Digitising the photographic archive of Zenzo Nkobi (EAP204)

Aims and objectives

This project will digitise and conserve over 5,000 photographs taken by Zenzo Nkobi, a South African who went into exile during the 1960s and who worked as a professional photographer in the 70s and 80s in Southern Africa. Nkobi recorded the Southern Africa liberation struggle camps, leaders, conferences, the massacres of the 1970s, the impact of South African military destabilisation and the Gukurahundi (the 1980s post-independence repression in western Zimbabwe).

This is perhaps the only intact photographic collection recording the Southern African liberation movements in exile. From the early 1970s to the early 1990s, Nkobi recorded the Southern Africa liberation struggle. To ensure security, photographers were not permitted in residences and camps unless fully vetted by the movement; Zenzo Nkobi, as the son of ANC treasurer-general Thomas Nkobi, had complete access. His images cover ANC and Zimbabwean refugee and military camps in Zambia and Botswana in the 1970s. His photographs show ZIPRA military training camps and the only known images of the Freedom Camp massacre and other destabilisation raids on Zambian soil by Rhodesian and South African troops.

Zenzo Nkobi photographed liberation movement leaders at major regional and international conferences, as well as people's daily lives in exile, in Lusaka and Maputo. Zenzo was a member of the ANC photography unit in the 1980s; however, the unit's stored images were destroyed by water damage in Zambia in the late 1980s.

In 1980, he photographed the return of exiles and elections in the newly liberated Zimbabwe, and rare images of the Gukhurahundi (repression of the population around Bulawayo in the early 1980s).

Initial research will place these photographs into context, through preliminary interviews with people present at the events recorded. This will ensure the initial indexing and filing of the images, providing the foundations for future in depth research, which is beyond the scope of this immediate project.

The photographic negatives were given by the Nkobi family to the South African History Archives, unsorted and unreferenced in plastic sleeves within looseleaf folders, in cardboard boxes. The negatives need to be placed in a secure conservation environment as soon as possible, to prevent further deterioration.

As the collection is unique, it is believed essential to have multiple digital copies made accessible for research and record purposes in key archival repositories. Without this, an important and irreplaceable visual record may be lost. The project will provide digital copies to local and international historical repositories; and conserve the original negatives in a proper archival environment.


The project digitised 5106 negatives and slides in line with archival standards, selected from over 10,000 images in the Zenzo Nkobi Photographic Collection. The collection is profiled on the SAHA website.

Complete sets of the access copies of this collection have been deposited at the following archives:

National Archives of Zimbabwe< Zambian National Archives

South African National Archives

African National Congress Archives at the University of Fort Hare Library

Mayibuye Centre/Robben Island Museum

University of the Western Cape

EAP does not have the permissions to share the outputs from this project.