When you compare the state of television in South Africa in 1975 and Charlize Theron, it is hard to believe that the one that didn’t exist yet at that time was indeed television.
The first television broadcast in South Africa happened on the 5th of January 1976. And by this time some of its African siblings have already enjoyed the flavours of entertainment and broadcasting for years. Zimbabwe was introduced to TV in 1960, a year after Nigeria made waves with the first terrestrial television broadcast signals on the continent.
The political hands in the 60s and 70s stirred the pot of delaying television in South Africa. Books and films were censored too, foreign ideologies were not welcome. Prime Minister Hendrik Verwoerd – also known as the father of apartheid – compared TV to atomic bombs and poison gas, while Dr. Albert Hertzog (Minister for Posts and Telegraphs) viewed it as a tool that will spread communism and immorality.
By public demand and outcry it became evident that television could no longer be eclipsed by a government unwilling to adapt to the 20th century.
The majority of South Africans were not impressed by the state of things. And radio just wasn’t enough anymore.
And who could blame them?
If you told people 1969 that someone managed to land on the moon, it may have sounded like a radio drama, not a news event. But if you showed actual footage of Neil Armstrong’s landing the affect would’ve been far more than just witnessing a landmark moment.
It is believed that 600 million people across the world watched it all – from lift-off to the “That’s one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind” – while South Africans listened.
By public demand and outcry it became evident that television could no longer be eclipsed by a government unwilling to adapt to the 20th century. The pressure was on and for the government the problem was two-fold: satellite broadcasts and an unpopular ruling party.
Firstly, some homes already had televisions and by 1969 it was possible to receive satellite broadcasts without a base station – these foreign programmes could not be regulated which made Hertzog’s fears a reality. And secondly, as more voters demanded television, the National Party’s support was at risk.
In 1972 the SABC started with the training of production teams and operating staff, and with no prior experience or frame of reference, South Africa had an almost 50-year backlog of catching up to the rest the world.
Today television is an inescapable part of modern culture. And the landscape has changed drastically: from analog radio transmission methods to streaming, from conservative programmes acting as a mouthpiece for the apartheid government to Showmax’s latest hit piece: Seks in Afrikaans.
The early years – or rather the first two decades – of television in South Africa was without a doubt conservative, highly censored and an instrument to further the Afrikaner culture, their language and beliefs.
When it came to kissing scenes on a bed, South Africa followed The Hays Code from 1930 which governed American filmmaking. Through this code’s restrictions women had to have at least one foot on the floor to prevent love scenes in bed.
And with not enough viewing material South Africa knocked on the doors of Europe and America for programmes. However, in the light of apartheid where South Africa was also banned from the Olympic Games from 1964 until 1988, some countries were not so keen. Under the British Actors’ Equity Ban no programmes using a performance by any Equity member could be broadcasted in South Africa. To still feature some of the British programmes, a loophole was found to dub the existing English into English by South African actors.
And again, just like with the first moon landing, South Africa missed out. On British humour mostly, which is still to this day largely misunderstood as appetites were stimulated and influenced by American television to a large degree.
It took the SABC a few years to consider putting something out for those whose mother tongue were not Afrikaans or English. In 1981 another channel came into existence with programmes in Zulu, Xhosa, Sotho, Northern Sotho and Tswana.
The 90s was a pivotal decade for South Africa as the country moved towards democracy. New broadcasting policies were put in place to promote cultural diversity and they launched and renamed its previous channels to what we know it today: SABC 1, SABC 2 and SABC 3.
Television in South Africa is still young. Not even 50. And it has not been without drama. The SABC went from the influence and control of the National Party in its early days to being accused of stifling the opposition, freedom of speech and for openly supporting the ANC in 2006. It went from operational challenges in the 70s and 80s, mostly due to a lack of man power, know-how and technology, to insufficient funds casting a growing concern about our public broadcaster’s ability to continue.
However, regardless of the SABC’s current state of chaos and their never-ending TV license debt collecting endeavours, television as whole – from production to talent to stories – has evolved. It has evolved from something that was state-controlled and racially divided into a medium that plays a massive role in our social, cultural and political life.
The future of the SABC might not be bright, but the future of what is produced in South Africa and by South Africans has red carpet potential beyond just being a location for international films but rather becoming international films.