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.

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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."

But after the Apollo landing whites campaigned in growing numbers to have the moratorium overturned. TV's ab-
sence, they protested, made South Africa look primitive. Black South Africans showed less interest in the debate: TV wasn't high on their list of deprivations. When the government finally capitulated, it did so in response not just to internal dissatisfaction but also to a new threat from abroad. NASA-led advances in satellite technology meant that foreign transmissions could now reach any South African with a concealed satellite dish and TV set. This possibility roused apocalyptic fears. One parliamentarian exclaimed, "Satellite broadcasts will be a mighty force in the hands of the Russians and Americans." Better to blanket the country with pro-apartheid TV as a pre-emptive strike.

For a few years the government sought to protect its multicultural-homeland dream by insisting that advertisers shoot their commercials for multiple audiences, using ethnically "authentic" actors in their ethnically "appropriate" homelands. This meant that a company wanting to sell, say, Castle Beer, had to employ ten different actors in ten different languages and travel to ten different bantustans in order to shoot a simple ad featuring one man drinking from a bottle. A corporate uproar put an end to the policy.

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When I set foot in America for the first time, in 1980, at the age of twenty-five, I had amassed perhaps sixty hours of TV viewing in my lifetime. Three days after my arrival I stood before a class of Iowa freshmen; I would be teaching them rhetoric for the year. They knew zero about South Africa. ("You're white and you're from Africa. How does that work?") I had no conception of the America I would meet -- in particular, no idea how decisive TV was for the way my students read themselves, the past, the world.

To redress my backwardness I organized the rhetoric course, a mixture of speechmaking and writing skills, around a challenge. The students had to pretend that an alien from Saturn or South Africa had landed in Iowa -- someone who, like me, had never seen a game show or a soap opera. Their task was to explain the genres, history, meaning, and pleasures of television. The students enjoyed themselves -- or so they told me at the party we threw nine months later, in a blue barn in a cornfield. Talking about images and TV story lines came easily to them. I found I could use that fluency to help energize their writing, which lagged behind their oral skills. I was delighted to receive in exchange a brisk, lively education from these native informants. My head quickly filled with the details of Star Trek, Saturday Night Live, I tackled these exotica with the application I had once reserved for studying algebra and Zulu.

I began to make other discoveries as well. Some were revelations, like the fact that Americans think of "multiculturalism" as a liberal term, not a catchphrase beloved by neo-fascist segregationists. No less startling was my discovery that in America the left, not the right, assailed TV as an emissary of cultural imperialism.

I have now lived in America for almost twenty years. I find that I seldom watch TV. I seem to lack the requisite forms of concentration -- the media muscle memory -- for a technology I acquired too late. Television fails to envelop me the way radio, books, and newspapers do; it's not something I can easily disappear into. But I look forward to the anniversary showings this month of Neil Armstrong's loopy underwater strides across the moon and across the tube. This time I'll be watching not in some poky booth patrolled by slavering dogs and armed guards but with a couch-sprawled nation for company. Still, I'm certain to feel some flickerings of my first sight of a TV set, and with it a frisson of illegality.

Rob Nixon is a professor of English at the University of Wisconsin at Madison. His most recent book is Dreambirds: The Natural History of a Fantasy (1999).

Illustration by David Pohl.

The Atlantic Monthly; July 1999; Apollo 11, Apartheid, and TV - 99.07; Volume 284, No. 1; page 12-14.