The face SA’s apartheid state feared

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iol news pic Cosatu Mandela Poster 1989-1


In 1989, the year before Mandela was released, Cosatu printed this poster featuring an artists impression of Mandela based on a reporters recollections. At the time Mandelas image was banned. Source: Offset litho poster. Archived at the South African History Archive (SAHA).

Cape Town - When Johnny Clegg & Savuka’s song Asimbonanga (we have not seen him) was released in 1987, it had special significance for South Africans: images of Nelson Mandela were banned.

Only jailers, inmates and prison visitors had seen him since he had been sentenced to life imprisonment in 1964.

No one else knew what he looked like.

This was referred to in the second line of the song’s chorus: asimbonanga uMandela thina (We have not seen Mandela).

While in prison, Mandela’s face was so closely guarded that when Time magazine published a cover of him six days before his release, they based it on old pictures and had to imagine how he had aged.

Mandela’s image was also used by anti-apartheid activists on posters after his arrest and treason trial. But, like Time, they had to imagine what he looked like based on old photos.

iol news pic Mandela time magazine 1990

Time magazines cover with an artists impression of Nelson Mandela from February 5, 1990, six days before he was released.


Only on his release from Victor Verster prison on February 11, 1990, did the world see Mandela in person.


Prior to this, journalists risked a visit from the security police if they used his image.

“Mandela’s likeness was illegal. He was in jail, the law was clear,” wrote journalist Denis Beckett, editor of anti-apartheid magazine Frontline in the 1980s.

In his book Radical Middle, Beckett writes about how, in August 1987, the magazine published a cover bearing a Mandela likeness.

Drawn by a Joburg artist, the picture showed Mandela in Parliament, together with 25 other “recognisable” South Africans, in an idealised future.

The magazine risked a knock on the door by the security police, but none came.

And Beckett still doesn’t know how or why there were no repercussions.


The cover was a success: “The first thing about that cover is that when it appeared everyone who saw it said unhesitatingly ‘that’s Mandela’,” he wrote.

Two years later, in 1989, Cosatu published a more up-to-date depiction of Mandela based on the recollections of a journalist who interviewed him in prison.

The journalist described to a Dutch artist what Mandela looked like, and the artist drew a portrait that the trade union federation used as a poster.

The poster was secretly printed and distributed at the same time that Cosatu’s second national congress was taking place, according to Marlene Powell, a former Cosatu media officer.

She said the poster was stealthily handed to Cosatu delegates staying at hotels before the congress started.

“It was a thing of defiance,” said Powell.

“I suppose in a way it meant freedom was tantalisingly close. There was a real feeling of ‘almost getting there’.”

She added: “A lot of us involved in the struggle didn’t think we would see the change in our lifetime.


“Can you believe they (the apartheid state) tried so hard to rub somebody out?”

Mandela, Powell said, was a “very potent figure” his whole life.

“(The state) had hoped to block him out. But the way Mandela conducted himself in prison actually strengthened the ANC.”

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