Barnabas Ticha Muvhuti on Siona O’Connell’s recent exhibition Promises and Lies

14 Jun 2016 - 12:30

‘Promises and Lies: The ANC in Exile’ was recently exhibited at the Michaelis Gallery at UCT’s Hiddingh Campus. The exhibition was conceptualized and curated by UCT academic and curator Dr Siona O’Connell, Director of the CCA, and exhibits, for the first time, images from award-winning reportage photographer, Laurie Sparham. The photographs were taken in Tanzania and Zambia around 1989/90.

Any exhibition as good as this one generates multiple conversations. The majority of which regard the contentious points highlighted by former SARS deputy commissioner Ivan Pillay who was the guest speaker for the exhibition opening. In the ANC’s transformation from the liberation struggle movement to the government of a democratic South Africa, a lot has happened. Some dedicated cadres who played a crucial part in the growth and evolution of the movement have found themselves sidelined. They have fallen out of favour with the powers that be.

In the exhibition, O’Connell uses subtitles drawn from the Freedom Charter. On all four walls of the gallery the viewer is confronted with these promises that challenge one to reflect on whether they have been achieved or not. Interestingly these statements of intent also form the core of what is found in the Bill of Rights or Chapter 2 of the South Africa’s constitution.

A video installation featured in the exhibition reminds viewers of the long winding road from the struggle experienced under apartheid. The newspaper headlines on corruption, Nkandla, ‘Zuptagate’, etc are just a reflection of the status quo. Even though these ‘acts of shame’ dishonor the principles of the Freedom Charter, it is unfortunate that these are the nation’s daily headlines.

When one puts the photographs in the exhibition in the context of the time they were taken, one is bound to appreciate some of the challenges the ANC has faced over the years. These cadres had military training and received valuable political education under socialist regimes in regional countries like Tanzania and Zambia. The end of the Cold War characterized by the fall of the Berlin wall in 1989 meant the cadres had to adapt to a new world dictated by a capitalist ideology and lifestyle. One may wonder if they have been able to cope with the changes.

A closer look at the pictures leaves one with a sense of loss and sadness. The smiles on the faces of liberation war stalwarts like Chris Hani and Walter Sisulu. They were looking forward to building a new South Africa. They had hope. But they could not live long enough to enjoy the fruits of their commitment to the struggle. These were key figures of the movement. So many more did not make it. Their names are hardly mentioned.

The decision to include pictures that feature regional leaders in the exhibition gives it a regional appeal. I saw a Tanzanian friend smiling upon seeing the images of Julius Mwalimu Nyerere, his successor Ali Hassan Mwinyi and the then secretary of the Organisation of African Unity, Salim Ahmed Salim. So did a Zambian friend upon seeing former president Kenneth Kaunda, “K.K.” as he was affectionately known. These particular images are crucial in helping one comprehend the ANC’s solidarity with the regional governments born out of liberation war movements, even at the expense of the ordinary people who end up flocking to South Africa. What also fuels regional migration to South Africa are the promises that have not been fulfilled by ANC’s ‘cousins’ in power in neighbouring countries.

It would be great to see this exhibition traveling to other corners of South Africa, and it would likely be well appreciated in countries like Zambia and Tanzania and the SADC.

De Vries,F. 2008. Love’s Resting Place. Art South Africa, 07(01):54-57. 

Ravelli, L. J. 2006. Genre and the Museum Exhibition. Linguistics & the Human Sciences 2(2), p299-317. DOI: 10.1558/lhs.v2i2.299