How they dressed and acted back then, essay by Sean O’Toole

While Nelson Mandela lies gravely ill in hospital, a grim tragi-comedy unfolds. A prominent political family is disassembling in public view. The exhibition Martyrs, Saints & Sell-Outs, a compilation of late apartheid news photographs by Benny Gool, Zubeida Vallie and Adil Bradlow, is not just a diversion from this story but a way to quietly reflect on it.

Unavoidably, the Mandelas – Nelson and Winnie – feature prominently. There is one photo on curator Siona O’Connell’s exhibition that deserves a special mention, also a long appreciative look by audiences wanting to lodge a happy picture of Saint Madiba in their heads. Photographed in April 1990, it shows Nelson Mandela at Cape Town airport (then stilled named after DF Malan). Formally, it’s nothing special, simply a news photograph shot on the fly. But never mind the formal stuff. It’s what the photograph depicts.

Mandela is wearing a cream trench coat, its collar raffishly turned up – most pictures from this time show the big guy in a starched National Party grey suit. Mandela’s sartorial style is, however, secondary. It’s his left hand you should look at. Stood between two old pals, Alfred Nzo and Joe Slovo, Mandela’s hand clasps that of his Communist buddy, Slovo. Affection is something you show, not speak.

Gool’s photograph is displayed next to a jubilant portrait of Walter Sisulu, fist pumping the air. Bradlow’s photo is no masterpiece, but that’s not really the point of this exhibition.

Showcasing three overlooked photographers, Martyrs, Saints & Sell-Outs transports you back to a time of burning barricades, whites-only beaches, compulsory military service and sneeze machines. A time when Tony Yengeni and Cyril Ramaphosa were pictured marching under COSATU banners in thrifty suits, not under dodgy headlines looking like they’re on their way to the Durban July.

The exhibition is accompanied by a short video documentary. In it, Bradlow, a respected photojournalist and director at National Geographic Channel, offers that his photographs, looked at now, recall things, events and people that “get lost in the haze of time”.

Apartheid was an all-embracing idea; resisting it was a fact of daily life by men and women committed to an ideal. Go see this exhibition. It may not clarify the instabilities and debasement that surround Mandela’s passage to that other place, but it will make clear the wavering moral compass of a nation negotiating a future without a living saint.