Connect to share and comment

Full Frame: Freedom fighters, 30 years later

A photographer tracks down anti-apartheid fighters who have since struggled to find productive places in society.

Full Frame features photo essays and conversations with photographers in the field.

JOHANNESBURG, South Africa — Umkhonto We Sizwe (Spear of the Nation in Zulu) was the armed wing of the African National Congress and played a key part in the struggle against apartheid.

Nelson Mandela was a founder in 1961 of the Umkhonto We Sizwe, popularly known as MK.  The group offered an armed alternative to the peaceful, political protesting that it thought had not done enough to end apartheid. From its beginning, MK operated underground to protect members, as much as possible, from arrests by apartheid agents.

For most of its history, MK used violence against strategic installations of apartheid such as police stations and army offices and avoided as much as possible human casualties, especially the lives of civilians. But it slowly evolved into a sophisticated, multi-faceted insurgency by the 1980s.

It was a complex organization complete with a special-forces unit that infiltrated the government, student militias that mobilized at the universities and self-defense troops that protected the townships. As censorship laws and arrests increasingly silenced the leaders of the ANC, it was the subversive actions of the MK that were most visible and rallied the masses behind the fight for freedom.

On my first trip to South Africa to document the former anti-apartheid fighters, I focused exclusively on those whose dreams had not been fulfilled. I tracked down soldiers who once believed that the promise of a democratic South Africa would bring them more comfortable lives and a brighter future, but whose reality had turned dark and bleak.

I met former MK soldiers who had once worked in intelligence and fought in combat, those who trained and lived in exile and also those who fought underground in South Africa in the 1970s and 1980s. Many of the men I met were homeless, living with relatives or in small shacks erected in the yard of a friend’s home or business.

They often suffer from post traumatic stress disorder and struggle with alcohol abuse. They live in extreme poverty, like many South Africans, struggling to eat every day, to send their children to school and to pay for health care.

Take the case of Daniel Zakhele Maseko. At the age of 14, Maseko began to skip school, burn cars and help destroy white-owned business in Daveyton, the township where he grew up and still lives.

"By that time every youth was involved in something," he explains. But Maseko wasn't in a gang. He was part of the MK. It was a dangerous existence and in time Maseko found himself homeless.