The Zenzo Nkobi Research Project ( 2008 - 2012 )

This project aimed to:

  • preserve, arrange and digitise negatives taken by Zenzo Nkobi, a black South African professional photographer who created an unprecedented collection of visual records of the activities of the Southern Africa liberation struggle in exile in the 1970s and 1980s.
  • conduct research into the individuals and events portrayed in these images, and to make accessible these unique images, and related research, of our heritage of national liberation in both South Africa and Zimbabwe.

Mass burial of victims following an airstrike in Lusaka 19 Oct 1977, ZambiaThese negatives comprise a substantial portion of a unique and historically significant collection of photographic materials by Zenzo Nkobi, portraying the activities of Southern African liberation movement in exile from the early 1970s to the early 1990s. While the ANC had a photography unit in the 1980s (of which Zenzo was a member), its stored images were destroyed (by water damage) in Zambia in the late 1980s. Moreover, to ensure security, photographers were not permitted in residences and camps unless fully vetted by the movement. Zenzo Nkobi, as the son of ANC treasurer general Thomas Nkobi, had complete access thus making these images both extremely rare and valuable.

His images cover ANC and Zimbabwean refugee and military camps in Zambia and Botswana in the 1970s. His photographs show ZIPRA military training camps, and the only known images of the Freedom Camp massacre and other destabilization raids on Zambian soil by Rhodesian and South African troops.

Zenzo Nkobi also photographed liberation movement leaders at major regional and international conferences, as well as people's daily lives in exile, in Lusaka and Maputo. In 1980, he recorded the return of exiles and elections in the newly liberated Zimbabwe, including rare images of the Gukhurahundi (Mugabe's repression of the population around Bulawayo in the early 1980s).

In 2008, SAHA secured a initial grant from the British Library's Endangered Archive Programme to digitise and preserve 5,000 negatives from those materials. Archival staff at SAHA undertook some basic sorting and identification of materials (where possible), and prepared a basic listing of these scans based on the minimal identifying data accompanying the materials. In the course of this process, it became apparent that there were approximately 3000 more negatives requiring conservation and digitisation than covered by this initial grant. Furthermore, the need for significant research into the period of history represented in this important and irreplaceable visual record became increasingly apparent. Because the events recorded date back 25 to 35 years, there remains a very limited window of opportunity to work with surviving members of the ANC and Zimbabwe exile community from this period so as to identify those individuals and events recorded in these photographs, while living memories can still be captured.

Mulungushi Rock; Oliver Tambo and Joshua Nkomo; UNIP conference, Zambia,1978.

SAHA then secured an additional grant from the National Lottery Distribution Trust Fund and the Rosa Luxemburg Foundation to digitise more of this collection, collect oral histories and promote awareness of this collection through the development of an exhibition (and related publication) to complement and augment the rich imagery in the Zenzo Nkobi collection. Any lengthy delays in this type of historical research will decrease the likelihood of being able to gather and compile accurate and comprehensive information about this critical period of South Africa's national liberation struggle, an area of history which remains largely unrecorded to date.

This project resulted in a publication and a virtual exhibition, as well as additional archival materials being added to the SAHA repository.