Television programming in South Africa changed in several respects following the investiture of the Government of National Unity (GNU) in 1994. These changes have not been forced in the sense of having been imposed by the state. Instead, the public service broadcaster, the South African Broadcasting Corporation (SABC) was in the unique position of being able to draw on a wide range of previously excluded professional producers. Many of the programs reviewed in this catalogue, and in the Prime Time South Africa compilation issued by California Newsreel, then, reflect these producers' responses to the SABC's call for material relevant in a society consciously undergoing transition.
Another production resource was the cadre of black activists who trained in film and video techniques as a form of resistance. Indeed, many of the previously excluded professionals had made it part of their business to extend camera and production skills across apartheid's racial divide. With these producers were other professionals, especially journalists, who actively co-operated with activists in democratically organized media production. The productions represented in the California Newsreel collection therefore show a range of outputs highly representative of both past and present practices, even though few of them would have been shown prior to 1994.
Broadcast television practice prior to the GNU was both directed and regulated by the Board of Directors of the SABC. Ostensibly this arrangement reflected the formal independence of the broadcaster from the state. However, by the early 1960s the apartheid government's political arms had ensured near-complete dominance of board representation: boards were composed almost entirely of white Afrikaans-speaking males. Indeed, many, if not most, SABC board members also belonged to the `Super Afrikaner' organization known as the Afrikaner Broederbond (roughly: the Afrikaner Brotherhood). As Ruth Tomaselli (1989) and her collaborators show in Broadcasting in South Africa radio and television policy was geared to popularizing apartheid and National Party hegemony.
With the installation of the new democratic Parliament in 1994, new broadcast legislation emerged. Under this dispensation, all broadcast activity was placed under the jurisdiction of an Independent Broadcasting Authority (IBA) modelled after British, Canadian and Australian regulatory practice. The IBA's brief includes the injunction to ensure a plurality of players in the field, as well as ensuring the independence of the national public service broadcaster. The SABC assumed the latter function, and it is in the light of this responsibility that the Corporation undertook to air the kind of material extracted in Prime Time South Africa.
New Faces, Established Skills
Prior to its restructuring, the SABC had relied heavily on in-house producers in conjunction with a small cadre of outside contractors. However, the latter group only included companies which turned out ideologically approved work, dramas and documentaries which, for example, reinforced certain preferred perceptions of white South Africa as the last bastion of democracy in a world increasingly succumbing to communism. Many of the production houses represented in the California Newsreel catalogue were ignored by the SABC under apartheid, and still others avoided the Corporation on principle.
This does not mean that nothing happened which was not sanctioned by the Corporation. On the contrary, many producers were engaged in developing audio-visual media directed at non-governmental structures like trade unions, civic organizations and overseas television and film. Activists joined non-governmental organizations (NGOs) dedicated to media training, and some of the institutions set up in this way have become major players since 1994. Mail and Guardian Television, the Newtown Film and Television School, Dynamic Images and others, all sprang from initiatives designed to spread journalism, film and video skills across the full spectrum of South Africa's population.
By 1994, therefore, the restructured SABC Board and management were in a position to expand their range of outside production resources. Even before 1994, though, the Corporation had begun to take on the kind of projects which it had previously avoided. The first series of Mail and Guardian Television's Ordinary People cinéma vérité documentary series appeared in 1993 to almost universal acclaim. Already in 1990, the Matchbox City miniseries was conceived as project for a group of independent film producers based in the black townships. In the end, the important point is that the country did not need to wait on the development of alternative production facilities and approaches: the germ of the new television resource was already in place, and fully prepared to provide programs that mainstream South Africa had never imagined (eg. Going Up; Beckett's Trek).
A lot of communications theory examines the influence, or lack thereof, brought about by mainstream network products like soap operas, miniseries based on popular novels, network news, and so on. To a large extent, though, this body of thought tends to treat audiences as if they are all more or less identical to American audiences. It is quite decisive that European and North American audiences have been viewing television since the 1950s, but that most other global television audiences have existed for a much shorter period. In South Africa people first saw television in 1976, and then only on a limited scale directed mainly at white viewers. Channels for blacks appeared in 1982; however the issue revolves not around actual distribution of programs but the fact that South Africa's second generation of television viewers is still growing up. Audiences in the US and England, for example, are already into the fourth generation, and this difference matters when we look at the South African situation.
For the most part, TV in South Africa was an urban phenomenon, something requiring a high level of capital investment in order to reach the widest possible audience. When, like in the US, audiences grow up in a world where television sets are everywhere, the actual structures making this possible tend to get taken for granted. Elsewhere things are usually quite different. When countries like Namibia, Zimbabwe and South Africa shifted into a democratic mode of politics, national constitutions expanded once-limited communications rights to much larger populations than the ones previously benefiting from the existing structures. In general, even those privileged in the past had not enjoyed access for more than one or two decades.
Consequently, the first generation of television viewers in South Africa encountered the medium in its latest (or very nearly latest) forms. Even now, some two decades down the line, the broadcast system shows foreign programs developed for systems which have in fact developed over some fifty years. The result is that two essentially incompatible but still parallel understandings of television programming grew up together in South Africa's production community. First, there is a strong `mainstream' tradition which approaches programs as if what's good for, say, CBS and NBC is good enough for South Africa. In many respects, this was the approach of the `old' SABC. Second, there was the broad activist approach which was introduced earlier.
Both the old and the activist influences were found in post-apartheid TV programming. The main commercial network in South Africa, M-Net, follows the first approach. Indeed, M-Net's programming consists predominantly of Hollywood cinema, British and South African sport and some local productions. The SABC soon rose to the challenge of providing representative public service broadcast programming, and the influence of the activist local television tradition filtered through. Previously marginalized producers were able to incorporate style, script and editing values based on the South American small-format local media practice, and to mesh this with South African experience in quite unexpectedly dynamic ways.
Ethical Cleansing: the present as homage to the past
Most of the material presented in Prime Time South Africa works in some way to reconstruct perceptions of the past. Topics, narratives and subjects all present perspectives which the past marginalized, sometimes to the point of near-genocide. To call this kind of production `ethical cleansing' conjures up visions of some very unpleasant eastern European events. However, we quite deliberately reconstruct this term to draw sharp attention to the transformed political environment within which television after 1994 operates.
Grand Apartheid, the creation of ethnically `pure homeland nations', was doubly both ethnic cleansing and ethnic concentration. It was based on a concept that political theorist Hannah Arendt (1958) located in the collapse of the European nation-state, influenced directly by Imperialist experiences of indirect rule. By deliberately creating an ethics based on the division of races, apartheid's architects then tried to brutally impose an ethnic constellation of states in which civil and political rights were based on perceived `authentically own' cultural characters defined by racial origins. The events leading up to 1994 were largely based on the different ways people affected by the cleansing and concentration organized against it (eg. Biko: Breaking the Silence, The Ribbon).
The films, documentaries, drama series, sitcoms and actuality programs - even the game shows - in Prime Time South Africa all emerged within an environment where public service broadcasting has specific tasks aimed at the broader democratic project. The present government is not actually a new political actor, and in fact represents ideals which were first formulated more than eighty years ago. These ideals of non-racial democracy formed the basis for the struggle which dominated Western television news for only decade, but in fact had become part of many people's cultural background. The task which the television programs address, then, includes bringing into the mainstream those views previously excluded from the public realm.
In this way, people's actual desires get into the public realm. What many may have believed was a struggle for retribution turns out to be a struggle for recognition, a demand to become involved in relevant ways with the common world which everybody inhabits (Castrol TV Advert; Heart and Stone). The California Newsreel compilation shows how it was not a revolutionary ethics of dispossession, expulsion and racial revenge drove the call for change. By putting this into the words of producers who were part of the struggle actually serves to clear the air, to show just how marginal the ethics of apartheid really was. In this way, we can speak of ethical cleansing not as eradication of an established system of norms and rules, but the material demonstration that they actually had only marginal purchase in the wider community.
The Future as a Task: television and the way forward
Aside from working to bring ethical as well as political and social realities of the past into view, that these new television programs give a good view of the present as the beginning of many futures. They either show or are produced by people with real aspirations and sometimes unexpected talent who are willing to build on their world, rather than just use whatever can be given to them. They also show how this attitude already existed in the middle of the sometimes brutal liberation conflict (see, eg. Cry Reason). Either way, the most important topic that unifies the diversity of styles and genres represented here is People.
Whether programs show the personal drama of struggle against oppression, or poke fun at habitual stereotypes inherited from the past, the central theme remains something fundamental about what it means to be South African. This is the general desire to get on with the task of making a world in which new generations will be proud to live. And yet not one program actually states what such a world ought to be: instead, people themselves spell out what they ought to do to make a better world. This message may be explicit, like in Beckett's Trek, or dramatized as in Homeland or Matchbox City, or even tracked out in the Ghetto Diaries / White City, Black Lives self-made documentary-cum-actuality clips. In any event, viewers for whom non-racialism and non-sexism are foreign concepts will find the material challenging, presenting identities which seem to arise from an almost instinctual defence of a person's right to be human before anything else.
If there is some actual `ideology' behind the bulk of the material gathered for Prime Time South Africa it is that humanity is an end in itself. People are concerned for their futures not as ethnically or culturally defined subjects, but as agents in a wider task of equity for all who share the worlds that are possible under South Africa's new dispensation. As media for democratic action, these programs do not prescribe what must be done, but present options which can be supported or promoted on democratic grounds. They genuinely reflect the plurality of possible realities: from the Felicia Mabuza-Suttle Show and its aggressive neo-middle-class guilt, through the dramatic presentations of different kinds of oppression in Homeland and Matchbox City, to the whispered desperation of a young woman who dares to hope in the midst of Ghetto Diaries' poverty. Each context points to new ones. Programs like these and others like Ordinary People not only represent something new in South African television, they also present a potential which is new in the world at large. They do so in ways which take what became familiar in the news of the 1980s and up to 1994, and turn it from the site of activism into a site for a rainbow plurality of affirmation. Audiences never saw this before, because what happened in 1994 is something quite unique: the television represented here simply had to come.
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