The Evolution of Political Posters

A poster is any piece of printed paper designed to be attached to a wall or vertical surface. Typically, posters include both textual and graphic elements, although a poster may be either wholly graphical or wholly text. Posters are designed to be both eye-catching and informative. Posters may be used for many purposes. They are a frequent tool of advertisers, propagandists, protestors, and other groups trying to communicate a message.

Posters also are used for reproductions of artwork, particularly famous works, and are generally low-cost compared to the original artwork. The modern poster, as we know it, however, dates back to the 1840s and 1850s.

During the Apartheid Era in South Africa Posters were a popular way of sending a message or spreading an announcement within political groups/parties. Some Political messages were expressed on posters by other countries against the apartheid regime.

`To speak to the people by means of posters, to address that large number who do not even read cheap newspapers, is a revolutionary method…’
From The Palette and the Flame a book of Spanish Civil War posters

Purpose of Posters during Apartheid

When the apartheid government had decided to move the people of Huhudi to to one of apartheid’s bantustans, a backwater that the people of Huhudi saw as a wasteland of starvation and death. The People stood against that decision and designed posters that expressed the reasons they would not move. they weren’t as sophisticated or as attractive as posters are today but a message went across and it was very effective. T-shirt and other clothing were made as protest against the decision that was to be carried out by the apartheid government.

Since the beginning of the 20th century in South Africa, posters have been used for commercial advertising and political propaganda. The most widespread political use was of the ‘portrait of the candidate’ type for whites-only elections.

During the Second World War, the government followed European trends of using posters to stir up patriotism and to raise money. But posters were also produced by the Communist Party of South Africa and by Medical Aid for Russia, a support group which collected money for the Soviet Union’s war effort.

The extent to which posters were used as part of the very intense anti-apartheid struggles of the 1950s is not clear. It would seem that placards, banners and leaflets were more common.

Public mass protest and the use of graphics declined after the suppression of the ANC and PAC in 1960. By the end of that decade, the major source of poster production appears to have been university campuses. Student politics in the 1960s, especially among whites, reflected aspects of the militancy of campuses in Europe and the United States, which included the use of political posters.

While the distribution of these posters was mostly restricted to the campuses, their subject matter often dealt with major national issues. But one of the only known collections of these posters was destroyed in a mysterious fire which gutted a floor of the students’ union building at Wits University in the early 1980s. Although posters were used in various ways in the past, the real era of South African posters began in the 1980s with the formation of the Screen Training Project (STP) in Johannesburg, and the Community Arts Project (CAP) Media Project in Cape Town.

Printing Progression and it effect on Political Posters

In the wave of interest generated by the Culture and Resistance Festival in Botswana in mid-1982, a group of cultural workers resolved to establish a screen-printing resource center based at the Community Arts Project in Cape Town. A year later, a simple workshop was equipped — with a printing table, drying lines, a bathtub, an exposure box, and a huge vertical camera dis-

carded by a printing company. Although a few posters were produced — the CAYCO launch poster, and posters for a few CAP events — the workshop was hardly used. At this point, a few members of the original group introduced a series of weekend workshops for community organizations, unions, and educational projects. They invited all progressive organizations to make their posters with CAP’s assistance.

The slow trickle of users became a flood with the launch of the UDF. By late 1983, the workshop was in use day and night. A used screen left the printing table only to be replaced by the next in line; posters were force-dried with hair-driers for instant distribution, and the floor of the washout room was constantly flooded.

The south-easter gusting through the workshop every time the door opened only made matters worse, gluing wet posters together as they hung on the drying lines, and covering everything with sand. Frequent outbreaks of hilarity may have owed something to the heavy fog of ink and thinners.

This was only the start of an almost uninterrupted flow of work — bannings, restrictions and States of Emergency notwithstanding. When organisations could no longer hold public meetings, they organised fun-runs, cultural evenings, fetes and snack-dances — these needed posters too.

The workshop also printed stickers, buttons and T-shirts. T-shirts in particular became so widespread as ‘walking posters’ that CAP created a separate facility to produce them. (The state felt obliged to counter the popularity of such T-shirts and passed a short-lived law banning them.) The workshop evolved further to incorporate banner-making and, to a lesser degree, fabric-printing.

But CAP, like STP in Johannesburg, encountered problems. Daily requests for short workshops, technical assistance, and use of the facilities, swamped long-term training objectives.

Choosing images

Like any other work of art, a poster represents a set of aesthetic choices about image, colour, technique and style. These choices are made within a framework defined by existing materials, technical skills, and the ideology of the people and organisations making the choices.In spite of the differences in reproductive processes used by the groups involved, their diverse backgrounds and the large distances between them, such choices and limitations contributed to the similarities of style which characterise the posters of this period.

The first common denominator lies in the imagery, which centers on a relatively small range of political symbols. Some reflect an international visual vocabulary of struggle, drawing a link between the issues confronting people in all societies of the world. These images were not only repeated, but also reinterpreted, redrawn and redesigned in ways specific to, and often personally felt by, the people producing them.

Apartheid has left South African communities with a limited common vocabulary of images. Colonial suppression of popular culture left little unifying national ‘folk’ imagery to draw on, such as might be found in the traditional costume of Chile, or the rich connotations of the life-force’ represented by the skeleton in Mexico. Traditional symbols that survive have often been trivialised and distorted to fit apartheid’s ethnic categories.

Therefore almost every symbol of resistance or political demand had to be established through on-the-ground organisational activity. Each repetition of an image drove it deeper into the cultural awareness of the community. Fists and flags became ‘our fists’ and ‘our flags’. The image of Hector Peterson, the pictures of marching crowds and waving banners became, in some deeper sense, our own.

People increasingly drew images from observing the reality of the struggle around them. Time passed and fresh images were incorporated: the tanks and casspirs of the police and army occupation of the townships; the AK-47; the tin shacks of squatter camps; and the clothing, faces, and gestures of militant youth and workers. At the end of the decade, portraits of ANC and SACP leaders burst onto the scene, together with the resurgent colors and symbols of the organizations.

Although there is no doubting its effectiveness, such repetition of imagery has at times been a problem. Some media workers feel resistance culture should aim higher than simply popularising key symbols, scenes and personalities. Should postermakers, they ask, confront the issues of cultural creativity — provoking critical thought, challenging precepts, breaking the rules of aesthetic convention — in short, fostering cultural awareness as well as mobilising people politically? These questions must still be answered. Yet, whatever the merits of the aesthetic debate, there can be no doubt that these posters represent, in an important and powerful way, the voices of people previously silent.

A second common feature of most posters of this period is production technique. Many have a hand-made or unskilled appearance, using silk-screen technology in its cheapest and simplest form, hand-drawn images and text, hand-cut or painted stencils, and ‘line photography’ where photographs were used.


This is partly the result of a lack of resources. But the choice was also motivated by other considerations. The few skilled artists who identified with the people’s movement believed they should encourage people to develop their own imagery. Technically skilled workers who supervised the workshops insisted that user groups themselves pick up a squeegie and print the posters they would be using in their communities. These two strands — of political imagery on the one hand, and a community-oriented technology on the other — were the dominant influences on the thousands of posters produced during the 1980s. Other aesthetic influences, however, can also be traced.

Those few trained artists who brought their skills to the poster workshops did so out of political conviction. Visual imagery of struggle and revolution from other parts of the world often influenced them directly — posters and images from the Russian revolution, from Germany in the 1930s, from France and the US in the 1960s, from Cuba, Nicaragua and Chile, and from the murals and posters of Mozambique in the 1970s. A strong parallel influence came from contemporary black South African artists, drawing on the black consciousness movement of the 1970s, and on the African aesthetic tradition of expressionistic distortion and economy of line and shape.

But these artistic influences should not be over-emphasised. The heart of the process lay in the engagement between those who used the workshops, for whom media production had become a necessary element of political life, and those who ran the workshops, whose central concern lay in democratising visual communications.

In sum, these posters represent a major form of popular visual expression of the period, if not the major form. They are built upon the perceptions, realities, and demands of the communities which produced them. People who had been deprived of visual expression turned their hands and creative impulses to making these posters. Many are exciting and beautiful to look at; others show the effects of being a ‘first effort’ battle with techniques. But above all, they map the spirit of the period — a people’s struggle against repression, but also their struggle to catch and reflect a glimpse of a future democratic society.

Over the last few years, media production within the progressive movement has tended to become more centralized. Organizations depend on computer-generated type and design for the sake of speed, convenience, and ‘professional’ appearance. Posters have tended to become uniform, mechanically functional in appearance, and all too often with lines of Helvetica in varying sizes.

Most posters are now printed commercially. This makes sense for the central structures of organisations like COSATU and the ANC, which have to produce large numbers of posters quickly. But smaller organisations cannot afford commercial production, and have often stopped using posters. High technology production also concentrates skills in just a few hands.

Silkscreening and other simple, non-mechanised forms of design and production make it possible to involve even the most technically inexperienced in the most far-flung communities in writing, drawing, designing and producing their, own media. The low cost of the equipment and of the printing method also bring printing within economic reach for most communities.

CAP and STP were the ‘barefoot’ element in the development of the media as the voice of people’s power over the past decade. This element must continue in a future South Africa.

The democratic movement faces a daunting number of media challenges over the next period. The greatest is finding a place in the mainstream mass media. If mainstream media is to speak to, and for, the people of South Africa, it must be informed and stimulated by its living counterpart at grassroots level. This process cannot be taken for granted, nor is it a romantic vision. There must be serious thought and necessary resources to ensure that a popular voice continues to be heard.

In this photo taken Tuesday, April 30, 2019, an array of election posters from various political parties hang on poles in Pretoria, South Africa. As the country’s May 8th election approaches, political observers are watching what impact the country’s young voters will have. (AP Photo/Themba Hadebe)

We look forward to moving away from the confrontation and destruction which marked the years of struggle against apartheid. The process of building a just and democratic South Africa demands that all the people of our diverse communities participate in reconstruction. Posters can play a key role in that process: educating and informing people, promoting literacy programmes, health and safety campaigns, and recruiting support for other social projects.

At the same time, posters can also provide a vehicle for activists and grassroots members to contribute their own ideas to this reconstruction. Posters can carry not only the word of the state to the people, but the voice of the people themselves.

Over the decade of the 1980s, posters in South Africa played a crucial role in expressing the demands and beliefs of communities suffering under apartheid. Now, in the 1990s, we should use posters in the key task of building a national consciousness among all South Africans. In so doing, South Africa could take the art and practice of poster-making to new heights.

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