SA's frontline wars and our failure of memory

17 May 2015 - 02:02 By Tymon Smith


It is a horrible but perhaps apt coincidence that the opening of the photographic exhibition, On the Frontline, at the Nelson Mandela Foundation's Centre of Memory took place in the wake of the recent xenophobic attacks. The exhibition curated by filmmakers Simon Bright and Ingrid Sinclair was conceptualised a year ago. But with its focus on the effects of the apartheid regime's destabilisation on South Africa's neighbouring "frontline states", the exhibition's selection of photos from Mozambique, Angola, Zimbabwe and Namibia highlights the role that these states played in the struggle against apartheid in the late 1980s and early 1990s.As former Speaker of parliament Max Sisulu reminded the audience at the opening last week: "We are here today because we were there yesterday with the support of the frontline states. We are where we are today because they chose solidarity with us."This sentiment is echoed by the foundation's research and archive director, Verne Harris, who pointed out that the xenophobic attacks are a phenomenon that "constitutes a terrible failure of memory. We believe it is timely to remind South Africans of their indebtedness to the people of neighbouring countries and the many other countries which supported our struggle for liberation."Bright and Sinclair lived in Zimbabwe in the 1980s, making films in that country as well as Mozambique and Angola.In 1988 Bright went to Angola to make a film on the defeat of the South African Defence Force at Cuito Cuanavale, a moment included in the video piece he's put together for the show.It provides some historical context to the photos in a short five-minute history of 15 turbulent years of fierce fighting in the era of total onslaught.In her selection of images, Sinclair says she "brought what I thought to be an emotional approach and I put a lot of feeling into it".full_story_image_hleft1"The space in the Mandela Centre isn't that big and I wanted to communicate the impact that South Africa had on people rather than battles and dates and generals and leaders. I chose photographs that grabbed me in one way or another and it was quite a personal thing." If she was to change anything about the exhibition it would not be to add more photos, she says, but rather display the selection in such a way so as to allow them more space and provide the audience with an opportunity to "really look, because these photographs are stunning pieces of work".With memoirs by former SADF members often containing gory images of dead bodies, Sinclair was aware of the inevitability of having to include some images of war that were difficult to stomach.Having spent so much time covering events as they happened, she found the process of revisiting the period through the photographs sometimes emotionally challenging. She says that those "that were the most emotional for me were the photographs of survivors - there were some really shocking ones and we had a lot of debate about whether or not to put them in, and in the end we put in one or two".Speaking at the opening, Mandela's widow, Graça Machel, challenged artists and cultural practitioners to start a process of increasing solidarity between countries rather than beefing up border security and immigration controls.Bright feels that Sinclair's decision to focus on ordinary people is significant in the light of recent events because "these are the people who are coming across the borders and experiencing xenophobia".He hopes that the show will travel to universities and internationally; not only to keep the importance of the role played by the frontline states alive, but also as a step towards finding "a common vision of southern Africa where we enjoy our diversity and our skills and the richness of our cultural mixes, as opposed to enjoying the abuse of others due to a failure of leadership".full_story_image_hright2Bright is also aware of the often ignored contribution made by photographers across the region in exposing atrocities committed by the SADF.He points out that while "you have The Bang Bang Club [the book by photographers Greg Marinovich and João Silva] and books by SADF members about what they did and didn't do, you don't have a celebration of the media workers and the work they did in Angola, Namibia, Zimbabwe, Mozambique. They put their lives on the line to get the story out."On the Frontline can be viewed by appointment at the Mandela Centre for Memory until July 2015. (011) 547 5600. E-mail: bookings@nelsonmandela.org

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