On the evening of June 16, 1976 the whole country was thrown in a frenzy following an incident that took place in Soweto. Apparently, schoolchildren were shot at by police while on a protest march. Nobody knew this better than the people who were on the receiving end of the bullets and the police people whose fingers were on the triggers. The Minister of Foreign Affairs at the time could have painted a better picture with his diplomatic flair and the shooting ended up being played down like all other incidences of race flur ups. Before everybody could tell the story the South African Broadcasting Corporation's television division, still a few months old already had the story beamed into the living rooms of hundreds of households to a consumer consientised viewership of tens of thousands. The following morning the whole world was at its feet demanding not only the exclusion of South Africa from the Olympic games but also the suspension of its membership from all world bodies.

Some people might argue that the situation was not that bad, but just that the people chose a bad time to shoot the kids. They say that what the world saw and the country responded to so vigorously was the television version of events, that television provided the turning point in the struggle for liberation in South Africa. They say that South Africa can today sit back and look at the twenty five years that TV has been here with pride and credit it for having created an environment of cultural diversity and understanding.

But Professor of Journalism at Potchefstroom University, Arrie de Beer is not of the opinion that TV has such an effect on people. He argues that "die duiwel se kassie" did have an effect then but not as much as most would like to believe. He uses the example of the Bophuthatswana incident whereby three Afrikaner Weerstandbeweging commandos were killed, "Some people say that that was the turning point of events in a South Africa but I use my Drip Effect to calculate the waves it caused. I wonder if people can get so Americanized because they watch SABC 1 or whether TV can impact that much on the turn of events. I don't think so. The same way people say that the Cosby Show changed the attitudes of whites in South Africa. I don't believe that one problem can lead to any specific programme, it's not one but all kinds of incidents".

News shown on our TV were for some time and to a certain extent meant to uphold the policies of the ruling party and to portray a fake image of the country. The SABC made sure that their TV division didn't just broadcast any news deemed necessary. Every news and current affairs broadcast was meant to market the policy of separate development and to project an image to tourists that all was well in the Bantustans and the townships. Dr Daan Van Vuuren of the Broadcast Research said, "Television had made people aware of some issues in the country. It is presumed that internationally the war in Vietnam was stopped due to the influence of TV because for the first time the people saw the bad side of war". Thus, if the SABC demonstrated that apartheid was non-existent, everybody was bound to believe.

But some critics argue that it was not by accident that the same year that TV came to South Africa there was an uprising. They debate that what TV did was to catalise it as everybody was watching it. Even those in the townships who never knew what happened, like the world they were to witness it.

Pundits are also quick to point out that the twenty-five years that TV has been here were wasted because it has not managed to bring the people together. Sowetan newspaper Entertainment Reporter Edward Tsumele argued, "From the 1970s to the '90s it has not contributed to racial harmony because from then there was brainwashing. TV then was meant for whites and was not culturally enriching. It was only in the '90s that it started accommodating blacks". Tsumele also cited the example of soaps like The Bold and the Beautiful, which he said were not reflecting the behaviour and attitude of the South African public. Soaps are to a larger extent nothing but an escape from the hardships and realities of everyday life. " Blacks are still hooked on soaps because they are unrealistic and we need to see the imaginary world sometimes" Tsumele added.

But Professor Keyan Thomaselli of the Graduate Programme in Cultural & Media Studies at the University of Natal is of the opinion that soaps, even though escapimism is an aspect when it comes to watching them, the geist of the addiction lies in a research they did in Kwazulu Natal in relation to The Bold and the Beautiful.

"Most Zulu women can identify with strong female white characters in the soap and very much relate to that. For them being at a position where they are still negotiating gender issues it makes sense to see women in power" Prof Thomaselli said. It then stems from the reality that some Zulu men are authoritarians.

But has television really failed to bring races together? How about with its programming? Apart from being a mediator it is supposed to be a mirror of society, but in all fairness it seems that society does not appreciate seeing itself as it is. We admit to being embarrassed failures who would rather scape out of our reality with mere fictious creations of our own. We leave our important responsibilities like racism, xeno and homophobia to TV to settle them for us. It has been said in the past that comedies like Suburban Bliss are all about stereotyping suburban people and attempting to tackle urban racism with dry and corny humour. That it made viewers laugh because it was unrealistic and casting a dark cloud over sub-urban white's attitudes towards change.

"It is not true that it is avoiding tackling the issue of racism. What Suburban Bliss is doing is using the same stereotypes in characters and storyline. Every one of us is a stereotype of something, what it does is to question those stereotypes and expose them for everyone to check themselves. No enforcement is going on,” Prof Thomaselli argued. His comments reflected exactly what the screenplay of Alan Paton's acclaimed novel The Principal, which was shown on SABC 3 a few years ago did to most people. They felt the storyline might have been foul by their standards, but at least it did shed some light over their darkness.

"The SABC, through its three TV stations has gone to extra ordinary heights to bring people together. It is a beacon. It has managed to promote the spirit of non-racialism. It has managed in twenty five years to serve the eleven official languages,” Prof Thomaselli echoed, adding that it has done an extra-ordinary job and has achieved massive results in a short space of time.

He explained that it will take time before the picture projected on TV ceases to come in black and white, explaining that no indigenous languages are taught in white schools and that even though they might want to watch the Xhosa drama Ityala Lamawele, the education curriculum does not help in encouraging language classes in white schools. But music programmes like Geraas and Ezodumo still manage to reflect the South African diversity. Still,it would be more spectrum if one programme that encompasses the concepts of the two was created to cater for both their viewers without one race feeling that Johannes Kerkorrel has been compromised for Ynonne Chaka Chaka or vise versa.

Twenty-five years later different races in this country are as more culturally apart than they have been before. If a scriptwriter for a TV commissioned drama wrote about a black character who slaughter a beast to appease the ancestors, the possible reality is that the episode will either come with a Parental Guidance warning, be flighted after family hour or end up being edited. In this sense viewers would rather watch Arnold Schwarzenegger slitting the throat of someone with a butcher knife than to witness culture in progress. Armchair TV critics say that the whole idea shows that money is the driving force in TV productions and not the guarding of culture. They say that freedom of cultural expression is never enforced and encouraged and that is why there is conflict between races.

Yizo Yizo explored the sub-culture of gangsterism in schools and its case might be the reason why the public questioned its morality, the same public that doesn't question the morality of Italian gangster films.

Prof De Beer's Drip Effect is challenged by the fact that, in a made for TV film you have seen a single, poor, crack addict black woman overcome by problems slit her wrists and die. That was touchy, but didn't look bad, did it? You now saw a white woman being raped and later stabbed to death by a black man. Now that wasn't touchy, but it looked foul, didn't it? Then ask yourself where do we draw the line? When does fiction meet emotion and when does it become faction and disturbing?

That might be the reason why since the early '90s some spin-doctors have been trying to come up with TV that can entertain every race at the same time. But transformation is not supposed to compromise quality. The same way the actuality programme formerly known as Fokus met Freek (then presented by veteran newscaster Freek Robinson) didn't need to be Fokus/Focus just because former Generations star Florence Masebe was going to be tokenized. And it won't be called transformation if the magazine programme for Afrikaans music and culture Pasella was suddenly diluted to cater for an additional race group other than purely Afrikaners whose culture other races still need to study. So as to understand what makes Afrikaners tick.

Even though SABC's absolute monopoly ended with the establishment of M.Net in the 1980s, state sponsored Bophuthatswana Broadcasting Corporation and recently licensed free to air e.tv, Prof de Beer is of the opinion that the two alternative TV stations (apart from BBC) have not lived up to the expectations of their viewers. "They are too small to can even start striking a balance. I don't always like what I pay for on M.Net. It still does not broadcast news and with Dstv opening up the systems, the more diversity there is the better it is for the viewers,” he said.

Asked whether e.tv, which up to now seems to be empowering the coloured population is really living up to expectations, Prof de Beer said that he doesn't believe that it is addressing the coloured issue properly as coloureds are not well represented in all aspects of e.tv.

And one important point that needs to be understood is that both the alternative stations to the public broadcaster do not have a constitutional mandate to bridge the gap that exists between the different races in the country. They are both profit making channels the same way CBS and CNN in America are. Prof de Beer however believes that if they had a mandate and they were not fulfilling it, it would be to the ICASA to deal with them.

In the quest to close the gap some channels have come up with the sub-texting system which is working perfect with another cross-racial comedy, Going Up, which Prof Thomaselli rates high for its quality and appeal. Unlike it is the with some Afrikaans dramas. Confining Afrikaans dramas like Tussen Duiwels to a monolingual mode without English sub-texts is a betrayal of the storyline and the people of District Six of which the plot is based. There should also be a realization that the South African public since 1994 is becoming more multi-cultural and that it can help, like it's not in 1976 to bring out English sub-titles. The changes in the country indicate that some people who knew Afrikaans in 1991 do not do so now, and even though they enjoyed Orkney Snork Nie, they can't today relate to Vetkoek Paleis because of the language barrier.

A typical example of how viewership can be expanded can be seen in local soapy Generations where blacks and whites are well represented.

South Africans have to a larger extent come a long way since the first TV visual was seen in 1976. Even with sponsored racial divides the South African public have a lot to smile about as Prof Thomaselli said, “If you watch American sitcoms you will see that South African TV is far more multi-racial. In America there are sitcoms and dramas for blacks, which whites watch and those for whites, which are watched by blacks”

South Africans, unlike Americans are so realistic that if you showed them something that they know is untrue, like a white police officer working with a black officer in a rural setting or random cross- racial love affairs like the drama 37 Honey Street, they will not watch the show. Once you introduce white characters in a somewhat rural setting, you are in other words introducing the subject of race, which is still a sensitive one.

Racism is a reality that another player, Christian TV, a Trinity Broadcasting Network initiative still fails to address, mainly because it doesn’t reach the people who are most hurt and feel owed an apology. It is ill informed to target Christians whereas the people who need salvation are not in the churches. People will watch Isidingo (The Need) and Soul City because they are close to reality and they reflect the real public without melodramatizing but in real situations.
Tsumele said that in all its twenty-five years TV has not brought any unity between blacks and whites. “SABC 3 is still white, SABC 1 is for blacks,” he said. “But TV did contribute to the re-action of the outside world after the Soweto uprising, for good or for bad because the impact the incident had can be attributed to the visual appeal of TV” Tsumele concluded.

At the end of the day when the performance of TV in South Africa is judged and the verdict is passed it remains true to Dr Van Vuuren’s assessment that, “The impact of the mass media is powerful, if it could change attitudes then the 1976 Soweto uprising and the furore that followed can to a certain degree be attributed to TV”. Thus, in a sense we’ll never get the whole truth because people have a TV version of what happens around them. In this sense it indeed is a catalyst and it remains in the psyche of South Africans to decide whether they render the twenty-five years of “die duiwel se kassie” in this country null or worth it.

http://www.sabc.co.za and http://www.etv.co.za
Written by: Goodenough Mashego

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