'SHAKA ZULU': NEGATIVE METAPHOR FOR SOUTH AFRICAN BLACKS

Apartheid art?

"Shaka Zulu" is a gory, foolish and demeaning 10-hour miniseries airing on KCOP Channel 13 at 8 p.m. Monday through Wednesday and Dec. 2-3.

Shot in South Africa, it seems to shape history to fit a contemporary political theme. Yesteryear's supposedly blood-lusting Zulus fill nearly every frame of "Shaka Zulu," becoming a negative metaphor for today's black South Africans, reinforcing a wild tribal image in contrast to "civilized" whites.

The mental jump is easy to make: Where would South Africa be today (gasp) if not for a white minority government to control these bloodthirsty black savages?

If that isn't the intent of "Shaka Zulu," it's surely the predominant message.

KCOP has a right to air "Shaka Zulu" and viewers have a right to know the identities of its backers--all of them.

Subject: Shaka, the great warrior-king of the powerful Zulu nation from 1816 until his murder in 1828.

Mystery: The involvement of the state-controlled South African Broadcasting Corp. (SABC) in this miniseries, which has already aired in South Africa and is being syndicated in the United States and globally.

"Shaka Zulu" is identified only as a "Harmony Gold production" or "presentation" in a version made available SABC and the other co-producers contributed about $2.5 million each. And this would be "the greatest project yet undertaken by the SABC," as described in the parliamentary debate?

"Well, $2.5 million is a lot for South Africa," Agrama replied.

And why, finally, did Harmony Gold omit South African TV while including the names of the other co-producers in releasing stories about "Shaka Zulu" to the trade press this past year?

"Well, you know," Agrama said, "we were a little bit, you know, after the override of the President's veto (of limited economic sanctions against South Africa), we didn't want to make the controversy bigger."

You might say that qualifies as concealment.

Apparently, Harmony Gold feared a backlash if SABC's involvement were revealed. And, in fact, a small one has already begun.

On Wednesday night, about three-dozen demonstrators paraded outside the Palace in Hollywood where a cocktail party was held to celebrate KCOP's telecasting of "Shaka Zulu." The demonstrators, mostly black and representing several organizations, protested Shaka's depiction as a "bloodthirsty savage" and called for a boycott of this "disgusting racist propaganda."

The prevailing belief was that the South African government was behind "Shaka Zulu" and, understandably, couldn't be trusted to provide a straight account of Zulu history.

Not all the skeptics participated in the demonstration. "It's like Hitler doing the history of the Jews," said Mazisi Kunene, a black South African who teaches African literature at UCLA and is author of "Emperor Shaka the Great." Kunene, who said he has read the "Shaka Zulu" script and seen a portion of the miniseries, said its general historical framework is correct, but he blasted its depiction of Shaka and the Zulus as barbarians.

"If this were an honest effort, it would be laudable," he said. "But, instead, it corresponds to old colonial attitudes."

"I don't think it's racist," Agrama said. "It's exciting. It's reality."

Shaka is played by charismatic Henry Cele, a former South African soccer player. The cast, which is almost entirely black, also includes such well-known British actors as Edward Fox, Robert Powell, Trevor Howard and Christopher Lee.

The story portrays the Zulu leader as shrewd, resourceful, arrogant, brutal, sadistic and quite mad.

Written by Joshua Sinclair and directed by William C. Faure, this is still more black history through white eyes, with Shaka's life being described mostly in flashbacks by an Irish doctor who is part of a shipwrecked delegation of whites sent to deter Shaka from exterminating white settlers.

The story shows Shaka's life controlled largely by a hideous witch doctor, a sort of glorified bag lady. Hence, it largely reducing Zulu history to mysticism.

And violence.

It's true that Shaka and the Zulus were fierce warriors who were extremely repressive. But not 24 hours a day. There is no interpretation here, no motivation shown beyond savagery. Violence is shown as the product only of barbarism or black magic.

In fact, "Shaka Zulu" may be the most violent TV production ever shown nationally in America. It has lots of blood spilling and blood drinking, lots of spearings and grisly impalings, with many of the impaled writhing on long sticks. There are burials of the living and a couple of beheadings, one of which affords close-ups of both the head and headless body.

It is probably also the nudest production ever shown on America's non-cable TV. That includes male rear ends and female bare breasts.

Much of the time, "Shaka Zulu" is merely confusing or bad and or for reviewing and in publicity put out by KCOP. Los Angeles-based Harmony Gold is a relatively young company with a record as a syndicator or distributor of programs, however, not as a producer.

In conflict with this Harmony Gold production credit, moreover, is an earlier "Shaka Zulu" sales brochure saying the miniseries was "produced by SABC TV" and "distributed" by Harmony Gold. The brochure was prepared in South Africa.

What's more, a "Shaka Zulu" ad that appeared in a London trade publication last year also bore the "SABC TV" label and logo above an address and telephone and telex numbers for "Broadcasting Centre" in Johannesburg.

And "Shaka Zulu" is identified as "the greatest project yet undertaken by the SABC"--and important for the nation's "image abroad"--in the public record of a 1984 South African parliamentary debate held in advance of shooting.

Given the strong anti-apartheid feeling in America, you can guess why South African TV involvement has been concealed.

"It wasn't concealed," argued Frank Agrama, Harmony Gold chief executive officer. What about the sales brochure listing SABC as producer?

Agrama said that "Shaka Zulu" is a co-production with Germany's Tele-Munchen, Italy's RAI, Australia's Nine Television Network and SABC. He maintained that in such cases, it is the practice of each co-producing company to list itself as sole producer in its own nation.

Actually, that's not the typical practice in the United States, where international co-productions list each producer separately.

Agrama said that Harmony Gold underwrote most of the production's $24-million cost and that SABC and the other co-producers contributed about $2.5 million each. And this would be "the greatest project yet undertaken by the SABC," as described in the parliamentary debate?

"Well, $2.5 million is a lot for South Africa," Agrama replied.

And why, finally, did Harmony Gold omit South African TV while including the names of the other co-producers in releasing stories about "Shaka Zulu" to the trade press this past year?

"Well, you know," Agrama said, "we were a little bit, you know, after the override of the President's veto (of limited economic sanctions against South Africa), we didn't want to make the controversy bigger."

You might say that qualifies as concealment.

Apparently, Harmony Gold feared a backlash if SABC's involvement were revealed. And, in fact, a small one has already begun.

On Wednesday night, about three-dozen demonstrators paraded outside the Palace in Hollywood where a cocktail party was held to celebrate KCOP's telecasting of "Shaka Zulu." The demonstrators, mostly black and representing several organizations, protested Shaka's depiction as a "bloodthirsty savage" and called for a boycott of this "disgusting racist propaganda."

The prevailing belief was that the South African government was behind "Shaka Zulu" and, understandably, couldn't be trusted to provide a straight account of Zulu history.

Not all the skeptics participated in the demonstration. "It's like Hitler doing the history of the Jews," said Mazisi Kunene, a black South African who teaches African literature at UCLA and is author of "Emperor Shaka the Great." Kunene, who said he has read the "Shaka Zulu" script and seen a portion of the miniseries, said its general historical framework is correct, but he blasted its depiction of Shaka and the Zulus as barbarians.

"If this were an honest effort, it would be laudable," he said. "But, instead, it corresponds to old colonial attitudes."

"I don't think it's racist," Agrama said. "It's exciting. It's reality."

Shaka is played by charismatic Henry Cele, a former South African soccer player. The cast, which is almost entirely black, also includes such well-known British actors as Edward Fox, Robert Powell, Trevor Howard and Christopher Lee.

The story portrays the Zulu leader as shrewd, resourceful, arrogant, brutal, sadistic and quite mad.

Written by Joshua Sinclair and directed by William C. Faure, this is still more black history through white eyes, with Shaka's life being described mostly in flashbacks by an Irish doctor who is part of a shipwrecked delegation of whites sent to deter Shaka from exterminating white settlers.

The story shows Shaka's life controlled largely by a hideous witch doctor, a sort of glorified bag lady. Hence, it largely reducing Zulu history to mysticism.

And violence.

It's true that Shaka and the Zulus were fierce warriors who were extremely repressive. But not 24 hours a day. There is no interpretation here, no motivation shown beyond savagery. Violence is shown as the product only of barbarism or black magic.

In fact, "Shaka Zulu" may be the most violent TV production ever shown nationally in America. It has lots of blood spilling and blood drinking, lots of spearings and grisly impalings, with many of the impaled writhing on long sticks. There are burials of the living and a couple of beheadings, one of which affords close-ups of both the head and headless body.

It is probably also the nudest production ever shown on America's non-cable TV. That includes male rear ends and female bare breasts.

Much of the time, "Shaka Zulu" is merely confusing or bad and or hokey. The swelling chorale is straight out of a biblical epic. The commercial breaks are intrusive and the editing (it was cut from an initial 15 hours) renders the story often unwatchable. There are enormous, unexplained gaps.

The script is awful at worst, comical at best. Shaka is dying from an assassination attempt. No hope. Kaput. They get him up to make a dying speech to his subjects, and he suddenly recovers. The white doctor: "All he needed was a dose of power."

When the white men meet Shaka, he speaks no English. Then practically, overnight he speaks English, and so does his witch doctor.

The script also puts numerous contemporary Western expressions into the mouths of 1820s Zulus: "Our hands are tied" or "You have left no stone unturned" or "He just doesn't know the meaning of the word discipline " or "You played your hand well." What hand? Poker? Canasta?

"Shaka Zulu" concludes abruptly with Shaka's death at the hands of his two brothers. End of character. End of story.

But why this story and why now? If Harmony Gold, SABC and the others were truly interested in making a statement about South Africa, why not someone contemporary? Why not, say, Winnie Mandela? You can supply the answer yourself.

The real kicker, though, is that some stations reportedly are planning to run "Shaka Zulu" to coincide with the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.'s birthday in January or "Black History Month" in February, probably unaware of its empty tribute.

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