A dream of freedom vs South Africa today

CARL COLLISON

Detailing the lives of ANC leaders during their exile years spent in Tanzania and Zambia, the photographic exhibition, Promises and Lies – The ANC in Exile, opens at the Michaelis Gallery, today, Thursday May 12.

More than simply a photographic exploration into this period of South Africa’s struggle for freedom, the exhibition, according to its curator, Siona O’Connell, offers us as South Africans the opportunity to look at “what it means to be in exile”.

Says Ms O’Connell: “It gives us a chance to think about what these freedom fighters would have imagined 2016 looking like and, in hindsight, what would they say about South Africa today; to look at these photographs and ask ourselves whether there was something in the ANC then that hints at the ANC today.

Moreover, she adds: “It allows us to take stock; to ask ourselves what it is within us that we could sell that promise of freedom so quickly – and so cheaply.”

Photographed by the award-winning London-based reportage photographer, Laurie Sparham in 1989 and 1990, the expansive exhibition – made up of 80 photographs as well as text and archived film footage of, among others, Oliver Tambo, Chris Hani, Thabo Mbeki and Jacob Zuma – will be exhibited for the first time.

On how she came about the not-seen-before body of work, Ms O’Connell, the newly appointed director of UCT’s Centre for Curating the Archive, says: “A colleague of mine told me about this remarkable collection of images and I immediately jumped at the opportunity.”

According to the media release for the exhibition, it “investigates the historical and contemporary meanings of the ANC in exile by taking Sparham’s images as a starting point. O’Connell opens a set of questions on democratic South Africa against the backdrop of the Freedom Charter to offer an opportunity to think about the growing chasm between the promise of freedom then and the reality of a contemporary moment marked by crisis and failure.”

Expanding on this “contemporary moment marked by crisis and failure”, Ms O’Connell says: “When we look at things such as the Nkandla controversy, the struggles between the Minister of Finance and SARS, and the violence against women, its like, ‘is this really the best we can do?’

“Sometimes,” she says, with a self-deprecatingly wry laugh, “I wish I could just burrow myself into the world of academia and bury myself in books. But then I look at what is happening in places such as Bredasdorp or Manenberg and I wonder what happened to the promises of the last couple of decades.”

In what she refers to as her commitment to “raising questions around democracy, freedom and belonging in South Africa”, Ms O’Connell is hoping the exhibition will help us “hold our leaders accountable”.

With the seemingly fever-pitch levels initiatives such as the #ZumaMustFall movement have been reaching, Ms O’Connell is quick to point out that the aforementioned “contemporary moment marked by crisis and failure” is “not only about our president”.

“It’s about every single person who has kept quiet. This exhibition is a reminder that our past matters; that sacrifices were made along the way, but also that we need to reclaim our agency and chart our own future. We can’t leave it up to others to script our futures.”

* Promises and Lies – The ANC in Exile opens today, Thursday May 12, at 6pm, at the Michaelis Gallery, UCT’s Hiddingh Campus, 37 Orange Street, Gardens. For more information, call 021 650 7153.