Fighting Fire with Paper

A few month’s back we wrote about the important role that musicians played during apartheid by encouraging the public to take action against the state. In a similar vein, political artworks printed on posters and distributed, sometimes in their tens of thousands, were instrumental in educating community members as to what was going on around them, and the ways in which they could help in the fight against the oppressive nationalist government.

End Conscription Campaign, printed this poster against sending troops into the townships, 1985. The ECC worked closely with the UDF

End Conscription Campaign printed this poster against sending troops into the townships, 1985. The ECC worked closely with the UDF

Until the late 1970s however, poster production remained largely in the hands of the white middle class, and was used predominantly for commercial advertising. The most widespread political use of posters was for whites-only elections, where portraits of candidates would be advertised on street poles. Apartheid policies deprived the majority of people of the opportunity to produce their own media: Bantu education left most people illiterate or semi-literate, and with few exceptions, formal arts training was restricted to a small, privileged white middle class. Deliberate state impoverishment and underdevelopment of townships and rural areas also ensured that resources for media production, even basic requirements such as electricity, were out of reach for most communities.

But in 1978 a group of exiled South African cultural workers formed the Medu Art Ensemble in Botswana in order to provide a voice to the growing struggle of the people at home. Medu designed posters for distribution within South Africa, and called for South Africans to develop silkscreening as a communications technique. Silkscreening, they argued, required relatively little equipment or capital outlay, did not need electricity, and the skills could be easily taught.

In July 1982, over 5 000 South Africans participated in the Medu-organised Culture and Resistance Festival in Gaborone. After the conference, the South African government banned Medu posters, and distribution crumbled as people risked imprisonment for smuggling posters across the border. To further drive their point home, on the 14th June 1985, South African army units crossed the border and attacked Gaborone, killing 12 people. Among the dead were leading graphic artist and Medu official, Thami Mnyele, and Medu treasurer Mike Hamlyn. The homes of several other Medu artists were destroyed.

Litho poster produced by the STP. The poster calls for a boycott of the tricameral elections of August 1984

Litho poster produced by the STP. The poster calls for a boycott of the tricameral elections of August 1984

However, encouraged by the work of Medu, activists within South Africa had already started to form silk-screen workshops, allowing for a more immediate response to political events with the quick production and distribution of posters. In 1979, the Johannesburg-based Junction Avenue community started silkscreening posters in support of a variety of workers’ strikes and associated boycotts. A part-time voluntary workshop was born, printing posters and T-shirts, and offering training to community organisations. In November 1983, supported by the United Democratic Front (UDF), the part-time workshop become a full-time facility, and the Screen Training Project (STP) officially came into being. The STP aimed to set up silk screening workshops around the country. The silk screening process, which allowed for short runs at relatively low costs, proved perfect for publicising the hundreds of local meetings and activities of the UDF, and other political organisations.

While the STP were successful in their efforts, their work attracted the attention of not only community members, but also supporters of apartheid. After only six months of operating, the STP offices were vandalised, with their furniture and screening equipment destroyed, and the project’s brand-new photocopier smashed. Workers were also harassed and detained by the security police, who confiscated large numbers of their posters. When the State of Emergency was declared in 1986, the STP were forced underground, and silkscreen production declined.

Poster for the Azanian Students Organisation

Poster for the Azanian Students Organisation

In Natal the UDF also organised for the production of posters, but unlike Joburg which had the STP, no central poster group existed. Most of the political artworks created were done so by fine arts students from the University of Durban-Westville (UDW), working with the community newspaper, Ukusa, in support of student organisations such as AZASO and NUSAS. While some of the posters were commercially printed, most were silkscreened at UDW, with the Students’ Representative Council also helping to set up small silkscreen workshops in the community, in areas such as Chatsworth, Merebank and Wentworth. The Natal UDF established its own media workshop. Under conditions of extreme secrecy, the workshop designed its own material, and reproduced leaflets and publications from national structures of the UDF.

While silk screening allowed for the relatively easy distribution of mass messaging, over time the printing method was replaced by desktop publishing (DTP). The advent of DTP and laser printing meant that poster designs could be produced quickly and easily. However the costs were much higher, and the designs, which were produced by people new to computers and DTP, often lacked imagination. Also, most importantly, the organisational benefits of a number of community members working together to produce posters, was lost.

While over the years efforts were made to organise training in DTP and poster design the era of the silkscreen poster, and what it represented in terms of community involvement, was over. Looking back at the artworks produced during the 1980s, it’s easy to understand the impact that these posters made, and the crucial role they played in expressing the demands and beliefs of communities suffering under apartheid.

Images courtesy of and

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