South Africa: Remote Control

In South Africa, the revolution will be televised by government-owned stations


When Nelson Mandela was released from a South African prison three years ago, one of his preconditions for participating in national elections was the abolition of government control of television. Although South Africa is scheduled to hold its first nationwide vote open to all races this April, all TV newscasts in South Africa are still broadcast from government-owned television headquarters in Auckland Park. Even more important, all news on all of the television channels is scrutinized by one department, under one editor at the central studio. The more some things change in South Africa, the more others stay the same.

The centralized structure of South African television mirrors the centralized structure of state security and control. Just as the white minority government created a central security bureaucracy to enforce apartheid laws, so it also created a central broadcasting organization, the South African Broadcasting Corporation, to produce and transmit all authorized television. When television came to South Africa in the mid-1970s, years after it was a staple in most of the world, the government viewed it (not incorrectly) as a dangerous, revolutionary tool, a window through which even the poorest rural villager could glimpse the fruits of a free society and a free economy. Not surprisingly, all television news explicitly favored the government.

All programs were produced or acquired by the National Party, which has ruled South Africa since 1948. The "Nats," dominated by Afrikaners, viewed the SABC's nearly 6,000 jobs as part of the political spoils system. While the National Party never won more than 55 percent of the vote in a time when only whites could vote, the Nats were able to exercise absolute control of SABC appointments under a winner-take-all arrangement. Even with the impending election and the probable electoral rebuke of the National Party, SABC remains very much a Nat stronghold. Of 61 managers, one is black, one is an English-speaking white, and the remaining 59 are Afrikaners.

SABC has responded to calls for more diverse programming in several ways, none of which can be mistaken for setting up a thriving marketplace of ideas. Last spring, David Frost hosted a series of special political programs. Viewers can now see CNN in bits and pieces, and Britain's Sky News channel is carried for part of the day. Recently, the network has purchased a few news programs that were not produced in its own newsroom, notably the talk show Future Imperfect and a short series of news programs produced by the muckraking Weekly Mail.

Meanwhile, the only commercial television license has been awarded to the country's major newspaper publishers, who promptly turned their network into an HBO-like movie channel. Although one might expect otherwise from a company owned by newspaper publishers, the network does not produce any newscasts.

Although it's clear that massive political change is coming to South Africa, the future of its state-run television enterprise has yet to come into focus. As political reforms got underway, there was much excited talk of fairer political coverage on television, of shows produced by leftists, centrists, and rightists, of new networks to be owned by blacks, whites, Asians, and coloreds. But in spite of the talk, SABC retains its monopoly. Illegal radio stations broadcast news and music—and commercials—but pirate television stations have yet to appear. If anyone has anything to say to the millions of South African voters who watch TV news, there is only one place to say it.

While it's hardly surprising that the Nats have attempted to maintain control of the airwaves, the slow pace of television reform is potentially a major problem for the new South Africa. As George Gilder noted in Life After Television, television is a "totalitarian medium" because it locates power in a few broadcast centers that originate programs for mass audiences. Such a "master-slave architecture" tends to cause severe bottlenecks of the knowledge necessary for the proper functioning of a democracy. How can people make well-informed choices if there's little or no access to information?

As long as a top-down authoritarian structure is still in place, the opportunity for abuse is ever present. A future government could decide to continue shaping the news and to continue using the country's television monopoly to control political debate and discussion. Without a fundamental structural change, dialogue in South Africa may once again turn into a monologue.

Adam Clayton Powell III is the coordinator of the South Africa Exchange Project, a program encouraging interaction between South African and American journalists.