Even apartheid couldn’t kill TV’s splendour

In isiZulu, there’s a word that aptly captures television’s ability to transport a viewer to faraway worlds – umabonakude. As a child television was a magical world, a fantastic reality beamed into…

As a child, I found television fascinating. To my young mind, it was a magical instrument. How could people fit into a box that small? How was that box able to show me places that were so far away?

In isiZulu, there’s a word that aptly captures television’s ability to transport a viewer to faraway worlds – umabonakude.

I grew up in an environment which was, on the surface, harsh and threatening. But, to some extent, my large and loving family managed to insulate me from the worst things about township life during apartheid.

The beginning of my love affair with television was juxtaposed with the reality of South Africa in the late 1970s and 1980s. Although the South African Broadcasting Corporation (SABC) began running test transmissions in 1975, television only truly became a thing in South Africa in 1976.

To be more precise, on Monday, 5 January 1976, one million South Africans sat around what was termed back then a “miniature bioscope” to witness their country’s belated entry into the television age.

At a cost of R106 million, the SABC was given the most technically advanced colour television service in the world, although South Africa was the last industrialised country in the world to get it.

No. No TV. It’s decadent. It’s corrosive. It’s wicked. It’s uninteresting. It’s just a small bioscope. No.

In his book, Beyond the Miracle: Inside the New South Africa,Allister Sparks reflects on South Africa’s ideological climate prior to the advent of television: “Fear of outside influences and of a swamping of Afrikaans culture with an influx of English programming from abroad resulted in the SABC preventing the introduction of television in South Africa until 1976.”

While television flourished elsewhere in the world during the 1950s and 1960s, Albert Hertzog, the son of National Party founder Barry Hertzog and the most right-wing member of his Cabinet, was the minister in charge of broadcasting.

When asked about introducing television to South Africa, Hertzog Jr is reported to have said: “No. No TV. It’s decadent. It’s corrosive. It’s wicked. It’s uninteresting. It’s just a small bioscope. No.’’ And that was that until well after his departure.

On the matter of television, Hendrik Verwoerd, who was Prime Minister during Hertzog’s tenure, is reported to have said: “When a new discovery holds dangers, a government must be careful not to import it before they know how to ward off any dangers there might be.”

According to Sparks, it was not until the directors of the SABC were satisfied that they could control the feared medium – or, more importantly, until they knew how to use it to their advantage – that they introduced it.

When television was at last introduced its impact was all the greater due to the long delay. In the years that followed, television became the apartheid government’s most powerful propaganda weapon.

The 1970s also saw Stephen Bantu Biko elected to the position of chairman of publications of the South African Students’ Organisation (SASO). Under the pseudonym Frank Talk, Biko began publishing essays under the title “I write what I like” in the monthly SASO Newsletter.

In his essay, “We Blacks,” Biko writes: “Born shortly before 1948 [the year in which the National Party came to power] I have lived all my conscious life in the framework of institutionalised separate development. My friendship, my love, my education, my thinking and every other facet of my life have been carved and shaped within the context of separate development.”

I, too, was born into that framework, shortly before television came to South Africa and before the Soweto Youth Uprising, which marked a turning point in the liberation struggle and profoundly changed South Africa’s socio-political landscape.

As students embraced anti-apartheid sentiments, the rise of the Black Consciousness Movement (BCM) and SASO raised the political consciousness of many. Black students began mobilising in 1974, when Afrikaans was made compulsory as a medium of instruction in schools.

This was the golden age of radio drama, or i-Stori in isiZulu.

On 16 June 1976, mobilised by the South African Students’ Movement Action Committee, which was supported by BCM, between 3 000 and 10 000 students marched peacefully to demonstrate and protest against the government’s language policy.

The march was meant to culminate in a rally at Orlando Stadium. However, as protesters made their way to the stadium, they were met by heavily armed police who fired live ammunition and teargas on them. This resulted in a widespread urban uprising against the apartheid government.

The violent scenes that played out in townships across the country during the uprising in the months that followed stood in stark contrast to the fantastic scenes shown by the SABC on television screens in South African homes.

For most families, like my own, in the townships of KwaMashu (32 km north of Durban) and Inanda (24 km inland from Durban), a television was a luxury we simply could not afford. So for us, the radio era was still very much alive.

The Flying Car

This was the golden age of radio drama, or i-Stori in isiZulu. Despite the fact that radio was politically segregated into Radio Zulu (now Ukhozi FM) and Radio Xhosa (now Umhlobo Wenene), families still tuned in to listen to radio receivers powered by PM9 batteries.

But there were some families who managed to venture into the brave new technology, and with their new TV sets came a new crowd of spectators. The most popular show among children at the time was the US series Knight Rider, which aired on TV1 every Monday evening.

Some families would allow children from other homes to come and watch TV at their homes at a fee of ten cents. Other families would allow children to watch for free. When space was limited inside their homes, some families would simply open their sitting room curtains so that children could watch television from outside, looking in through the window.

Sometimes the children watching from outside could not hear what was being said on the television and enjoyed what was displayed on the screen like a silent film. In the case of Knight Rider, we particularly enjoyed watching the flying car.

Before minibuses became the dominant form of taxis in South Africa, it was the Chrysler Valiant that was used to transport people. These were everywhere in KwaMashu and, to this day, the Valiant remains my favourite car.

But due to black ownership of private motor vehicles being fairly rare at the time, taxis or buses were mainly used for the long journey from the township to the city. People would wait for hours in queues at stops for taxis or buses that were often overloaded.

When TV came to South Africa, my parents, Musawenkosi and Mafelane Cele, who are now retired, were staying with my now-deceased paternal grandmother Frances Tosh Cele and her sisters, our grandmothers, at the family home, also known as Eposini Elidala (Old Post Office), in Inanda.

The house got its name because, many years before, the Inanda Post Office was situated on its premises – the home of the descendants of the Reverend Posselt J. Gumede, who died in 1944.

On the other hand, my sister Bulelani and I were staying with our maternal grandmother, the late Andrina Ngema, and our maternal aunts, the late MaMkhulu and MaNcane, our mothers, in KwaMashu’s E Section.  

My sister and I would stay with our parents, grandmothers and extended family in Inanda over school holidays.

I remember quite clearly the day my parents, accompanied by my sister and I, went to buy their first TV set in Durban central. It was September 1980 and there was only one channel available in South Africa.

Powered by car batteries

Durban’s retail landscape in 1980 was very different to what it is now. Shopping was done mainly in the city’s central business district and its surrounding areas. This was a time when people dressed up to go to “town”.

On that glorious day in September, my family and I were also smartly dressed when  we entered McNamee’s Furniture Shop, a famous furniture store at the time. What was later to become our TV set was displayed somewhere behind the bright, clear glass shop window and was visible from the street.

The TV set, a product of Barlows Appliance and Television Co. (the name written at the back), was black and white in colour, and it played shows in black and white. When I think about it now, it was small in size but on that day in September, it was large and beautiful.

At that time, most homes in the former mission stations like Groutville, Adams and Inanda, as well as in townships like KwaMashu and Umlazi, did not have electricity.

People in these households used candles and paraffin lamps for light, and, accordingly, those who owned TV sets used car batteries to power them.

My parents connected our TV set to a car battery that belonged to my father’s brown 1973 Chevrolet Constantia. When I compare the television experience then with what it is now, I find it unbelievable how we thought back then that the pictures were so clear, and how we always thoroughly enjoyed watching what we saw on TV.

It was a time long before satellite or streaming, when arranging the TV antenna was an important and complex matter for picture clarity. Not infrequently, in neighbourhoods such as mine, you’d see someone, usually an agile man in his 20s, on the roof of a house, trying to adjust a TV antenna. While doing so, he’d be talking quite loudly to someone inside the house, asking if the screen was clear, and listening attentively for the replies.

Another critical matter was the state of the car battery, as picture quality also depended on how much charge it had. You knew the battery was losing charge when the images on the TV screen became indiscernible. But such was the fascination with TV that even when pictures became fuzzy, people, especially kids, would still gaze longingly into the kaleidoscope.

TV2 and dubbing

In 1982, TV2 was introduced for Nguni language speakers (isiZulu, isiXhosa, siSwati, isiNdebele). I discovered the channel one Saturday when I accidentally turned on the TV. Suddenly, The Cisco Kid, dubbed into isiZulu, appeared on the TV screen.

The 30-minute 1950s American Western series starred Duncan Renaldo in the title role, with Leo Carrillo as his jovial sidekick, Pancho. Known in South Africa as Cisco and Pancho, the show was the first I saw in isiZulu.

There was also TV3 for Sotho and Tswana speakers, but the channel was unavailable in the then Natal province and KwaZulu homeland. In the same year, our family moved into a new home in KwaMashu’s J Section, next to Princess Magogo Stadium.

From that time, I remember my sister and I watching a programme called Journey to the West on TV2 every Sunday at noon on our small black-and-white TV set. Journey to the West, also known by its English title as Monkey, or in South Africa as Monkey Magic, was trans-renamed Usokhetye and dubbed into isiXhosa.

Only later was I informed by friends who watched the show in colour that Magnum’s Ferrari was, in fact, red.

According to the theme song, the title character, Monkey, was “born from an egg on a mountain top” – a stone egg to be precise. Monkey, therefore, was a stone monkey and a skilled fighter who became the brash king of his tribe. He was, as the song went, “the punkiest monkey that ever popped”.

In one episode Monkey achieved a little enlightenment and proclaimed himself a “great sage, equal of heaven”.

Another show we watched avidly from 1982 was Magnum, P.I., which aired on Saturdays in English on TV1. Magnum, P.I.  was an American crime drama television series starring Tom Selleck as Thomas Magnum, a private investigator. What I recall most about the show was Magnum’s Ferrari 308 GTS Quattrovalvole, and how my friends and I were crazy about the car.

On our black-and-white TV screen, the Ferrari was black. Only later was I informed by friends who watched the show in colour that Magnum’s Ferrari was, in fact, red.

Other TV1 shows included family favourites such as The A-TeamAirwolfMacGyver; Murder, She WroteMatlock; ColumboDallas; and Dynasty.  

At this point in South Africa’s short history of television, channels did not broadcast 24/7. They would sign on in the morning and sign off at 11pm (only years later was this extended to midnight).

Test pattern

When the channels closed, we used to say iphelile iTV (the TV is finished/has ended) and the colourful TV card stock vector illustration would appear (in other countries, either images of their national flags or their national anthems were broadcast).

In apartheid South Africa, the SABC was used as an overt ideological instrument, with the introduction of local channels in the 1970s occurring at the height of the National Party’s response to a perceived “total onslaught”. This response took the form of a propaganda campaign intended to suppress all opposition and reinforce the country’s isolation.

In the process of gathering around a TV set, powerful and evocative memories were created.

News programmes and talk shows were very blatantly skewed, while local and imported entertainment programmes – banal and anti-intellectual in the extreme – avoided all hints of the subversive, unsettling, politically inflammatory, or intellectually challenging. TV, in this context, had two roles: To be politically propagandist, and to provide forms of entertainment without a trace of critical thinking or commentary.

But in spite of the apartheid ideological project that determined the SABC’s content, as a child, watching the programmes on offer nevertheless left indelible memories and impressions whose interpretations were impossible to censor.

In the process of gathering around a TV set, powerful and evocative memories were created. This experience parallels that of Kemal Bey, a character in Orhan Pamuk’s Museum of Innocence.

While watching TV with the woman he loved, Fusun, and her family, Bey says: “If we were watching a film that had reached its climax, or some news story that we found particularly gripping, I took great pleasure in tracking Fusun’s expressions; in the subsequent days and months my memory of the images on the screen would merge with that of the expression on her face.”

Similarly, my memories of the early to mid-1980s are merged with the shows I watched on our small black-and-white box.

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