Background to Art and Politics

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  • Background
  • The Growth of Resistance and Protest Art in South Africa
  • References

Manfred Zylla

It is as though our rulers stalk every page and haunt every picture: everything is obsessed by the oppressors and the trauma they have imposed. – Albie Sachs

South African Historical Background

South African Resistance or Protest Art spans the period  from the 1976 Soweto uprising to the first democratic election in 1994.

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Sharpeville massacre March 21 1960 – 69 killed, 180 wounded

The Sharpeville Massacre (March 21, 1960), signaled the start of armed resistance in South Africa, and prompted worldwide condemnation of South Africa’s Apartheid policies. It triggered a chain of events, from the banning of liberation organisations, the launch of the armed struggle, the internationalization of the South Africa’s Apartheid policies and the growing division between black and white South African’s.

The period between the The Sharpeville Massacre  and The Soweto Uprising (16 June 1976)  was a period of relative calm in the resistance movement in the wake of massive government repression in the 1960s under H. F. Verwoerd.

Read More about the Sharpeville Massacre

Yet during this “silent decade,’ a new sense of resistance had been brewing. In 1969, black students, led by Steve Biko (among others), formed the South African Student’s Organization (SASO). Stressing black pride, self-reliance, and psychological liberation, the Black Consciousness Movement in the 1970s became an influential force in the townships, including Soweto. The workers’ strikes in Durban in 1973; the liberation of neighboring Angola and Mozambique in 1975; and increases in student enrollment in black schools, also led to the emergence of a new collective youth identity forged by common experiences and grievances.

Interview with Steve Biko

Sam Nhlengethwa, It left him cold, the death of Biko, 1990

The State initially saw the Black Consciousness movement as a triumph of ethnicity which they thought would illustrate the success of separate development. However as the movement grew in threatening momentum and influence, they reacted violently, clamping down and enforcing censorship, stopping the flow of discourse that existed. Cultural venues were controlled and investigated. The Polly Steet Art Center was closed in 1960.

The Soweto Uprising, followed by the death of Steve Biko in detention, 1977, was a huge turning point in South African history.  In spite of all the warning signs, the tensions and the obvious unrest preceding that climatic moment, few were prepared for the unleashing of the struggle that could no longer be contained. In lesser and greater ways, South African life was permanently transformed from that day forward.

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There was Internationally, growing opposition against Apartheid, and Anti-Apartheid Movements began to campaign for boycotts and sanctions against South Africa. Cultural, and Sports Boycotts and Economic Sanctions were implemented against South Africa, and brought a growing awareness among normal South Africans of the global condemnation of apartheid.

Antoinette Sithole and Mbuyisa Makhubo carrying and 12-year-old Hector Pieterson moments after he was shot by South African police during the Soweto Uprisings. It became a symbol of resistance to the brutality of the apartheid government.

State of Emergency: The Apartheid government used Declarations of Emergency to crack down against opponents at times of heightened resistance. Police could detain anyone for reasons of public safety, without any appeal to the courts. Also, meetings and gatherings could be banned. The first State of Emergency was declared in 1960 right after the Sharpeville Massacre, when the African National Congress and Pan Africanist Congress also were declared illegal. In the wake of the 1976 student uprising, the government widened police powers of detention even without a State of Emergency.

By the mid-1980s, a popular uprising was underway, with militants calling for making black communities “ungovernable”. A State of Emergency was declared in July 1985 in 36 magisterial districts. Organizations as well as meetings could be banned, and thousands of people were detained. The Commissioner of Police could impose a blanket prohibition on media coverage of the Emergency, and names of people who had been detained could not be revealed.

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On June 12, 1986, just before the 10th anniversary of the student uprising that started in Soweto, a State of Emergency was declared throughout the country. The provisions of this State of Emergency were broader than any previous ones, but anti-apartheid mobilization continued. The government restricted political funerals, imposed curfews, and banned certain indoor gatherings. Television cameras were banned from “unrest areas,” preventing international as well as national coverage of the growing organizing and police repression. (Ref)

Border Wars:

The South African Border War, commonly referred to as the Angolan Bush War in South Africa, was a conflict that took place from 1966 to 1989 in South-West Africa (now Namibia) and Angola between South Africa and its allied forces (mainly UNITA) on the one side and the Angolan government, South-West Africa People’s Organisation (SWAPO), and their allies (mainly Cuba) on the other. It was closely linked with the Angolan Civil War and the Namibian War of Independence, as well as the Cold War. All White males was conscripted to fight in the wars or face imprisonment.

For White South Africans males of a certain generation, the Border conflicts of the 60s, 70s and 80s have left an indelible stain on their conscience; a brutal war, South Africa’s Vietnam.

The hardest thing for me to come to terms with is that I fought on the wrong side. As a teenager I didn’t really see the choices but now on an emotional level, I feel deeply saddened. It was traumatic for everybody, regardless of which side they were on. Paul Morris (Ref)

The conflict was characterised by a low-intensity terrorist style war escalating in intensity and spread over time. By the end of the conflict in 1987-88, large conventional pitched battles were fought between the SADF and UNITA on one side, and the FAPLA and CUBAN forces on the other; while the SADF – SWAPO skirmishes raged concurrently throughout the Operational Area. (Ref)

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The Soweto Uprisings seemed to have touched the nerve of the nation and fear disappeared. Almost every artist produced overtly political work, taking up brush and paint as weapons against the oppressed. Many black and white artists fled the country. Among the artists that stayed, there were two groups; the involved and the detached.


The difference during the period lay in the heightened social consciousness and compassionate awareness of the human situation. The happening all around them reinforced the motivation of the committed artists and galvanized many of the formerly detached into overt expression of engagement.

The new direction in art was a development of the old principle governing African Art, which is that art must have a function in the community; a song is composed to be sung especially while walking; a scuplture serves as a chair, a house is decorated to enhance the village. The new twist was this; that the function could be one of bringing about change. – Sue Williamson (Ref)

Internationally during the 1970s and 1980s, there was a dawning anxiety about the fragility of planetary environment, an awareness about persisting injustices in the conduct of human affairs, and a growing disillusionment with the intense materialism of the prevailing system of market-orientated art which gave rise to protest art.

The variants of Protest Art are manifold. It ranges from blatantly confrontational pictorial imagery and subversive symbols scrawled on public surfaces, through allegorical depictions of distant but associated incidents and situations, to ambiguous figurations and personal mystical metaphors that camouflage their inner meanings in deceptive outer shells.

The use of public surfaces for the expression of popular opinion predates even the written language. But particular in a society in which mass gatherings are banned, the graffito slogan can be coupled with the painted image to communicate, publicly the otherwise muffled messages of solidarity and resistance. The modern urban landscape, already a collage of commercial signage, advertising and political publicity, presents many inviting surfaces for informal verbal or pictorial assault.

Often the product of so-called ‘guerrilla’ artists, working under cover of the night, graffiti, posters and defiant mural images have appeared in cities all around the world. During the 1970s  the practice was accorded a new kind of status, particularly in the USA.

Although a number of guerrilla artists attained a measure of fame – or notoriety, South African guerrilla artists had to remain anonymous under the strict Apartheid laws. But many of  the symbols and several of the methods of South African street art were reflected in works that made their way into exhibition galleries.

Manfred Zylla – The Military Generals: Before

Manfred Zylla – The Military Generals: After

After the State of Emergency imposed in 1985, there was an explosion of graffiti in the form of scrawled political messages or much more graphic and designed stencils started covering the walls of the country. When most forms of public protest were banned, graffiti became a way for social movements to communicate to each other, the larger population, and the apartheid government.

Censorship The portrayal of contentious subject matter was a courageous venture in a society in which both official and informal censorship held sway. The official Publications Control Board exercised its most draconian power over theater  films and literature; but it could and did, impose itself on visual arts, whenever the specific exhibits were perceived as too discomforting or threatening to the existing order – sexual or political. Even without its active intervention, the mere existence of the PCB had an insidious effect on artists by creating a climate conducive to self-censorship.

South Africa – Black Wednesday Protest

Norman Catherine, Witch Hunt (1988)

The caution that had prevailed among  South African artists during  the sixties and early seventies was not totally discarded in the years of protest art, but the fear of censorship no longer regulated their responses; perceived now almost  as a badge of honour

Activist art serves to focus attention on society’s festering sores and to demonstrate solidarity with or among the dissidents. Visual Arts have traditionally adopted recognisable motif, as metaphors for the cause their focus. South African Art in the 1980s were no different. Exhibitions in the 1980s were loaded with ambiguos images of serpents, crocodiles, hyenas, truncheons, motor car tyres, armour plated objects and cannabalistic plants. These were fairly easy to read and recognised as icons of resistance.

By Jerm

By the late 1980s, South Africa was engulfed in a culture of violence, and the local art mirrored this. Yet, not all the art was inflammatory or apocalyptic in its themes; many artists recognised that satire can often be a more effective form of  protest than undiguised frontal attack.

In 1990 President Frederik Willem de Klerk began negotiations to end apartheid, culminating in multi-racial democratic elections in 1994, which were won by the African National Congress under Nelson Mandela.

Examples of Artists and Art in This Theme

  • Willie Bester
  • Norman Catherine
  • William Kentridge
  • Helen Sebidi
  • Paul Stopforth
  • Sue Williamson
  • Gavin Younge
  • Manfred Zylla
  • Political murals, posters and T Shirts


  • Protest Art
  • Sue Williamson, Resistance Art in South Africa, 2004
Back to: Socio-political Art > Art and Politics: Resistance or Protest Art

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