ordinating Council (TUACC), which was the forerunner of COSATU. He was also responsible for organising Chemical Workers Industrial Union and served as the Union’s first secretary in 1974.

An image from Badsha's Imperial Ghetto exhibition An image from Badsha's Imperial Ghetto exhibition

From the mid 1960s Badsha was also a leading anti-apartheid artist and cultural activist. In the late 1970s and the 1980s he went on to become one of the most influential documentary photographers.

In 1979 “Letter to Farzanah”, his first book of photographs, published to commemorate the International Year of the Child, was banned. In 1982 he was instrumental in establishing Afrapix, the now legendary independent photographic agency and collective. The collective played a leading role in shaping the social documentary photography tradition and in documenting the popular struggle's of the 1980s.

In 1984 his book, "Imijondolo", on life in the massive informal settlements of Inanda, outside Durban, was published. Badsha was one of the people active in establishing the first residents associations in the Amouti section of the community.

In the 1980s Badsha headed the photographic unit of the Second Carnegie Inquiry into Poverty and Development in Southern Africa and then edited the seminal book on life in South Africa in the 1980s, titled "South Africa: The Cordoned Heart". The exhibition traveled internationally for ten years to all the major art centers in America.

In 1987 Badsha moved from Durban to Cape Town to establish the Centre of Documentary Photography at the University of Cape Town.

In the Cape, he was active in the United Democratic Front (UDF) and one of the founding members and chairperson of the Cultural Workers Congress, an affiliate of the UDF. On 08 July 1988 Badsha was arrested along with Zollie Malinga, Bulenani Ngcuka, Jonathan Shapiro, Rehana Rossour, Veronica Simmers, Saleem Mowzer, Nconde Balfor and Nams Wessels. They were arrested for being part of a Mandela Birthday Celebration organising committee and were released from detention on 19 July, just a day after Mandela's Birthday. At the time, the Apartheid government had banned all gatherings and the activists.


After the unbanning of the African National Congress (ANC), Badsha served in a number of capacities in the ANC and was a head of the ANC Western Cape Department of culture & society.

During the 1994 election he was the convener of the Mass Democratic Movement and served on the political committee of the ANC’s Western Cape Election campaign.

After 1994, unlike many activists, Badsha went back to grassroots work amongst the youth and cultural workers and was instrumental in establishing the Ikapa Arts Trusts that organised the annual Cape Town Festival.

Since 1965 Badsha has exhibited widely both at home and abroad. His paintings and photographs can be found in all the major public collections in South Africa and leading galleries and institutions abroad. Books by Badsha are listed in the ‘CV' section.

Badsha is the recipient of a number of awards for painting and photography. He was awarded the Sir Basil Schonland Award, Arts South Africa Today 1965, The Sir Ernest Oppenheimer Memorial Award, Arts South Africa Today 1969, The Natal Society Of Arts - Annual award 1968, and “Images Of Africa" First Prize at the African Arts Festival in Denmark, 1993.

In 1995 he was a recipient of a grant by the Danish Government to document life in Denmark. The exhibition of this work was opened by the Danish foreign minister and Vice President Thabo Mbeki. He travelled to India in 1996 on request of the Indian Government and started a project to document life in his grandparents' ancestral village in Gujarat. More recently he published "Imperial Ghetto" (2001), a study of life in the Grey Street complex of Durban, and edited "With Our Own Hands" (2002), a focus on the government's poverty relief programmes.

In 1997 he moved with his family to Pretoria and in 1999 established South African History Online (SAHO), a non-profit online history project which has become one of the largest online history projects in Africa.

In 2008 Badsha moved back to Cape Town, where he continues to run SAHO exhibit his work, both at home and internationally.