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110 minutes, 1995-96, South Africa
in Setswana, Shangaan, Sotho, Venda, Xhosa and Zulu with English subtitles

The gradual transformation of South African television from a mainstay of apartheid to a tool for building a multi-racial democracy is one of today's most under-reported media stories.

Prime Time South Africa gives Americans a chance to see the first tentative steps - some inspiring, some merely silly - in this unprecedented telecommunications experiment. The six examples compiled here, representing both public service and entertainment programming, hardly represent a typical evening of South African television. Rather they've been chosen to demonstrate the variety of ways the media is portraying South Africa's new, post-apartheid dispensation.

Viewers expecting a militant, post revolutionary media will be disappointed; there are no Eisensteins or Alvarezes here. One is struck more by the pragmatism of these programs, their caution, even their ideological casualness. For better or worse, South Africa is recasting its media during a fin de siècle moment when radical alternatives seem exhausted and market economics and representative democracy are largely unchallenged. Nonetheless, the task facing South African television, designing a more democratic, inclusive and public spirited media, provides an opportunity to reconsider issues crucial to any pluralistic democracy - including our own.

South African television - especially the South African Broadcasting Corporation (SABC) as the dominant, publicly owned broadcaster - has the daunting task of generating a new sense of national identity and community. But this long-delayed, essentially "modernist" project runs afoul of two powerful contemporary tendencies: the seemingly irresistible penetration of national markets by powerful global broadcast entities and the simultaneous "post-modernist" trend towards particularist, ethnic or "lifestyle" programming. South Africa's unique prior experience with "multicultural" broadcasting, (the deliberately divisive "Bantu" services of the apartheid period) has made cultural relativism and diversity seem less urgent than the evolution of a new, non-racialist post-apartheid consensus.

South Africa must also decide if (as commercial broadcasters in this country have successfully argued) the public's interest in the media can be equated with whatever media interests the public. In other words, is the public service mandate of South African television exhausted simply by providing accessible programming of interest to South Africa's millions of historically disadvantaged media consumers? Or does it also include providing these same newly enfranchised citizens the media they need to participate in the long-term process of national reconstruction, development and reconciliation. This dynamic between a consumer and a citizen democracy plays itself out in fascinating ways among the programs on this cassette.

Imagine that ER and General Hospital were set in a clinic in a South African township and that the story lines were written to address particular public health concerns. That's Soul City, an internationally acclaimed program now in its third season which has become the most widely watched dramatic series in South Africa. Richard Attenborough (Cry Freedom) describes Soul City as, "Extraordinarily successful as an entertainment vehicle as well as playing a central part in the country's development."

Soul City was meticulously researched by public health professionals and funded by the South African government, SABC, leading corporations, the UN and the European Community, to be nothing less than an integrated, national multi-media health education campaign. In addition to three seasons of primetime television, it includes a radio drama carried to rural areas in all the major languages, more in-depth information and resources printed in leading daily papers and comic book style workbooks distributed around the country. Derek Yach of the World Health Organization calls Soul City, "One of the most exciting and important global developments in health promotion."

The episode we've chosen (from the second season) raises a number of important health and social issues: an HIV positive nurse persuades her infected husband to attend a support group: an orderly tries to give up smoking, with comic results; a schoolgirl's uncle demands sexual favors in return for her school fees; a supercilious, new white hospital administrator (clearly the Joan Collins figure in the series) threatens the clinic's egalitarian work style. Soul City stresses that South Africa's epochal political changes, while hardly eliminating problems, have opened a space where all South Africans can begin to "reconstruct and develop" their lives, their health and their communities. In the words of its own promotional slogan, Soul City let's us, "Listen to the heartbeat of a nation."

(The complete Soul City series, as well as the accompanying workbooks, are available from: Children's Television Workshop, 1 Lincoln Plaza, New York NY 10023; 212-595-3456.)

Local Voter explores an innovative approach to voter education and was telecast in preparation for the first local elections in which black South Africans participated, November 5, 1995. We've selected a 10 minute excerpt from this relentlessly upbeat but commendable "game show" format program broadcast from Soweto. It intersperses questions to the three contestants with brief video inserts explaining the structure of local government and stakes behind the elections.

Rhythm and Rights is the name of a fictional "call-in program" at a community radio station where listeners discuss whether their rights have expanded in post-apartheid South Africa. The program also draws attention to the new, under-funded community radio sector which was recognized, alongside public and commercial broadcasting, as a key component of a democratic media policy. In this program,the staff, a cross-section of the township population from old socialist revolutionaries to upwardly mobile executives, decides to do a show on "labor rights to deal with unemployment ö as high as 50% according to some estimates. Can private enterprise, they ask, be relied upon to resolve this massive problem?

We have also attached three commercials which show that determined advertisers can even use the successful struggle against apartheid to sell motor oil, pick up trucks or telephones.

Generations, one of South Africa's most popular prime time programs, made history as the first soap, produced, directed, and written by black South Africans. It portrays a society obsessed with power, money and sex, in other words a world not dissimilar to that of our own soaps. It differs in that South Africa's black majority can now fantasize about glamorous characters who share their skin color and speak the usual cliches in a variety of indigenous languages. The series mutes potentially divisive, interöracial issues by portraying a largely black world focused around a flourishing advertizing agency, New Horizons, owned by Paul Moroka and his family. In the episode we've selected, Priscilla, a former copywriter at the agency and her husband, Archie, Paul's son, argue over whether she should return to work or have a second child, while her replacement Ntsiki, schemes for Archie's affections. Subplots involving inter-racial sex, a rival agency begun by defectors from New Horizon's and drug addiction in the Moroka family promise enough double-dealing and scandal to insure that Generations will go on for generations.

This English-style sit-com draws together a "cross section" of the new South Africa in a law office where the focus of attention seems to be women's breasts and double entendres about them. The white senior partner is loveably befuddled, the black junior partner raffish, while the "Coloured" secretary is gamely learning to speak South Sotho. This episode features a fast-talking African American film producer/ huckster who has returned to the "mother continent," bodacious starlet in tow, to produce Revenge of the African Vampires II to help his "African brothers." Simultaneously, a glamorous South African actress shows up to sue him for seducing her on the casting couch (and giving the part to his American bimbo). Meanwhile, a neighborhood committee arrives to see how they can force the American producer to pay them for permission to shoot on their block. It is not the smart lawyers, however, but Jabu, the clearöheaded office gofer, who, in the process of serving tea to each group, resolves these disputes to the advantage of the South Africans. Any class or racial antagonisms are resolved because the audience sees that the powerful characters are foolish and the poor characters the sharp manipulators.

(We want to thank Arnold Shepperson and Keyan Tomaselli of the Centre for Cultural and Media Studies at the University of Natal, Durban, Mike Dearham of the Film Resource Unit, Melanie Chait, Barbara Castellan, Bruce Gotha, Louis Lötter and Mdala Mphahlele of the SABC, Steve Miller of Children's Television Workshop for their cooperation and the National Endowment for the Arts, a federal agency, for its financial support.)

All the programs represented in this compilation were first seen over South African Broadcasting Corporation (SABC), both the state owned and largest television service in the country. Established in 1936 on the BBC model, it became, with the Nationalist Ascendancy in 1948, a virtual government mouthpiece; board members and cabinet ministers all belonged to that mysterious para-government, the Afrikaner Broderbond. After the dismantling of Grand Apartheid and the election of Nelson Mandela in May, 1994, SABC was placed under the oversight of an Independent Broadcasting Authority (IBA) patterned after British, Australian and Canadian precedents. The IBA's mandate includes insuring a plurality of players in the media field, as well as guaranteeing the political independence of the national public service broadcaster, SABC.

Today SABC broadcasts over three channels, a national servace, an entertainment service and a cultural service, in a variety of languages. It is funded through a government remit, license fees and advertising revenues. In addition to SABC, a second more specialized subscriber-based commercial broadcast network, M-Net, offers two encoded channels, while a satellite broadcaster, DSTV, delivers around 30 channels.

It is, perhaps, important to recall that the Nationalist government, mindful of television's reputation for undermining "traditional values"only allowed SABC to introduce television service in 1976 and it still does not reach all rural areas. As a result television viewing habits are rather less entrenched in South Africa than in other industrialized countries. Whether this, bolstered by the current government's Reconstruction and Development Policy (RDP,) will result in television playing a different role in post-apartheid South Africa than in other countries remains to be seen.
"From smash-hit sit com to public health soap opera, this program showcases the energy, hype and tensions of transition. Full of segments that can provoke discussion, it's a gift to teachers in media, communications and international affairs."
Pat Aufderheide, American University
"A wonderful and unprecedented sampler of the dynamic changes happening in post-apartheid South African television. Will make an excellend discussion provoking addition to media and African studies courses."
Rob Nixon, University of Wisconsin-Madison


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