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African Posters

Melville J. Herskovitz Library, Northwestern University
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Reviewed by:
Eric Allina-Pisano
Colgate University
July 2005

This site contains images of 366 posters, the majority of which come from South Africa and concern the struggle against apartheid. About 50 relate to anticolonial struggles in Portuguese Africa, with Mozambique especially wellrepresented.

The collection is keyword-searchable as a whole or within the four sections into which it is divided (Anti-apartheid Movements; South Africa Under Apartheid; Lusophone Africa Liberation Movements; South African Elections of 1994). Many posters include images either artwork or photographs and text. Many are in color and a few are multilingual. Users can save images as JPEG or bitmap files.

This marvelous collection is an outstanding resource for students and teachers alike and has been a longtime favorite of mine. It will be of greatest use and interest to those concerned with the history of apartheid and the struggle against it, as well as the wider regional struggle against white rule in southern Africa.

One theme that emerges clearly is the international quality of the anti-apartheid movement. The collection focuses on posters produced within South Africa, but it also includes posters from Angola, Cuba, England, Germany, Italy, Japan, Mozambique, Nigeria, Spain, and the United States. Some posters represent specific elements of the international campaign to pressure the South African government through arms and sports boycotts as well as trade and financial sanctions (including divestment).

One poster in particular, The Massah is Alive and Well in South Africa hints at the role played by African Americans in anti-apartheid mobilization in the United States, with a reference to the U.S. legacy of slavery. It depicts a formally-dressed man, perhaps evoking the garb of an early colonist in North America, wielding a long whip that curls into the foreground of the image, and within the whips twisting path is the text: The Massah is Alive and Well in South Africa.

The collection also offers an opportunity to explore themes that unify anticolonial and other struggles worldwide. One poster illustrates these cross-cutting ties especially well. Amidst images of African women, some carrying weapons that identify them as participants in armed struggle, the poster contains three statements:

The liberation of women is a basic requirement for the revolution, the guarantee of its continuity and a precondition of its victory;

In Guinea-Bissau we say that women have to fight against two colonialisms. One of the Portuguese, the other of men and

In the experience of all liberation movements the success of a revolution depends on the extent to which women take part in it.

The first statement is attributed to Samora Machel, President of the Mozambican resistance movement Frelimo; the second to Carmen Pereira, a leading figure in nationalist resistance to Portuguese rule in Guinea-Bissau; and the third to Lenin.

These statements, gathered in a single image, illustrate how nationalist and socialist movements alike have focused on women’s roles in political mobilization and struggle, and might foster discussion on the extent to which such movements have followed through on these appeals. Overall, the collection contains 24 images that focus on women, including seven from the cover of Speak, a publication of the African National Congress Women’s League.

A good number of the posters focus on well-known leaders and events of the anti-apartheid struggle. A simple keyword search produces 22 posters featuring Nelson Mandela. Others include anti-apartheid organizations such as African National Congress, the Pan Africanist Congress, and the United Democratic Front, as well as leading figures and major events such as Steve Biko, the Sharpeville massacre, and the 1976 Soweto student uprising.1

Any selection of the posters could be well matched with accompanying course readings. For example, a unit on student and youth politics could pair the 10 images on Soweto with a recently published volume of personal recollections of the uprising, as well as Steve Biko’s writings on Black consciousness, a major influence on the student politics that led to the uprising.

Perhaps the only shortcoming is that the accompanying records do not contain translations of the non-English texts. This is a moderate drawback for the posters from Mozambique and Angola (though knowledge of Spanish will permit a rough translation of the Portuguese), but a real problem for the more than 100 posters from South Africa’s 1994 elections, which contain text in a number of African languages with which many users will be at a loss. Still, this is only a slight limitation in an otherwise fantastic resource for those interested in African history and politics, human rights, and international or contemporary history.

1 Elsabe Brink, Soweto 16 June 1976: It All Started with a Dog (Kwela Books, 2001); Steve Biko, I Write What I Like (University of Chicago Press, 2002).

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