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2004 Preface


Plans to produce a book of South African resistance posters were first made in 1987. It soon became clear, however, that working openly on such a project was not possible, because of the State of Emergency and other repressive actions by the state.

The posters themselves had to be kept in safe places known only to a few, and those working on the book had to meet secretly in order to protect the book and themselves. After media restrictions were introduced, the book's very existence had to be denied, even to friends and comrades, as involvement in the project was technically an offence in terms of the new regulations. At one point, contingency plans were made to publish the book anonymously and outside the country.

As a result, the project has taken four long years to complete. In some respects, this has proved to be an advantage. Who in 1987 would have thought that by 1991, the ANC and other organisations would be unbanned; Nelson Mandela and other leaders would be released from prison, and the first tentative steps towards a democratic South Africa finally taken? Who would have believed that the book could not only be freely published and sold, but that it would take its place on South African bookstands, next to publications issued by the African National Congress and the South African Communist Party? What better time to bring out a book celebrating the posters which played a part in achieving these victories?

Another advantage is that in 1991 we have many more posters to choose from than we had in 1987. In addition, we are able to reflect more fully the decade of the UDF, the MDM and the mass struggles that led to the momentous events of 1990.

The posters are divided into six categories. This was done to make the book more accessible and manageable for the reader, and to highlight some of the major areas of struggle in which the democratic movement engaged the apartheid regime — politics, labour, community, education, militarisation and repression, and art and culture.

There is an unavoidable overlap between the different sections in the book. Certain posters could have been placed in more than one section and we had to make a choice in this regard. Such an overlap is not surprising considering the close relationship between the different issues that make up the fabric of the struggle in South Africa.

We have made no attempt to analyse or offer a critique of the posters. We present the collection to the reader as part of the process of recording the history of various elements of the struggle.

This is not a comprehensive collection. Firstly, the posters are all issued by only one of the broad political tendencies in South Africa. The South African History Archive (SAHA), which is the custodian of the posters, collects material from all groupings, regardless of political persuasion. In its holdings and in its regular publication History in the Making, SAHA attempts to reflect the perspective of all players in the South African political arena.

However, in this book we have only included posters from organisations broadly associated with the Congress movement. Posters were produced by other groupings, but by far the majority were issued by organisations which were part of, or sympathetic to, the political tradition embraced by the UDF, COSATU and the ANC. The decision of the compilers of the book, the Posterbook Collective, to limit the selection of posters in this way is their own and does not necessarily reflect any opinion held by SAHA.

We have selected approximately 320 posters out of the almost 2 000 in SAHA's collection. This was done, reluctantly, because of practical and financial restraints. We faced a dilemma when selecting posters for the book. How should we choose the 'best' posters? What does 'best' mean? Is it the 'best art', the 'best techniques', the most important message, the most attractive pictures, the brightest colours? We decided the criteria had to include whether a poster accurately reflected the times, and whether it captured in its words, images, its design, shape or colours, a significant moment in our struggle. The posters in this book are therefore not necessarily all fine examples of art, technique, imagery, design or rhetoric. They are reflections of a people and their fight for justice, liberation and peace.

Those who produced the posters did so in a collective spirit as part of their contribution to the struggle. In the case of posters which were designed by an individual rather than a group, we have not included the name of the designer: the purpose of the book is to celebrate that collective spirit and not to draw attention to individuals. We have tried to be accurate in recording the origins of the posters, their date of publication, and the reasons why they were produced. We apologise for any errors in this difficult task.

The text which begins each category of posters provides readers with a broad overview of the issues reflected in the content of the posters, but is are not intended as a complete history of the struggle in South Africa. 

This book is a celebration of our struggle: the victories and sacrifices, the commitment and dedication, and the making of posters. It is also a celebration of the people who made the book possible. This includes those involved in the making of the posters as well as those who contributed to the production of the book itself.

The postermakers

One of the objectives of the workshops which produced most of the posters was training, and so organisations were encouraged to send the same people regularly so that, through this continuity, skills could be properly shared.

But how does one extract what appears to be a normal and logical commitment from people living under abnormal conditions? Many of the people involved in producing the posters were anonymous grassroots members of various organisations, identified only as tom' or 'comrade'. Most came only once, some later went into hiding, others ended up in jail, or fled the country. Many are dead, killed in one of many confrontations with the state. Some came in to produce posters or T-shirts commemorating the death of a comrade, only to fall victim themselves soon afterwards.

The book is dedicated to these unsung heroes, whose names will probably only ever be known by those very close to them. Without them the posters in these pages would never have been produced.

We acknowledge the consistent support given to poster production by the leadership of the United Democratic Front and other structures of the democratic movement. We thank those funding agencies around the world who recognised the importance of poster making and provided financial support. This support continued even during those dark days when it was impossible to provide the funders with progress reports because of the level of repression directed at the democratic movement. We must also mention those commercial printers and repro houses willing to take the risks involved in producing posters, T-shirts and other propaganda material for our organisations.

Contributors to the book

Our appreciation must first go to those who had the foresight to begin collecting posters from the very beginning. They made the compilation of this book possible. This process of collecting was not without danger. The state saw posters as subversive, and the security police kept a constant look-out for the production and distribution of such media. Activists were beaten up or jailed simply because they were found with posters and leaflets in their cars and homes, or caught putting up posters in the clandestine darkness of night. In our collection there are copies of posters which were confiscated, and later returned, by the police. These carry the date of confiscation and the signature of the confiscating officer.

We are also grateful to the owner of the building in which the posters were secretly stored. He not only allowed us to keep the posters there in spite of the dangers, but maintained a consistent, low rental for the office for the four years that we used it.

We also thank those who contributed to the work of producing the book:

  • the writers who contributed the text;
  • the editors who helped us to produce the final draft;
  • the individuals and organisations who provided copies of posters, especially Community Arts Project (CAP) and Media Archives Project (MAP) an offshoot of Screen Training Project (STP);
  • South African History Archive (SAHA) and the Popular History Trust (PHT);
  • South African Labour Bulletin for the use of its facilities;
  • all those who provided photographic services;
  • the various donors who provided funds for production of the book;
  • Ravan Press, who waited, and waited...
  • all those who encouraged and supported us through the long years which finally gave birth to this book.

All work has been done voluntarily and no individual will receive any financial return from the sale of the book. The subsidies will ensure that the book can be sold at a price which is more affordable, particularly to those who produced some of the posters. Any royalties and profits will go to the South African History Archive, which is now the custodian of the poster collection. 

The Posterbook Collective

Emilia Potenza

Marlene Powell

Charlotte Schaer

Judy Seidman

Morice Smithers 

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