A tribute to South Africa’s neighbours

A photographic exhibition, On the Frontline, at the Nelson Mandela Foundation’s Centre of Memory reflects on the contribution – and the price they paid – from countries in Africa to helping the liberation struggle overcome apartheid.

Image description A makeshift, outdoor kitchen at the Tongogara Refugee Camp in Zimbabwe, 1989 (Image: Pieter Boersma, Nelson Mandela Foundation)

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Priya Pitamber

South Africa’s neighbouring countries, and others nearby, helped to bring an end to apartheid by assisting the liberation movement. A photographic exhibition, On the Frontline, at the Nelson Mandela Foundation’s Centre of Memory in Johannesburg, makes note of those contributions.

At a time when xenophobic attacks on nationals from other African countries are fresh in mind, the contributions of the Frontline States as they were known – Angola, Botswana, Lesotho, Malawi, Mozambique, Namibia, Swaziland, Tanzania, Zambia and Zimbabwe – to South Africa is celebrated. Curated by Ingrid Sinclair and Simon Bright, the exhibition was conceptualised a year ago.

The centre said these states bore the brunt of the apartheid government’s military might. Many lives were lost for those nations’ daring to protect and host anti-apartheid activists and soldiers. It is a stark contrast to the recent xenophobic attacks.

Sparse but effective

Sinclair told the national weekly newspaper, the Sunday Times, that because the Mandela Centre was not big, she wanted to show how people were affected. She did not want to show the battles, dates, generals and leaders. “I chose photographs that grabbed me in one way or another and it was quite a personal thing,” she explained.

It was a “story of an onslaught against whole countries that were invaded, occupied, destabilised; millions of refugees, hundreds of thousands of people killed; countries impoverished and corrupted by the destruction of vital resources, long drawn-out wars, all caused by apartheid South Africa”.

High price paid

The New Yorker magazine noted that the South African government wreaked havoc on these countries for their role in the anti-apartheid movement. “Some of the images are brutal,” wrote Jeremy Harding, “an open pit of bodies at Cassinga, in Angola, where the South African Air Force bombed a Namibian refugee camp in 1978, killing six hundred people; the bullet-ridden dead in an ANC safe house in Lesotho after a South African undercover raid in 1982.” There are also images of those injured or killed in destabilisation efforts.

Harding observed there were also photographs of “railways sabotaged, buses ambushed, and limbs lost to landmines” in Mozambique and Angola. “By the time South Africa pulled out of Angola, there were at least five hundred thousand dead and four million displaced from their homes. In Mozambique the figures were higher.”

But there are also lighter moments on display at the exhibition. Harding said one of his own photos, from Angola in 1988, showed soldiers playing around a captured South African tank. Another image, taken by Joel Chiziane, showed a smiling Mozambican man holding a fully grown pumpkin. “He holds an enormous squash plant, outclassed only by the glory of his smile,” wrote Harding. “It’s safe, at last, to work on the land.” It was taken at the end of a 15-year war.

Conversation on xenophobia

The Centre of Memory also hosted a day-long dialogue on xenophobia when it launched the exhibition. Graça Machel, Mandela’s wife, spoke at the event: “Our leadership has betrayed the dream – all of them. They betrayed the dream, they are not showing us the leadership.”

She asked how the dream could be rebuilt to create another Frontline and urged everyone to take responsibility for what had happened and to understand that those committing acts of xenophobic violence were “people who are struggling for survival themselves. They have been pushed to the limit.”

Max Sisulu, the son of the late anti-apartheid veterans Walter and Albertina Sisulu, recalled how he found a home away from home in every part of Southern Africa after he went into exile alongside his mother. The exhibition was a fitting tribute to those who “gave me accommodation, they gave me space, they gave me warmth and friendship”.

See it yourself

The exhibition will be at the Nelson Mandela Foundation Centre of Memory in Johannesburg until mid-July.