Afri-comics in the afterlife

William Worger

Lily Saint talks with historian William Worger about the archive of sponsored comics by South Africa's Apartheid government that he is amassing at UCLA.

From the cover of Mighty Man No.1

Interview by
Lily Saint

During the 1970s, the Apartheid government’s Department of Information surreptitiously produced propaganda that masqueraded as popular entertainment. The B-Scheme films of the 1970s are familiar to historians of South African cinema, but less well known are two pro-apartheid comic book series—Mighty Man and Tiger Ingwe. Mighty Man featured a crime-busting superhero and was designed to appeal to urban audiences, while Tiger Ingwe targeted black readers in the rural areas, or “homelands.”

Africa is a Country spoke to historian William Worger who is spearheading a project at UCLA Library to compile a complete set of digitized Afri-comics to make them freely available online. We chatted about their production, about the challenge of understanding how they were read when they came out, and how we might read them today.


LS

How did you discover these comics?

WW

I first visited South Africa in November 1977 right after Biko was killed in detention in September of that year, and I came across some references to Mighty Man then which I went back to recently in preparation for another return visit. I found some examples on the South African Comic Books website about five years ago. I put the title into eBay and that’s where a collection became available about four years ago—from an American comic collector who had a huge number of comics—those are the ones up at UCLA.

LS

How many titles did they make?

WW

There are 17 of Mighty Man and 17 of Tiger Ingwe. The National Library in Cape Town is, coincidentally, displaying its complete collection of Mighty Man so I am working with them to hopefully digitize the full 34 titles to make the whole set available. This display at the library suggests that people are starting to recognize that the comics deserve scholarly attention.

LS

One of the most interesting, but difficult questions to answer is how we understand readers to have responded to these when they were first published.

WW

I talked to a friend of mine involved in the Soweto Uprising, who would have been about 13 at the time, part of the target audience, and I asked him if he knew anything about them, and his response was “No, I was reading newspapers!” This is of course, in part, a response that indicates how uninteresting these comics would have been for a politically engaged young person. But I’m certain that they were read, so that’s something I want to follow up when I go to South Africa later this year and talk to a wider range of people who were children at the time, who might have come across these comics.

LS

The production process, as you explain on the UCLA Library website, tells an interesting story of collaboration between the Apartheid government, the CIA, American-based DC-Comics artists and writers, and anthropological focus groups run in South Africa.

WW

Yes, I want to go back and learn more about how these were created. Eschel Rhoodie, the Secretary of the Department of Information, describes how anthropologist Bettie van Zyl Alberts ran focus groups in South Africa before they were made, ostensibly to assess how these comics might best appeal to readers in rural and urban areas. The American DC-Comics artists (most notably the illustrator Joe Orlando) made the drawings for the comics. Oddly, under the injunctions of the South African government, they were tasked with drawing black South Africans to look different, somehow, from American comics’ depictions of black Americans. This of course begs the question: How do you make people look more African than African-American? Is there a memo somewhere that says if you change the image in a certain way you can make characters look more African than African-American?

LS

Perhaps this is done in part by the inclusion of the folktales which appear in every issue of Mighty Man apparently to affirm particular African cultural histories.

WW

Yes, one connection that hasn’t been made much yet is between these comics and Drum magazine. Even though no one says this, the Afri-Comics appear to be modeling themselves partly on Drum, which had a clear anti-Apartheid stance but also regularly juxtaposed its more overt political agendas with stories about sports and bodybuilding, advertisements for skin lightening creams, references to South African folklore and traditions, and features about American movie actors. Similarly Mighty Man mixes genres, but interestingly, they draw on this model with an expressly opposite pro-Apartheid aim.

LS

Eschel Roodie mentions that these comics were meant to counteract ANC/pro-Communist and SWAPO publications in circulation. Do you know about any of these?

WW

They were primarily books and radio, but I’ve been trying to hunt down any examples of pro-Communist comics that might have been circulating within Apartheid South Africa. There’s a fantastic MPLA comic that came out in Angola in 1976 after the earlier overthrow of the Portuguese colonial regime, for instance. It’s a very graphic depiction of people struggling against colonialists—violent anti-colonial portraits. This would be something the Afri-Comics were meant to combat.

MPLA comic from 1970s Angola.
LS

There are other examples of U.S. and CIA-funded comics that circulated the whole world over, to propagate American propaganda.

WW

The Franklin Book Program was a front or semi-front organization which, from the 1950s through the early 1970s, put out a lot of pro-America, U.S. Information Agency/CIA funded materials. These papers are actually at Princeton Library and the inventory of the holdings there show a manifest interest in producing these kinds of propaganda for distribution worldwide.

LS

This shows us how South Africa was one node within a more global network with the set aim to circulate pro-American propaganda through cultural forms of entertainment.

WW

Yes, and the comics are just one part of this, but they remind me, as a scholar who largely thinks of himself as working on anti-Apartheid history, that there are other people coming at these materials from other angles, say as Cold War historians, and these materials make me realize I might need to alter my framework since we are actually doing overlapping and connected work. They bring to mind too another vivid memory I have from 1977, of a white National Party politician telling me how naïve I was not to accept that the real enemy of democracy in South Africa was the Soviet Union working through ANC “dupes” to rule the world. We can’t forget how focused the National Party was in the 1970s and 1980s on fighting the supposed “Communist threat” throughout southern Africa.

LS

On the UCLA website, there’s mention of two other titles that I hadn’t heard of—Witch Doctor’s Cave and Shaka’s Love Pampata. It would be great to add collections of these to the online archive.

WW

Yes. Now once we have the complete set of these first two titles up online, we will suddenly have a new national archive, without a paywall, accessible to anyone, including all those people who actually can’t get to, or can’t be granted access to the holdings in the South African Library—namely the bulk of the population in South Africa.

LS

It’s very ironic that these comics made cheaply for mass distribution, for people who didn’t have a lot of money or time to spend on entertainment, have this afterlife of inaccessibility and unavailability, so that only one with credentialed privilege can gain access to them.

WW

That’s a key point—widespread access to the internet, even despite bandwidth problems, is available to almost everyone now in South Africa, and these comics provide all sorts of interesting ways into getting back into the history of Apartheid, to see how the government was manipulating people, creating images of it, etc. In my small way I’ve been trying really hard with this project to get around the gatekeepers. There’s a lot of lip service paid to decolonizing the university and the country but what really matters is how the people who were colonized themselves think of materials like these, and how they decided to handle and interpret them.

About the Author

William Worger is a professor at UCLA, and specializes in the social and economic history of southern Africa.

About the Interviewer

Lily Saint is Assistant Professor of English at Wesleyan, where her research explores the nexus between ethics and cultural practice in the Global South.

Further Reading

Decolonizing the University

This text is a transcription of a talk given at Azania House, Bremner Building, University of Cape Town, April 2015.

I want to thank you all for this wonderful invitation to be a part of …

Facebook and Apartheid

This piece on nostalgia for the old South Africa among some whites–including among young people born after legal Apartheid ended in 1994–on social network site, Facebook, is genius. It is in Afrikaans.

[Wat Kyk Jy]