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South Africa’s Grapple with Apartheid: Gavin Jantjes’ ‘A South African Colouring Book’

Shani Thomas

Shani studies English and American Literature and enjoys reading contemporary fiction and going to music festivals. She likes writing about T.V. fashion and lifestyle.

In 1948 South Africa experienced an onset of lethal austerity, spearheaded by a radical Afrikaner nationalist regime. The introduction of apartheid politics sought the complete abandonment of the imperialist polices practised by the previous government in its allegiance to the allies during the World Wars.

Legislation from 1948 to 1994 demystified any confusion around the racial hierarchy of the South African body politic. Placing white workers at the top of the pecking order whilst restructuring the status of blacks to that of second class citizens, transformed the fabric of South African society. Any existing cracks within South African race relations were to undergo strenuous institutional pressure in order to achieve barefaced infringements to black Africans humans rights. This began with segregation in public services, post offices, railways and heavy industry. As well as this, there was the eradication of trade unions and citizenship for native South Africans. This austere system of racial taxonomy infiltrated all aspects of daily life including residency, employment opportunities provoking a bourgeoning opposition from non-whites towards the apartheid state. Later, A defiance campaign emerged, in the 50s, led by figures such as Nelson Mandela. Work stoppages and boycotts ensued resulting in thousands of protestors were being wounded, incarcerated or massacred by the police.

Now available for viewing in Studio 3 of the Art Building is South African Painter, Gavin Jantjes’ ‘A South African Colouring Book’; a collection of posters curated from old articles, photographs, his own work card and other primary sources of the apartheid era. Cleverly compiling his portfolio in a way that resembles the style of a child’s colouring book, Jantjes places heavy ironic emphasis on the ‘colour’ aspect of his design as a visual symbol for racial discrimination. This double-ended metaphor ensures that each of his captions are loaded with much food for thought.

This happens to be the case for the poster marked ‘Colour this whites only’ with his signature illustration which resembles an infant’s first painting kit. For the poster Jantjes has traced outline of South African Prime Minister John Vorster 1966-78, underneath a portrait of Hitler. Overlaid towards the centre of the work is an excerpted quote from Vorster which partially reads “You can call the anti-democratic principle Dictatorship if you wish. In Italy it is called Fascism, in Germany National Socialism, and in South Africa Christian Nationalism.”

‘Colour this whites only’

Another poster follows suit and is called ‘Colour this labour dirt cheap.’ It showcases a black woman on all fours, in endless toil at what appears to be the dreariest and basest levels of employment available. It is accompanied by a section of Vorster’s speech made to Parliament in 1968 where he boldly affirms that “It is true that there are blacks working for us. They will continue to work for us for generations, in spite of the ideal we have to separate them completely. Surely we all know that? … under no circumstances can we grant them those political rights in our territory, neither now nor ever.” Perhaps the most troubling aspect of the Prime Minister’s speech is that it highlights that the natural evolution of the apartheid era, is reliant solely on the regression of the personal liberties of native Africans. Signalling the colour white as the visual image for the crossroads between insidious bureaucracy and corrupt religious leanings, while using the concept of ‘coloured’ as a symbol of conceptually free labour, makes it hard not to admire Jantjes’ acute ability to respectfully observe the victims of past racism, while simultaneously producing a scathing critique on the key frontmen of the apartheid state.

‘Colour this labour dirt cheap.’

One poster memorialises the catastrophic events that took place in Sharpeville. ‘Colour these people dead’ is composed of two photographs. In the bottom photo men in uniforms can be seen beating civilians to death. The photo above is of the aftermath, showing lifeless corpses sprawled across the town’s landscape; it is embossed with block blue letters that simply read ‘DEAD’ . The inhabitants of Sharpeville were predominantly black and the town was previously known for its outstanding jazz and sports occasions. In 1960 peaceful demonstrations began outside of the town’s police station in reaction to the loathed Pass Law. The new law stipulated that non-Europeans must carry documents as proof that they were allowed to be in the area. The unrequited killing spree the police force retaliated with even caught the attention of countries in the West who, through the UN, appealed to the South African government for an end to the regime.

‘Colour these people dead’

If you wish to see the aforementioned artworks as well as the other posters that make up A South African Colouring Book’ in person, check out the MA curating students’ Beyond the Barricade exhibition in Studio 3 of the Art Building.

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