Apollo 11, Apartheid, and TV

When the only way to watch was to line up in front of a purple velvet curtain

ON July 20 thirty years ago my family -- like millions of other South African families -- was huddled around a crackling radio, listening to the moonwalk. Nobody in the entire country could watch it on TV. Television was verboten -- a criminal technology under apartheid. Not until 1976 did South Africa's first TV sets flicker into life.
I remember Neil Armstrong's epic stroll as the event that marked the beginning of the end for the apartheid government's conviction that South Africa could remain a fortress against television into the next millennium. By that time even the Americans, the government argued, would have recoiled from TV's innate degeneracy and returned to the more civilized pleasures of radio. Albert Hertzog, South Africa's Minister of Posts and Telegraphs from 1958 to 1968, warned the parliament that "inside the pill of TV there is the bitter poison which will ultimately mean the downfall of civilizations." Prime Minister Hendrik Verwoerd likened television to poison gas and the atom bomb. The little box was a threat "to the racial struggle on a global scale," he declared. "TV would cause absolute chaos to South African life."

But faced with the prospect of missing the moonwalk, even conservative white South Africans began to grumble. It was insulting, one senator declared, to be "bracketed with the most backward peoples of the world such as the Eskimos who have not got television." Travel operators capitalized on this discontent of the privileged, flying sold-out package tours to London: twelve hours there and twelve hours back for the illicit high of sitting in the Dorchester Hotel and watching the moon landing on TV.

As a teenager I saw television just once, when, some months after NASA's triumph, the government sought to quell local discontent by arranging limited viewings of the taped landing. We had to line up at a planetarium: Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays for whites; Tuesdays and Thursdays for blacks. The turnout was immense. Policemen with German shepherds and Dobermans straining at the leash patrolled the line. After hours of waiting I entered a barricaded enclosure and joined twenty other people seated on collapsible metal chairs. A sullen moustached man tugged a sash, a purple velvet curtain slid back, and a television was revealed. For fifteen minutes I witnessed a lunar landing that seemed no stranger than the unearthly presence of that black box in the room. Then the curtain was closed again and we filed out, abandoning our seats to the next twenty people in line.

By the time I acquired my B.A., in African languages, I had spent no more than that solitary peepshow moment with a television. The year I graduated, apartheid's apparatchiks cautiously introduced a single, state-controlled channel.

* * *

The ban earned Afrikaners some American admirers. Writing in the National Review in 1966, James Burnham, the author of Suicide of the West, argued that TV had proved catastrophic for American race relations. "What is 'the civil rights movement,' what could it be, apart from the media?" he wrote. Burnham concluded with envy and approval that "the absence of a 'native' liberation movement in South Africa is equivalent, very nearly, to the enforced absence of TV in South Africa."

The ban coincided with an ambitious scheme of forced removals, based on a kind of ethnic fundamentalism. Under this scheme black South Africans were divided into ten inviolable ethnic "nations" and compelled to live segregated from one another in ten dusty, overcrowded reservations. Apartheid's visionaries hoped (and failed) to persuade the world that these patches of land were legitimate incipient independent ethnic states. The "bantustan" scheme, in the dismissive parlance of its opponents, was a form of mandatory multiculturalism that allowed apartheid's defenders to pretend that South Africa had a white majority.

In this context official hostility to television made perfect sense. The state recognized that TV's market-driven voracity would show scant respect for the jigsaw of militarily enforced ethnic boundaries. Hertzog condemned TV on these grounds: "There is no more powerful medium for dismantling the population groups' sense of identity." As one of his parliamentary colleagues put it, rather more emphatically, "Television, like communism, promotes sameness."

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