The eyes of the betrayed

It is the eyes that haunt you: young, wide eyes full of innocence and hope; narrowed, blank eyes filled to the brim with despair. They are the eyes of times past, but still they follow you round the room of a remarkable new exhibition (in a remarkably unlikely place). They are the eyes of a continent betrayed.

In 1961, fresh down from university, my friend Tom Sharpe (creator of Wilt and Porterhouse Blue) left England to work and teach in apartheid South Africa. Thank God for TB, they told him in Jo'burg: so many blacks were dying in the squalid sea of shanty towns around the city that white rule looked set to go on and on. Tom, aroused, incensed, bought a camera.

Over the next 10 years, before he was arrested (yet again) and finally deported, he took thousands upon thousands of pictures of South African life. They were a unique record of the division he saw, a record so damning that 36,000 negatives were seized and burned by the police as they threw him out of the country. But some others, one way or another, survived: and now they are on show in that unlikely place, a wonderfully white, light gallery in Palafrugell, Catalonia, a few miles from where Tom lives (and is just completing another book).

Look at those pictures today, and they seem to look back at you. Sharpe has a gift for catching the moments in life, for evoking a swift, instinctive response. A dozen black toddlers, neatly arrayed, sit on the grass and glance towards his lens. Two beautiful little Indian girls emote as the shutter clicks. Three small boys walk down an open sewer strewn with debris and seem engulfed by the filth of it all. One sick lad lies on a rotting mattress and stares death (and us) in the face.

And there's the catch in the throat to what we see. New black-and-white prints made from those negatives of a half-century ago have a crisp, modern definition to them. Some could almost have been taken yesterday. The figures who walk these walls, in their ragged shirts and shorts, wear the timeless kit of poverty. The eyes you see are alive, imploring. Yet, because decades of change and disease have rolled through and over them, the odds for those toddlers on the grass means they're almost certainly dead. What you really see is yet another lost generation.

There are other images across the room from these faces of Africa - Cambridge toffs in blazers and boaters, Tom himself as a tweedy English gent - but they only underline the poignancy on view: the Sharpe that South Africa's cops bundled away could go home and write brilliantly about them and their poisonous ways in Riotous Assembly; but those who stayed behind had nothing to do but wait and suffer. Which is where an extra layer of pain kicks in.

Come back from the gallery, turn on the television, and what do you see? A freighter of Chinese guns for Zimbabwe heading off for Angola. A snatched shot or two of crowds in a Harare street. A thronged rally where Robert Mugabe (four years older than Tom) denounces British imperialism one more time, and sets up Gordon Brown as the big buddy for Eugene Terre'Blanche. Now, of course, Zimbabwe isn't South Africa and Mugabe isn't some contrapuntal clone of PW Botha or Verwoerd. But, stepping back, this is still the inalienable, satirical stuff of another riotous assembly.

When Nelson Mandela got out of prison, we cleared the front page of the Guardian in a joyous instant. When he came, not so long after, to set the first presses rolling for a new Mail and Guardian in Johannesburg, I was proud to shake his hand, and proud to share a Cape Town platform with Bishop Tutu. So much that happened then was simply great: so much that has happened since is great. But the wreck of Zimbabwe isn't great at all, and nor is South Africa's nerveless hand, recoiling feebly as it stretches north.

Outrage about Iraq? Of course we Brits can manage that, because (in legend) it is our Tony's and their George's fault. Concern for Africa? Of course, in verbal abundance whenever the UN meets. But fury over Zimbabwe? Somehow that doesn't seem so sharp as John Simpson palpitates from a dark carpark somewhere in the suburbs. Somehow it is stereotypical Africa as usual, and a shrug of helplessness in particular.

But that, for me now, is the desultory thing. Mugabe's recount is beyond shameless, beyond even the satire of Tom Sharpe. It debases what five decades in southern Africa have achieved, and it shames the pusillanimity of Mandela's chosen successor, the only man who could do something - but hasn't - while those same eyes far away on a Spanish wall look on and plead to their new rulers for a response.

Peter Preston