Shows Allow Blacks, Whites to Share Cultural Experiences : South African Viewers Get a Mixed TV Message From U.S. Programs

The Washington Post

When “Misdaad in Miami” debuted on the state-run national television network a few weeks ago, its arrival spoke to many themes--white South Africa’s continuing fascination with American pop culture, its deep ambivalence about race and its growing fear of isolation.

“Misdaad” is the dubbed-in-Afrikaans version of “Miami Vice,” one of the new icons of the small screen.

With its swaying palm trees, pulsating music and cops dressed in T-shirts and $800 silk suits, everything about “Vice” is cool, translucent, expensive and violent--the embodiment, in short, of what some South Africans fantasize that America is all about.


The only jarring note is that rather than hipster English, the characters speak a deep and plodding Afrikaans, the native tongue of 60% of South Africa’s white population.

An Anomaly

In many ways, however, “Vice’s” appearance on the scene is an anomaly, for it has arrived here at a time when many other programs and entertainers are pulling out of South Africa.

Woody Allen has decreed that all of his new films, beginning with last year’s “Purple Rose of Cairo,” be withheld from circulation here. Lorimar, one of the more successful American television-production companies, has withdrawn its shows from South African circulation.

That means the end of “Knot’s Landing” and “Falcon Crest,” although “Dallas,” Lorimar’s crown jewel and one of South Africa’s more popular shows, will continue, because international distribution rights are reportedly controlled by a New York company.

Some who haven’t left have come up with other ways to hammer at the white establishment here. The cast of “Cagney & Lacey,” the female cop show, has pledged to donate their South African royalties to the outlawed African National Congress, the main black resistance movement, and other anti-apartheid groups.

“They (the cast) hate apartheid and everything it stands for, and this is one way of expressing their feelings,” said a publicist for the show as quoted in a local newspaper.

Music Scene Affected

Cultural isolation is also affecting the music scene. A few years back, pop stars such as Rod Stewart and Elton John regularly gave concerts at Sun City, South Africa’s entertainment showcase located in the nominally independent black homeland of Bophuthatswana.

Now both singers, cajoled by Little Steven van Zandt and his Artists against Apartheid, have joined dozens of other performers who have purged their names from a U.N. entertainers’ blacklist by pledging not to play Sun City again.

Television is the one medium in which whites generally have been able to seek solace. The British actors’ union has long imposed a total ban on sending British TV shows to South Africa. But there are more American programs than ever. The latest entries include “Miami Vice,” “Golden Girls” and the second season of “The Cosby Show.”

The tube is a relatively new phenomenon here. It was kept out for years by rulers fearful of its effects. The government finally relented in 1976 but restricted weekday viewing to under 10 hours daily on a closely monitored state broadcast network.

Staid Network News

The staid results are most noticeable on network news shows, which are something of an unconscious parody of their American counterparts. Graphics, music and studio sets tend to be state of the art. But the news itself focuses heavily on government pronouncements in the dense double talk of white officialdom.

While U.S. news viewers were getting a steady dose of township rioting and police action last summer, South Africans were more likely to see footage of “ethnic turbulence” in urban Britain or French New Caledonia.

Despite some changes, apartheid often appears alive and well on the screen. While Channel 1 offers white broadcasters and shows in English and Afrikaans, programs on the newer Channels 2 and 3 are broadcast in various black tribal languages. For those with strong antennas, there is also “Bop TV” from Bophuthatswana, which tends to be slightly sassier and multiracial.

Television itself is still very much a white preserve. Market Research Africa, a private marketing firm here, estimates that nearly two-thirds of the 2.3 million homes with TV sets are white, even though whites make up less than 17% of the general population.

Blacks in Authority

Still, as Marshall McLuhan suggested, the medium often transmits subliminal messages beyond the control of its owners and operators. Programs like “Miami Vice,” “Cosby,” “Benson” and “Hill Street Blues” show blacks in positions of authority or working alongside whites.

Some here argue that they undermine one of the basic tenets of apartheid--that blacks are innately inferior and must therefore be kept separate. However, many white South Africans are quick to caution visiting Americans that “our blacks aren’t like yours.”

One way the government has sought to limit foreign influence is by producing its own television shows. The emphasis often is on lugubrious historical dramas. But even those sometimes have an unintended double edge.

In a recent South African-produced drama on Emily Hobhouse, the English anti-war activist who championed the plight of Afrikaner women and children held in British concentration camps during the Boer War, actors read Hobhouse’s accounts of British atrocities. Those tuning in late might have thought they were listening to modern allegations of police brutality against blacks.

‘Broken Flower’

When one actress recounted Hobhouse’s moving description of the body of a small Afrikaner child who had died of starvation in a camp--"a broken, painted flower"--it conjured up an image of a 3-year-old black child shot to death by police and buried that same week in a township outside Pretoria.

Television’s larger influence here may be even more subtle. South Africa’s races and tribes are sealed off from each other by official decree and longstanding fear. The government has sought to accentuate differences between population groups, rather than similarities or common values.

There are no Abraham Lincolns, Martin Luther Kings or Muhammed Alis--no shared historical or cultural figures about whom everyone can feel proud.

That’s where American television may be its most subversive, for it cuts across South Africa’s wide chasms and gives viewers, white and black, a shared cultural experience.

“Airwolf,” “He-Man” of cartoon fame, Mr. T of “The A Team” and the “Knight Rider” talking car Kit are just as big in the black slum of Soweto as they are in the white suburbs of Johannesburg.