Free Nelson Mandela
Mandela. For many, the name immediately conjures up the image of an aging, benevolent elder statesman, a global patriarch whose creased brow amply suggests the extent of his long walk to freedom.
And yet, for a man so widely recognised and iconised, the life story of Rolihlahla 'Nelson' Mandela is as much a struggle against the tyranny of invisibility, as it has been one against the hegemony of race and South Africa's former obsession with the 'correct' typology of colour.
"Prison not only robs you of your freedom, it attempts to take away your identity," Nelson Mandela wrote in his immensely popular autobiography Long Walk to Freedom, first published in 1994 (396).
Jailed in 1962 for his underground political activities, and sentenced to life imprisonment for treason in 1964, the Apartheid government used every mechanism at its disposal to erase the memory of this once prominent - and highly visible - young lawyer/ politician of the 1950s. Amongst the many tactics they employed, were banning his early writings, and more pertinent to what follows, outlawing depictions of his physical image.
For much of the 27 years Nelson Mandela was in jail, his image was banned and his impression removed from all media in South Africa. Not that this crisis of visibility deflated the power he evoked in the popular imagination.
"We grew up in a society devoid of pictures of the man," writes Sam Raditlhalo in an essay titled 'Of Icons and Myths'. Published in 1999, the essay offers an eloquent appraisal of the meaning of Mandela's face during the struggle years. Commenting on a censorious graphic phenomenon typical of the 1980s, he writes: "When a picture of Mandela did appear it was made sinister and soul-less by the censor's ink strip across his eyes. Yet, he reverberated in our consciousness every single time we marched to confront the police in the township schools."
Personally, I first encountered Nelson Mandela's image during the turbulent years of my undergraduate studies, in Johannesburg. It was the late 1980s and Apartheid was breathing a final fatigued sigh. Nelson Mandela was announcing himself through an assortment of imprecise images.
Campus newsletters disseminated badly printed photographs of him dating back to the late 1950s, while suburban walls occasionally featured his stencilled face framed by the admonition Free Mandela. I once even came across a tiny photograph of Nelson Mandela published in the New Musical Express, the pop music masthead obviously catching the normally meticulous state censors off guard.
Common to all these encounters was the somewhat pixellated image of a perpetually middle-aged man with lightly bearded face and neatly parted hair.
The certainty of this imprecise image was summarily disturbed on February 11, 1990, when a benign-looking old man in a suit walked free from prison. For a nation still tentatively emerging from the dark shadow of state oppression, the exacting television image of Nelson Mandela proved momentarily unsettling. An illicit icon was suddenly rendered very real - and he was a lot older than most of us had expected.
Yet despite the incredulity, there was an eagerness to replace the haziness of the past with a new certainty. The image of this seemingly aged man, always pictured clenching his fist in the air, would quickly become the pivot around which the new South Africa turned and gained its momentum.
Looking back now over the six decades of Nelson Mandela's tumultuous public life, it is fascinating to note the curious anomalies that mark the graphic and visual interpretation of this most visible of African leaders. I say anomalies because throughout his public life, Nelson Mandela's image has been contested.
Outlawed, imprisoned and eventually released, his iconic visage has always been somewhat indeterminate, tending towards invisibility despite his astounding public profile. As I will mention later, it is a condition that persists to this day, when Nelson Mandela's image is once again the object of official censure, this time due to the overzealous appropriation thereof. Those acquainted with Nelson Mandela's biography might at this point jokingly suggest that the political leader unwittingly conspired in propagating his indeterminate public profile. He was after all once a master of disguise. Writing of the troubled years prior to his arrest in August 1962, Nelson Mandela commented: "Living underground requires a seismic psychological shift� The key to being underground is to be invisible� As a leader, one often seeks prominence; as an outlaw, the opposite is true."
While on the run from state authorities, Nelson Mandela often took to disguises. "My most frequent disguise was as a chauffeur, chef or 'garden boy'� I was dubbed the Black Pimpernel." (315-316). This latter moniker proved quite popular with the press, if only because it offered a crude vernacular adaptation of Baroness Orczy's fictional character 'The Scarlet Pimpernel', who daringly evaded capture during the French Revolution. But there is more to this episode than banal analogies.
Banished to Robben Island prison by the Apartheid regime, Nelson Mandela became a ghostly figurehead. By the 1980s, when I first curiously encountered his image, he was an uncertain icon, a name without the certainty of a definable image. Definitely not Ch� Guevara.
This indeterminacy resonates through much of the graphic work using Nelson Mandela's image as a focal point during the 1980s, the apex period of popular resistance to Apartheid. His continued imprisonment was not the sole reason for this. Despite there being a well-documented history of the use of political posters in South Africa prior to the 1980s, the anti-Apartheid movement only fully co-opted the poster as a political tool during the 1980s, grassroots community groups using posters alongside hand-made banners, leaflets, T-shirts, lapel badges, flags, stickers and graffiti to disseminate their anti-Apartheid message.
While graphic artists struggled to define a key resistance image from an impoverished arsenal of available symbols, Nelson Mandela's image only fleetingly appeared. Remarking on the untidy hodgepodge of images used in posters, a member of the South African History Archive's Poster Collective observed: "Apartheid left South African communities with a limited common vocabulary of images. Suppression of popular culture left little unifying national 'folk' imagery to draw on."
As a result political posters used anything from the internationally recognisable clenched fist to the more localised spear and shield symbol of the exiled ANC as they struggled to articulate their message. Very often, party specific colours were accorded a greater primacy over any specific image.
The relative naivet� of the 1980s resistance posters is however marked by its own idiosyncrasies, and reflects greatly on the conditions under which they were produced. The proliferation of the silkscreened anti-Apartheid poster is largely due to the work of the Medu Art Ensemble, an exiled group of artists and cultural workers based in neighbouring Botswana. This collective designed posters for distribution inside South Africa, and also promoted silkscreening as a cheap communications technique. In July 1982, Medu hosted the groundbreaking Culture and Resistance Festival, the event attracting 5000 interested individuals.
The Apartheid state was quick to reciprocate, banning Medu posters and imposing stiff sentences on anyone caught smuggling posters across the border. On June 14, 1985, South African army units even went so far as to attack Gaberone, killing amongst others Thami Mneyele, a graphic artist and Medu official.
Despite the destruction of Medu's infrastructure, the organisation fulfilled one stated aim. In Cape Town, for instance, a group of cultural workers who attended the Medu event established a screen-printing resource centre based at the Community Arts Project. The centre was equipped with a printing table, drying lines, a bathtub, an exposure box and a huge vertical camera discarded by a printing company. Weekend workshops imparted basic information regarding the printing process to community organisations, unions and educational projects.
In 1983, the United Democratic Front (UDF) went on to amalgamate over 600 of these grassroots and civic organisations into a national anti-apartheid body. The UDF went on to play an important role in transforming these part-time workshops into full-time facilities, an arrangement that resulted in the production of some of the period's more memorable images, including calendars featuring cartoon illustrations by Zapiro.
Despite the odd standout piece, most of the posters dating from the 1980s are generally regarded as bad examples of the form. Streaking and blotching were commonplace on many of these printed posters. Many young recruits, committed but unschooled in any sort of visual language, often resorted to producing hand-lettered placards in workshops subject to state harassment and sabotage.
One notable exception to the norm is an offset litho print of Mandela, dated 1989. The work was produced by the Congress of South African Trade Unions (COSATU), a national organisation that often demanded print runs of large-scale posters numbering tens of thousands, usually in two or three colours.
Despite the rudimentary visual composition of this particular poster, the work nonetheless stands out as one of the better quality works, incorporating a visual approximation of Nelson Mandela based solely on verbal accounts.
Pausing for a moment on the trademark naivet� of these posters, it is worthwhile remembering that, "the heart of the [poster making] process lay in the engagement between those who used the workshops, for whom media production had become a necessary element of political life, and those who ran the workshops, whose central concern lay in democratising visual communications."
Such a working method resulted in unavoidable trade-offs, and the anti-Apartheid posters are in no way comparable with the output of the Russian Constructivists. Yet, in their own way, the 1980s anti-Apartheid posters are valuable. They are representative of a major form of popular visual expression, one in which icons and symbols were being defined from the ground up. (Significantly, the graphic activism of the Treatment Action Campaign hearkens back to this era.)
While popular resistance to Apartheid was gaining increased momentum in South Africa in the 1980s, it also became a cause c�l�bre internationally. Contrasting the output of poster works produced in South Africa with those made internationally serves little value. Resources, skills and printing techniques were worlds apart. What is, however, interesting to note is how designers from all nations confronted the same fundamental problem, that of representing Nelson Mandela without any reliable image. Looking back on the many anti-Apartheid images, be they posters, solidarity stamps or related resistance media, common images persist. Eli Weinberg's photograph of Nelson Mandela, taken early in the 1960s, is one example of a stock graphic image that was plundered, cropped, pixellated or reversed.
This conundrum, of not having a reliable image of Mandela, not only faced graphic designers, but picture editors at newspapers too. When it was announced that Nelson Mandela would be released in 1990 some of the political posters from the 1980s found their way onto the front pages of newspapers.
While news images of Nelson Mandela subsequent to his release are now legion, it is interesting to briefly trace the proliferation and interpretation of his image in media other than photography.
On the day before his release in 1990, a leftist weekly newspaper published a cartoon of Nelson Mandela. Drawn by Derek Bauer, a popular 1980s cartoonist whose style is indebted to Ralph Steadman, the image was flatly descriptive, more sociological than satirical.
Bauer's work is important in that it established a precedent rarely deviated from in political cartoons depicting Nelson Mandela since. "Certainly the reverence with which Mandela is regarded, even by hard-bitten hack cartoonists, is extraordinary," observed Karen Rutter, writing in Mail & Guardian, on the prevailing tone of cartoons depicting Mandela in the years following his release. "There's respect in the lines, even when gently poking fun; never the savage gashes accorded to [former president] PW Botha by Bauer, for example, or the crazed Thatcher so cruelly exposed by Bell. These are works which honour the subject."
In the visual arts, Mandela's image has also been popularly if somewhat uncritically appropriated. Works such as Willie Bester's In Our Land - Mandela', Roy Ndinisa's The People's Hero - Black President and Johannes Segogela's sculpture Nkosi Sikelele' are all unflinchingly reverential, each positioning the artist as praise-singer of the new democracy.
Of the more interpretive artworks to use Mandela's image, Lisa Brice's work Prisoner No. 466/64 offers an interesting meditation on Mandela's graphic identity. In an attempt to reconstruct Mandela's lost image, that which only his jailers would have seen during his imprisonment, the artist approached the police with a request to reconstruct his identity based on photographs of Mandela as a young activist and as a free man in 1990. Although the composite images of Mandela aging offer a poor likeness, the artist accepted this as part of the process and a comment in itself.
Another artwork to critically explore Mandela's iconic appeal was initiated by artist Kendell Geers. When Nelson Mandela opened an exhibition for the South African born artist in Berlin's Haus der Kulturen der Welt, in 1995, Geers arrived to greet Mandela wearing head-to-toe camouflage and a latex mask caricaturing Mandela's own face. A surprisingly good-natured exchange is said to have followed, with Mandela laughing and complimenting the artist on his idea. "I did not know how to greet a god," Geers later conceded, "so I thought about the African tradition of masks in which the wearer showed their highest respect for a god by wearing a mask of the god."
Oddly enough it is the godlike status accorded Mandela that is threatening to render him invisible again. A recent South African news article explains why. It was reported that the Nelson Mandela Foundation (NMF) - a non-profit organisation expanding upon the work Mandela has done throughout his life - has threatened to prosecute anyone attempting to profit from representing Nelson Mandela's image.
The NMF's move has firmly brought to an end the somewhat extended after-party celebrating Nelson Mandela's release in 1990. Despite having retired from public office, as leader of South Africa's ruling party, Mandela's image has retained a marked currency.
A burgeoning foreign tourist economy has merely added impetus to the varied uses and abuses of Mandela's iconic face. As a consequence, Mandela's image now adorns everything from expensive cotton pillowslips to dusty township tavern walls. Nelson Mandela is at once a fridge magnet and a ceramic table top, a length of fabric and a wristwatch.
While the NMF's attempts to suppress this commercial profiteering have the right motives at heart, their efforts are not without irony. Having overcome years of state sanctioned anonymity, Nelson Mandela, the brand, now faces the perils of commodification and over-saturation.
And it is open season in this respect with everyone seemingly pitching a Mandela-branded idea. In the Eastern Cape region of his birth, a plan has been mooted to construct a 30-storey Nelson Mandela statue. Audacious or ludicrous: it seems many South Africans are incapable of distinguishing the former from the latter.
This befuddlement is partly an index of the difficulties facing a country still striving to forge a cohesive master narrative, one that includes icons and symbols around which an emerging national identity can cohere. This fact cannot be overstated.
South Africa is a multi-racial, multi-ethnic, multi-lingual country. High apartheid (1949 - 1990) represented the zenith of a tragic history that sought as its final solution the institutionalisation of difference, the codification of race and identity. When Nelson Mandela came to power in 1994, the victor in South Africa's first non-racial democratic elections, he inherited this bitterly fractured legacy.
Superficially the immensity of this rupture is still evidenced in the testy political wrangling over the use of a Protea flower (over the old Springbok) as national sporting symbol (most notably in rugby). Commenting on the finer nuances of this malaise, one which is firmly grounded in identity politics, anthropologist Robert Thornton has remarked: "There are quite literally no names, no vocabulary, to discuss major aspects and parts of [South Africa's] political being� There is no agreement on what are the boundaries of 'Black', of 'White', of 'Indian' or 'Coloured'." In the area of language, Thornton observes, "No one knows whether to refer to 'tribes', 'ethnic groups', 'language groups', 'peoples' or 'races'." The problem is no less pronounced in the field of visual communication.
That Nelson Mandela's image has always been such a popular reference has its explanations. "Many countries have striven mightily for an iconic leader who makes the transition from popular hero to 'father' of the nation," explains Sam Raditlhalo, citing the tradition of the US's 'Founding Fathers' as an early archetype.
In the African context, particularly in the post-colonial period, Kenya similarly valorised Kenyatta, Ghana Nkrumah, Nigeria Azikiwe, Zambia Kaunda, and Tanzania Nyerere. "The transition of struggle leader to father of the nation," concludes Sam Raditlhalo, "is closely tied to colonialism."
But seemingly, Mandela now exists above politics. Maybe this perception is the result of his short political tenure. Mandela did not have to truly engage the pitfalls and idiosyncrasies of contemporary South African politics: AIDS, poverty, crime, Zimbabwe, corruption. Nor will these issues ever form part of his legacy. Rather he will be remembered as the person who straddled the difficult divide between South Africa's dark past and its optimistic future. Mandela: the man who not only spoke the rhetoric of reconciliation but gave tangible substance to it by forgoing on another Nuremberg Trial in favour of a Truth and Reconciliation Commission.
Of course, there are many contradictory elements to the 'visual meaning' of Mandela. Thus, while he is celebrated as the crowning symbol of racial pride in a free Africa, he is also the acme of a compassionate wisdom that is colour-blind. And then there is kitsch, Mandela the commodified symbol.
It is to Mandela's credit that he has long resisted deification and hero worship, indeed all the elaborate trappings of being a living symbol. As such, the difficulties that have long characterised the various representations of Mandela are quite poignant. Viewed collectively, all these imprecise images speak expressively of his key virtue - his remarkable selflessness.
Images of Defiance: South African Resistance Posters of the 1980s, Ravan Press, Johannesburg, 1991.
This review is an edited version of two articles, the first appearing in Eye: The International Review of Graphic Design (Vol. 12, Summer 2003), and the second in ThisDay newspaper (February 27, 2004). Aspects of this review form a part of the show 'Free Nelson Mandela', at the Klein Karoo arts festival in Oudtshoorn, April 3 - 10. The show is curated by the author.