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South African Television Mixes the Races

January 28, 1993

JOHANNESBURG, South Africa (AP) _ South Africa’s white television channel is no longer all white, and not everyone is pleased.

″Somebody this afternoon phoned my secretary, almost in tears,″ said Wynand Harmse, head of the South African Broadcasting Corp. ″He asked, ’Are there no more whites in this country? Must we see black faces all the time?‴

The formerly all-white TV 1 channel put three non-white news readers on its morning news and chat program in 1992 and hired four non-whites for current- affairs programs. Its religious programming includes four non-white clergymen.

Media observers say SABC television, which began broadcasting in 1976, reinforces the apartheid mentality by directing one of its two channels at whites and the other to blacks.

In a nation struggling with the shift from white dominance to democracy, state television is a symbol of apartheid to some and, to others, an example of blacks taking over.

It broadcasts South Africa’s only television news and the only competiton for other programming is one pay channel that is too expensive for most blacks. The SABC also operates most of the radio stations, but independent news is provided by some private broadcasters.

Opposition groups want to strip the governing National Party of its most powerful media tool before the campaign for national elections, expected by 1994.

Other South Africans worry about the African National Congress, the leading black organization, having control of broadcasting once it is in power. The ANC is widely expected to win the first elections in which the country’s overwhelming black majority is allowed to vote.

″Some people might in fact be seeking to replace National Party control with ANC control,″ said Kaizer Nyatsumba, political commentator for The Star newspaper. ″The SABC is too close for comfort to the government.″

A coalition of labor and opposition groups that includes the ANC has proposed independent control of the SABC and creation of an independent commission to oversee all broadcasting.

″We believe most South Africans will agree with us that control of the public broadcaster by one political party is inherently unfair,″ said Marcel Golding of the Congress of South African Trade Unions, the largest labor group.

Opponents have long accused the SABC of being a propagandist for the government. SABC officials deny the charge.

When it broadcast ″The Jeffersons,″ an American comedy series with a multiracial couple among its characters, the pro-apartheid Conservative Party said the SABC was trying to brainwash whites.

Right-wing whites claim the television news ignored them and promoted President F.W. de Klerk’s successful ″yes″ campaign in the March 1992 referendum on ending apartheid.

From the other side, Bronwyn Keene-Young said, ″They’re hushing things up all the time.″ She is researching SABC news programs for the anti-apartheid Campaign for Open Media.

While positive international reaction to the referendum results was well covered, Keene-Young said, the SABC ignored criticism of the government by South Africa’s ambassador to Washington after secret military operations against the ANC were disclosed.

The main news broadcasts on TV 1 alternate daily between English and Afrikaans. Zulu, Xhosa and other black languages are prominent on Contemporary Community Values Television known as CCV, the ″black″ channel.

Even the content of news broadcasts changes, with TV 1 generally more deferential to the government and CCV more challenging.

TV 1 broadcasts half of its shows in Afrikaans, which is the preferred language of about two-thirds of the 5 million whites but is understood well by only 5 percent of the 30 million blacks, according to research cited by Harmse.

Non-white broadcasters on TV 1 speak in Afrikaans when the schedule calls for it.

″The SABC and its management care very deeply about conservative whites and the white channel,″ said Nyatsumba of The Star. ″It doesn’t help this country at all.″

With the recent changes, the SABC has become more balanced than most other broadcasters in Africa, where governments dominate the airwaves. It frequently covers such opposition figures as ANC leader Nelson Mandela, and its ″Agenda″ news show gives opponents of the government a say in live studio discussions.

Harmse, the director, denied any intention to favor the government or perpetuate apartheid.

″One cannot change things overnight,″ he said. ″It would upset people. We should do more, I must be honest,″

He cited two examples of efforts to serve both blacks and whites: creation of a multiracial education channel and broadcasting short spots of ordinary South Africans speaking their minds.

Harmse said the SABC board should become multiracial when its term expires in March. The governing body is appointed by the president, has always been white and reports to the interior minister.

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