Digging deep: Tshepiso Mabula’s photos of MK veterans and their families (clockwise from above, left) ‘Ka Ndongeni Otata Bafel’, ‘Emigodhini’ and ‘MKN Otata’.
In 2018, South African photographer Tshepiso Mabula embarked on a profound and soul-stirring journey that would lead her to document the previously untold stories of former members of Umkhonto weSizwe (MK), the ANC’s underground army in exile.
Through her work, aptly titled Ukugrumba — a Xhosa word that means “to dig” — Mabula has shed light on the complex and deeply personal narratives that emerged from a tumultuous period in South Africa’s history.
Her work not only explores the lives of the combatants but also delves into the challenges faced by their families and the lasting impact of apartheid’s violence.
At the heart of Mabula’s project lies a poignant reflection on her own family history.
“My late uncle had been part of Umkhonto weSizwe but it wasn’t, for whatever reason, taken seriously in the family.
“And so, I really started to think about how he had been treated by the family upon his return and why he decided to join the armed struggle — how much that would have had an impact on the person that he became when he came back,” she says.
Initially, Mabula set out to capture the stories of former combatants.
Many of these individuals joined MK at an early age — some as teenagers — driven by a profound sense of purpose and a desire to dismantle apartheid.
However, when they returned to civilian life, they often found their dreams and aspirations had been derailed, a consequence of the turbulent times they had lived through.
Securing funding for her project not only provided the necessary resources for Mabula’s travel and production but also laid the foundation for a broader and more powerful narrative.
As she delved deeper into the lives of these former combatants, she realised that her work was about more than just their stories. It became a testimony to how living in a violent society, shaped by an oppressive regime, forced individuals to respond with violence.
This cycle of violence didn’t end with the abolition of apartheid in 1994; it persisted, casting a long, dark shadow over South Africa.
Mabula’s work also highlights the often neglected trauma experienced by the families of former military combatants.
These families paid a heavy price for the choices their loved ones made, and their stories deserve attention, as much as those of the combatants themselves.
Moreover, Mabula’s work reveals a concerning issue of erasure — the stories of disabled black men, women and queer individuals who participated in pivotal events in South African history.
Telling these stories isn’t straightforward or without its problems. It’s an ongoing endeavour, one that often requires her to step away from the project to recharge and then return to continue photographing.
The weight of these stories and the enduring trauma they represent can be overwhelming, even for the photographer herself.
As Mabula’s lens captures the experiences of the combatants, one theme that consistently emerges is the enduring impact of their past.
The trauma they’ve carried from their time as freedom fighters remains ever-present, yet it’s a topic that society is often reluctant to acknowledge or discuss openly. Instead, these individuals are met with dismissive remarks like, “Get over it; it’s in the past.”
One poignant story that Mabula encountered was that of a combatant who chose to engage with the struggle from a cultural perspective, as a poet and writer.
“I remember him saying that’s what he wanted to contribute to the struggle but, again, within a military organisation that was like, yes, there is space for that, but also you should be willing to engage with the violence in a different way,” she says.
“So, he also got ostracised and eventually moved into a neighbourhood in Tanzania where he had children and then, ultimately, had to come back to South Africa — and he left his family there.”
Mabula says this narrative raises questions about displacement, the toll it takes on families and the impact it has on individuals’ lives.
Through her lens, Mabula discovered that many of the combatants’ stories are gut-wrenching, filled with pain and suffering.
They also reveal the painful realisation that trauma is passed down through generations.
It’s a legacy of anguish that can be traced back to the time when individuals such as Mabula’s uncle, who were deeply affected by their experiences, were left without the support they needed.
In hindsight, her work reflects the missed opportunity of allowing these individuals the space and time to process their feelings.
It’s a profound journey into the hearts and minds of those who fought for a better South Africa and a reminder that the wounds of the past continue to shape the present. Mabula’s Ukugrumba is a powerful testament to the resilience of the human spirit, the enduring impact of trauma and the unspoken truths that persist in the shadow of history.