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A cracked mirror for a fractured land

South Africans were allowed to watch television only from the last quarter of the century. It was used primarily as a propaganda machine, writes Matthew Hattingh.

IN THE late 1980s a former Rapport journalist turned rock 'n roller, Johannes Kerkorrel, recorded a song which -- thanks to the censorship of the day -- never reached a wide South African audience which only broadcasting brings:

Die ander dag toe voel ek laag,
Ek wou 'n klein bietjie ontspan,
En 'n boer maak 'n plan
Ek sit my TV set toe aan,
Jy sal nie glo wat ek sien,
Op my TV screen.
Dit was 'n nare gesig,
Dit het my heeltemal ontwrig,
Dit was 'n moerse klug,
Dit was PW se gesig,
En langs hom staan Oom Pik, ja,
O, ek dog ek gaan verstik.
Sit dit af sit dit af (X3)
Want dis 'n helse straf.
Ek stap kombuis toe kry 'n bier,
Ek skakel oor na TV 4;
Oh my God wat het ons hier,
Wat my TV set ontsier,
Is daar nerens om toe te vlug,
Van daai man se mooi gesig,
Met sy vinger in die lug,
Gaan hy my lewe net ontstig,
En die program hang in die lug
Sien jy net PW se gesig
Ek vat jou nou 'n wed
Al die bure het Mnet

But of course nobody switched it off, helse straf or not. Prophets and lefties are seldom recognised in their home towns and TV remained the officially sanctioned drug of our fractured nation.

But let's fast forward a few years; leaving behind the emergency years and its protest rock music. Forward to 1995.

The camera zooms in on Nelson Mandela standing on the field in a packed stadium.

Madiba is wearing a number six jersey instead of his customary patterned silk shirt. He fist is clenched in triumph as Francois Pienaar alongside him lofts the Webb Ellis trophy into the sky.

For a few short moments South Africans in their lounges, pubs and shebeens are euphoric.

It's this power to grip the public's attention; to reflect and shape a national consciousness and help create its mythologies, that has made television the medium of South Africa's century.

And yet for all its persuasiveness and power, TV had a relatively late South African debut and was only introduced to the country on January 5, 1976, after a protracted and painful debate.

Television had long been opposed by the minister of posts and telegraphs, Dr Albert Hertzog. Hertzog was against TV on the grounds that, among other things, it showed blacks and whites living together. On the eve of television's introduction, he predicted spiritual doom and moral degradation unless the "evil is rooted out".

It was not until John Vorster dropped Hertzog from the cabinet in 1968 that plans for television went through.

But if television was late in coming to South Africa, there was nothing tardy about the way the state set about securing control of the new medium. In fact, the Nationalists were calling the shots from day one, having in 1948 begun installing their apparatchiks in the SABC.

The SABC of 1948 was virtually a child of the British Broadcasting Corporation: Back in 1936, Prime Minister General JBM Hertzog invited the BBC's founder, Lord John Reith, to suggest how South Africa's fledgling broadcasting service, at that time commercially run, could be developed.

And the SABC virtually adopted the BBC's Royal Charter, in effect committing itself to a liberal policy and a degree of independence from the state.

However, in 1958, Albert Hertzog was appointed posts and telegraphs minister and things began to change apace.

The super Afrikaners

ONE of Hertzog's first acts as minister was to invite his friend Piet Meyer to take over the chairmanship of the SABC. Meyer was to remain head of the broadcaster until 1980.

Significantly, in 1960 Meyer also became chairman of the Broederbond, a semi-secret organisation set up to advance the interests of Afrikanerdom.

Meyer had firm ideas about the role the SABC should play in the life of the nation, as he was to explain to the general council of the Broederbond in 1977: "We must harness all our communication media in a positive way in order to gather up Afrikaner national political energy in the struggle for survival in the future ... our members must play a leading role!"

The first casualty under Meyer's reign was the SABC's director-general, Gideon Roos.

Roos, despite being a pioneer of Afrikaans broadcasting and a fervent Nationalist, was an obstacle to Meyer's designs because he saw the broadcaster's role as a reporter, not as a propagandist. Gradually Roos' powers were whittled away and he finally resigned in 1961 when Meyer announced the SABC would have its own editorial policy.

In 1978, the Sunday Times revealed that at least four of the nine members on the SABC's board of management were members of the Broederbond.

The SABC's director-general and a leading broeder around that time, Douglas Fuchs, is on record as saying: "We are involved in the politics of survival. The SABC cannot stand aside."

The role of the South African broadcaster, he maintained, was to report on positive achievement, prevent dissension among SA's "different nations" and to counteract the "negative criticism" of the English language press and of the outside world.

"We cannot cast doubt on the rulers of the country. No useful purpose can be served by causing the public distrust of our leaders' policies," Fuchs said.

In only its second month of fulltime broadcasting, the SABC introduced political commentary in the middle of television news.

The then head of SABC television news and commentary, Kobus Hamman, claimed at the time SABC commentators were "from all sorts of political persuasions".

Commentaries, he added, were intended to explain the news, not to indoctrinate.

This, however, was patently not the case as was confirmed to journalist Marshall Lee when he once asked an SABC senior political commentator, Alexander Steward, why "Current Affairs" never deviated from the government line.

Would not the message carry more conviction if there were occasional criticism of Pretoria's mistakes, Lee enquired.

"By asking that," said Steward, "it shows you do not understand the ways of propaganda. With propaganda you never let up."

A cracked mirror

IN 1978, PW Botha was elected prime minister after ousting his rivals in the wake of the Info Scandal.

This was a scandal which co-incidentally turned on the state's manipulation of the media. Or more precisely the state's extra-parliamentary use of public money to acquire its own voice in the English language press.

But for all that, Botha and his underlings had no qualms about continuing the state's manipulation of the SABC.

Botha's election coincided with a period of increasing turmoil in South Africa, and, as the SABC was wont to euphemistically put it, on the country's "borders". Colonialism was unravelling in Africa. Former colonies, especially Angola and Mozambique, had recently become independent.

The involvement of South Africa's industrial-military complex in the then South West Africa, and neighbouring countries generally, was deepening. The SADF was suffering casualties from its incursions into Angola.

Turmoil gripped the townships following the Soweto riots of 1976. The black trade union movement was emerging. Economic, sporting and cultural sanctions were intensifying. Foreign capital was fleeing.

But that wasn't exactly what confronted South Africans who turned to the national mirror.

Award-winning British broadcaster and author David Harrison reflects on the period: under the broadcasting broeders "no minister can officiate at the opening of a dam or power station without the attentive presence of an SABC camera".

TV images of the PM and cabinet ministers visiting homeland states and being received by "grinning acolytes and singing children" predominated.

The true extent and nature of South Africa's foreign military entanglements was also never revealed by the broadcaster.

As Govan Mbeki recalls in 1996: "The state security system identified the cause of the country's woes as an onslaught by the communists from the north. The red peril that was to overtake the country became the focus of TV propaganda on a nightly basis.

"The white population was brainwashed into accepting that the government's security apparatus was the only hope of salvation from evil communists."

Safe foreign guests were interviewed at length on TV while critics of the regime like Helen Suzman could only expect tightly edited snippets -- allowing the SABC to maintain at least a facade of objectivity.

Suzman's fellow parliamentarian and leader of the Progressive Federal Party, Frederik van Zyl Slabbert, in his 1985 memoir, The Last White Parliament, sketches how the Nationalists fostered a perception of a significant right-wing threat as a way to buttress the moderate white vote.

He wrote: "A cabinet minister laughingly told me: 'Come election time, all we do is show Eugene Terre'blanche giving his nazi salute on TV and your voters will flock to our tables in the northern suburbs of Johannesburg'."

The 1983 referendum for a tricameral parliament "was also the first time that the government had manipulated television and the radio bluntly and shamelessly as part of their marketing campaign. In fact a senior National Party MP told me how a group of them would get together every day and plan what was going to be shown from all parties that evening."

Slabbert defined the period as one of declining information and disinformation.

Vilification for acts of terrorism from the one side and praise and glorification for the other was the order of the day as both the state and the liberation movements engaged in propaganda.

The more things change ...

HOWEVER, while the Nationalists from the early- to mid-1980s increasingly talked a hard line and warned on TV of a Total Onslaught and reds under the bed, the period was also one of pragmatism and reform.

Influx control was scrapped, prohibitions on inter-race marriages were repealed, black trade unions were made legal.

The Nationalists also eased, somewhat, their stranglehold on TV.

Graham Leach, a BBC correspondent in South Africa at the time, writes that perhaps Botha's greatest achievement was to change the political debate in South Africa from one concerned with how to keep blacks out to one focused on how to bring them in.

A nightly current affairs programme, Network, which included lively debate and anti-government views from the likes of Jesse Jackson, was launched in 1985.

"Apartheid laws which threatened stability or whose abolition might help buy more time were quickly dispensed with."

But as the political philosopher Alexis de Tocqueville reminds us: "... the most perilous moment for a bad government is when it seeks to mend its ways ... (since) a grievance comes to appear intolerable once the possibility of removing it crosses men's minds".

And so it was that PW Botha's fateful Rubicon speech was broadcast, sparking an economic crisis. Violence had exploded once again in the townships, and successive states of emergency were called.

The government's limited commitment to black participation was the first casualty of the violence; the second was free expression and programmes like Network, where the political reporters and interviewers were suddenly changed.

Television and radio reporting were subject to restrictions. News that related to "unrest" and to the actions of the security forces was supplied by the Bureau for Information.

After lambasting foreign correspondents for "paying" blacks to incite unrest, Botha barred all camera teams from troubled areas. All information regarding the war in the townships was issued by the police, Leach writes.

In the 1987 election campaign, the SABC subjected verligte independent candidate Wynand Malan to an excessive grilling. In contrast, the way in which former Nat and ambassador to London Dennis Worrall was harnessing the support of the cream of enlightened Afrikaners was barely reflected by the SABC.

Leach cites the "Hendrickse Affair" as an episode which shattered any pretence of independent journalism at the SABC.

Rev Allan Hendrickse, the coloured leader in the tricameral parliament, led a campaign against beach apartheid which sensationally culminated in his resignation from Botha's cabinet.

Next he explained on Network, in terms unflattering to Botha, the reasons for his resignation.

Botha was furious and the SABC's director-general, Riaan Eksteen, was hauled out of a cocktail party and virtually ordered to redress the coverage in Botha's favour before the programme went off the air, writes Leach.

Eksteen subsequently retired as director-general with the customary golden handshake.

The decade drew to a close with Botha seeming to lack the vision to finish the job he had started. The country was becoming a military state with securocrats increasingly having a hand in the day-to-day administration of the country.

But then fate stepped in.

In January, 1989, Botha suffered a stroke. A palace revolt followed and in August the president recorded a television address announcing his resignation.

Six months after his inauguration, on February 2, 1990, President Frederik Willem de Klerk in his opening of parliament address, televised to an audience of millions, announced the unbanning of the liberation movements and imminent release of Nelson Mandela.


AND so we return to 1995 and the televised-around-the-world image of Mandela celebrating with the Bokke at Ellis Park.

We are now in an era where the themes which predominate on TV are nation-building and reconciliation.

The socialist rhetoric and radicalism of the pre-'94 period no longer sit well with South Africa's dominant black interest groups.

The concern now is to transfer economic power to a specific group, not to destroy capitalism.

Leading trade unionists have become leading captains of industry, and media moguls to boot.

Cyril Ramaphosa chairs telecom and media conglomerate Johnnic (which holds a significant stake in pay channel MNet and its sibling company Supersport), while former trade union leader Marcel Golding is chief executive officer of eTV (the Warner Brothers-backed free-to-air television company).

But while there is some controversy as to whether these two groups are indeed the black empowerment vehicles they purport to be, the battle for the hearts and minds of viewers continues.

Witness the furore which last year surrounded the broadcasting on SABC of a documentary made by the dissident London-based journalist John Pilger which stripped some of the PR and media-manufactured shine off the New South Africa.

The documentary, Apartheid Did Not Die, which argued the ANC had betrayed its cause, was broadcast only after much hand-wringing by top SABC management and was accompanied for reason of "balance" with a disclaimer and a panel discussion.

Talk of Pilger leads inevitably to Pilger's ideological mentor - Noam Chomsky, linguist and stern critic of the West's brand of freedom.

In a free society such as the new South Africa, do TV and the media serve to replace coercion with indoctrination: feeding the yearnings of the millions while in reality only the aspirations of a tiny elite are advanced?

Do the state broadcaster and its commercial counterparts, MNet and, exist to, in Walter Lippman's words, manufacture consent and a common sense of nation; a man in a number six jersey?

But at this point technology intervenes and the debate moves from TV to the future loci of power: multi-media and its owners, to the cross-overs between news, entertainment, the Internet, and telecommunications generally -- the stuff of tomorrow, the stuff tomorrow's Kerkorrels will be singing about.

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