December 1, 1990

South Africa's Media War: From the Student's Revolt to Mapantsula

The lifting of certain restrictions in South Africa, namely the unbanning of anti-apartheid opponents, including the African National Congress, does not apply to visual material. To date this is still censored.

The fists of the youths carrying the coffin punch the air as the they trot, chanting slogans, towards the police line. Left of frame, a news cameraman looms into view, backing off in front of the coffin-bearers. It is a familiar confrontation between militants in South Africa. We have seen it dozens of times before on the evening news— teargas, the shots, the screams of pain and rage.

You are so caught up in the action that you don't have time to reflect: we saw the cameraman backing off—but the camera that recorded the event was with the pall-bearers, looking towards the police guns, It was shot from the most vulnerable position, the core of the defiance. Interesting, because this has been one of the complaints of the African National Congress, that reportage from South Africa is always from the point of view of the police, looking towards the victims, and not from the demonstrators' point of view. Those whose job it is to cover demonstrations might reasonably object that they do not want to be exposed to police bullets and whips while carrying 30 lbs. of equipment; that shooting the fray from the outside has not significantly lessened the impact of the images gathered ; and that good newsmen, like George De'Ath, have in fact died covering events in South Africa. Or you might point to the scene I have described as an example of a cameraman in fact being in the thick of it.

Except that this scene is not newsreel footage, but comes from Mapantsula, a unique feature film from South Africa. Literally unique : it is the only one of its kind. The South African censors will certainly not permit another one like it. The reason I write about Mapantsula, a fiction film, in the context of South African documentary, is that like all films from and about that country, it is intensely political, and has been heavily influenced by documentary ; and in some respects, Mapantsula and films like it are forced to do things documentary cannot.

Mapantsula is a first feature film by Oliver Schmitz. The contribution by screenwriter Thomas Mogotlane, who also plays the lead, is at least as important as Schmitz's direction. Briefly told, it is the story of a small time gangster, "Panic", who against his will gets mixed up with liberation activists. If he betrays them, the police will let him go. At the end of the film, in the solitary political act of his life, Panic refuses to co-operate with the police interrogators.

It would not be unfair to say that the weaknesses of the film lie on the fictional side, its strength on the documentary. Panic's motivation is not convincing, the black activists are one-dimensional. But everything to do with Panic's everyday life is thoroughly convincing—his muggings, visits to his girlfriend, the local shebeen, his landlady, the demonstrations and funerals, arrest and jail. Mogotlane 's view is refreshing, and shows us a Soweto we have never seen before, not even in documentary.

Schmitz readily admits the influence of documentary and newsreels on his style. It was formed by the television coverage of the prolonged unrest that shook the country from 1984 to 1986, the period when foreign television gave saturation attention to South Africa. At that time, Schmitz was working abroad, in West German television, where he saw the constant flow of images—the armored hippos, the burning tires, the defiant funerals, the gas grenades and riot guns, more funerals...None of which would he have seen if he had remained home, because there, it didn't get on television.

These images present a challenge for the fiction filmmaker, for they define the "real" for the audience, who have seen them on television. That was the standard Schmitz had to duplicate, and he proves himself fully able to do so, often appearing to re-enact specific scenes from newsreels. You have to remember that Schmitz's first audience is in South Africa, an audience starved of actuality footage. But here's the rub: although Schmitz was able to trick the system to get his film made, he did not get past the system's second line of defense, the censors who control release. At the time we spoke with Schmitz earlier this year, Mapantsula had been screened only once in public in South Africa before it was stopped.

Now I want to look at film and video in the context of the struggle for South Africa. This is above all a struggle to control the image of South Africa, because it is that image that will decide South Africa's future. Statements by South Africa's rulers indicate that they see the conflict in precisely those terms, and they have deployed a range of tactics throughout the years as sophisticated as covertly buying into overseas news organs, and as brutal as murder to control the image.

We could go back further, but 1976 marked a new phase, a double revolution in the struggle for South Africa. The Students' Revolt of that year came as a shock to the authorities. Imprisoned in the mindset of racism, which underestimated black courage and resourcefulness, the authorities were caught off-guard. It took them several months of police action to stamp out the brush-fire. Yet even more devastating to state security was the onslaught by the foreign media. Like vultures, the Western world's television media swooped down on bloodied South Africa. The riots, the police brutality, the burning town­ ships, the defiant blacks, the blustering whites -television loved it. It was the latest Great Good Cause. In South Africa, television was then in its infancy—ironically, 1976 was its first year—and was tightly controlled. The authorities seemed to have no idea of what a force it constituted. Prime Minister Vorster, whose voice in South Africa was like the voice of God, proclaimed, "There is no crisis!"—and this was taken by Thames Television as the title for a documentary whose images gave the lie to the proclama­tion. It was no longer enough for Vorster to lie to the people of South Africa; there was a worldwide audience that had to be convinced also.


But in what way, precisely, did the negative images projected by the foreign media hurt white South Africa? The images were not shown there, and so could not disturb the white electorate. For the American public, there was an awareness that Africans were being killed in a struggle that they could relate to the civil rights movement in the United States, but South Africa certainly had none of the urgency of Vietnam, where it was a matter of the lives of American boys. Why should South Africa be worried about American public opin­ion, murmuring uneasily 12,000 miles away? The answer lies in the equation politics = economics = power—and the key to this unholy trinity is Public Relations, meaning control of the image.

Since the 'Fifties, South Africa had been an outlaw state because of its policy of apartheid, but the world community of nations had done very little about it other than pass pious resolutions. South Africa 's carefully cultivated image as "a bulwark against Communism" (a phrase from a Twentieth Century Fox travelogue from 1962) and the fact that it gave an excellent return on investment made it a ward of the United States and Britain. South Africa went on cultivating its little apartheid garden, the tranquility marred only by minor irritants like the documentaries The Dumping Grounds and Last Grave at Dimbaza, which could not overcloud the discrete sunshine of American support. The deluge came with Soweto '76—American investors watched their evening television, and suddenly South Africa did not look like such a safe investment anymore. What happened in the wake of the Students' Revolt could not be ignored by the South African government: there was a flight of capital and talent from South Africa, the Rand fell, and with a weakened economy, the supports of apartheid began to crack and the entire structure of white hegemony began to sag. The death of 800 Africans, the world's disgust—the government could live quite happily with these. But a fall in the standard of living of white South Africa!—there was a price to be paid for that at the polls.

By the time the authorities regained control, the battle lines were clearly drawn: on the one side were aligned the anti-apartheid forces and the liberal media, which depicted South Africa as a racist, totalitarian state; and against these, the South African government and its influential friends in the West, who wanted the country to be seen as inherently stable and moving with deliberate speed towards some form of multi racial democracy, never, however, fully defined. Those were the opposing images, and what was at stake was nothing less than the country of South Africa.

The era of the Students' Revolt and media interest in South Africa lasted from 1976 to about 1980. This period saw numerous documentaries, foremost among them the great trilogy from Antony Thomas, Six Days of Soweto, Working for Britain, and The Search for Sandra Laing. CBS produced its interpretation with George Crile's The Battle for South Africa, which typically could not see beyond the bang-bang of guerilla warfare, although it should have been obvious by that time that that was not how the destiny of South Africa would be resolved. It was also the period that the American networks set up shop in Johannesburg (other Western media had been there for some time), panting for the next outbreak of violence.

But by 1980, the country seemed pacified. If some British and American money had fled to calmer waters, Japanese and West German money was beginning to replace it. Control of visiting journalists was tightened, filtering out unfriendly faces. But the South African government had not come up with a satisfactory policy of damage control by the time it was hit by the next cycle of violence. This started with a rent -strike in 1984, and spread to townships throughout the country in a way that was both more spontaneous and better organized than in 1976. Media coverage had also improved: the respondents were in place, with contacts already established; the crews now included, or rapidly trained, black technicians—often these were the only ones who could gain access to the townships; and satellite transmission gave immediacy. In the media battle, white South Africa was out-gunned.

The police would harass the crews, whom they hated. Many were arrested, Brian Tilley was shot in the leg, and the police stood by while George De'ath, a cameraman for Independent Television News, was hacked to death by township pro­ government vigilantes. But newsfilm was hemorrhaging out of South Africa, and the impact on the American public was enormous. During this period it became quite clear that there was a chain reaction that began with the pictures of unrest and repression in South Africa, passed through living­ room television sets into people's minds, which caused them to put pressure on American business in South Africa to pull out, and to force Congress to impose sanctions. In the words of a police officer at the time, "We have to stop bad news about South Africa from getting out". The white government had lost control of the image. To wrest it back from the anti-apartheid forces, in 1985 they declared a State of Emergency, which enabled them to severely restrict what reporters could do, and in the following year, censorship openly directed against the "media terrorists " (in the words of Stoffel Botha, Minister of Information ) was imposed. That they took so long over such an obvious step implies a serious debate inside ruling circles. Their own propaganda aimed at the West had always stressed that they were part of "the Free World ", which also meant freedom of the press. By imposing censorship on the Western news media, they took the calculated risk of alienating the West. They rationalized the move by saying that they were in a situation akin to war, and in wartime, censorship is normal. They also accused the news media of provoking unrest, even of paying young people to commit unlawful acts for the camera. But no concrete charges were ever brought against foreign news agents.

The authorities must have been delighted by the results of their prohibition. The networks bleated some token protests, and then capitulated. It is not known if they even considered going underground, yet it was demonstrably possible to function in defiance of the restrictions. Sharon Sofer and Kevin Harris (the latter at great risk, since he lived in South Africa) produced Witness to Apartheid, on police torture. The BBC made Suffer the Children, about the mass detention of children. By the summer of 1987, a CBS documentary unit had completed a Walter Cronkite special on South Africa called Children of Apartheid. By the beginning of November, it had not yet been scheduled for airing, and Brian Ellis, its producer, told me it was not certain it would be aired at all. It had by-passed the censor, and since it inevitably condemned apartheid, there was fear at CBS that the government would close down their news operation if the documentary was aired. In a move Walter Cronkite described as unprecedented, CBS hired a South African lawyer to review the documentary and tell them whether i t would be offensive to the authorities. The lawyer gave his opinion that it would not provoke much of a reaction, but CBS still hesitated. Such is the fearless nature of American networks.

In November of 1987 these shame­ful facts of CBS' appeasement began to leak out. To prove its machismo, CBS hastened to program the documentary for early December ·but at an off-peak hour, hoping no-one would notice. But even if no Americans were watching, the South African Embassy was, and a complaint was filed with CBS that the filmmakers had not applied for the mandatory work-permits. The film's greatest sin was probably that it had the audacity to put Zindzi Mandela (daughter of Nelson and Winnie) in the same program as the daughter of President Botha—an Afrikaans newspaper screamed "Rozanne is misused!" Howard Stringer, President for CBS news, sent an abject letter of apology to the Minister of Information, Stoffel Botha.

But what had the elements of farce quickly turned into tragedy when early in January, 1988, a young man, Sicelo Dhlomo, was arrested by police and questioned about his participation in the film. A few days after his release, he was found murdered, execution style. At CBS, the suspicion could not be dismissed that Dhlomo had been eliminated because he had testified in the program. The News Department was stunned. In South Africa, where they have reason to fear the consequences of speaking their minds, there were many who openly accused the police. In the safety of their offices on 57th Street in New York, CBS executives seemed most hurt by the police accusation that their reporter had coached Dhlomo on what to say. About the murder itself, they managed to squeeze out that they were "saddened ". They should have been outraged. An investigation into the circumstances of Dhlomo's death should have been the basis of another program. Failure to challenge the authorities meant that Dhlomo had died worse than in vain, because his death had served the purpose of the authorities to inhibit documentaries on South Africa. In imposing on Dhlomo the ultimate censorship, they had gagged CBS, and CBS had betrayed Dhlomo, not to mention the anti­ apartheid struggle.


Censorship and death—that's what it took to turn the fierce American tiger into a pussycat. There was perhaps a worse aspect. news from South Africa did not dry up completely, but it became selective. It was forbidden to report on police violence in any shape or form, but newsfilm on strife inside the town­ ships, what came to be called "black­ on-black" violence, was encouraged. Film of "necklacing" (whereby victims were executed by having a tire filled with gasoline hung around their necks, and then set alight) were freely allowed. Virtually any film was permitted, "If'—in the immortal words of a police spokesman—"it hurts the ANC' '. In this way, the networks became themselves a tool of government propaganda.

Alternative channels opened up. South Africa Now, an extracurricular initiative of Danny Schechter of ABC News, began to put together a weekly series on South Africa, which had to fight to get on the air even though it was being offered free. Eventually, it was picked up by a number of public television stations. Much of South Africa Now's material came from a news and documentary unit set up in London, called Afrivision. Both Afrivision and South Africa Now relied heavily on sources inside South Africa, especially the kind of resistance video that had sprung up. This was the kind of material the networks would not touch, because it did not carry the trademark of one of their correspondents—even though those same respondents had always been dependent on South African helpers who often risked jail to get the story out, and who seldom received credit. South Africa Now, operating on a shoestring with no help from official PBS, performs wonders, but it performs them before a small, select audience, not the mass audience of the networks.

Inside South Africa, there was a new twist. If the principal weapon in the media war had been the images of resistance produced there, this weapon was now turned against the Resistance itself. In the town of Delmas, over 900 people were put on trial as agents of the African National Congress, a banned organization. Among the evidence produced against them were 42 videotapes. These were essentially coverage of United Democratic Front meetings shot by a n organization called Afrascope, and were intended for consciousness­ raising. The tapes had recorded statements which at the time they were recorded were not illegal, but which under the State of Emergency could be so interpreted. It raised the possibility that anything recorded to aid the Resistance could at any time be turned into damaging evidence.

There remained only one arena over which South Africa could exert no control outside the country, al­ though it could be censored inside. That was feature films. With an audience well-primed by news coverage, Hollywood cashed in on the subject with Cry, Freedom, A World Apart, A Dry White Season. (Mapantsula was a special case because it was indige­nous.) All the films showed the influ­ence of a decade of news and documentary from South Africa. Whatever their faults and merits, they kept the struggle alive where documentary was being choked, and with their highly personalized interpretations perhaps made complex events more comprehensible. They had one more advantage. Actuality cameras cover a great deal in South Africa, but they do not have access to everything. Merely to photograph the outside of a prison, for example, carries a three-year sentence. Witness to Apartheid could gather evidence of torture, but could not show the actual torture. A documentary on Biko could tell us what probably happened to the Black Consciousness leader, but it could not record his head being bashed against the cell wall, and his senseless body being thrown naked into the back of a police vehicle. All the brutality of police interrogation has only been accessible by hearsay, and even that carries severe legal sanctions. The torture scenes in A Dry White Season have extraordinary power both for their realistic presentation and because we have never seen them before.

But when Hollywood takes up a cause, there is a built-in fail factor. First of all, by the time Hollywood's con­ science is moved (and it is usually only moved by the promise of big bucks), it is already late. The audience may be primed, but it may also be surfeited. In the United States, none of the films was an unqualified success ( they did better overseas), and it may be a while before Hollywood is again moved by the moral affront of apartheid.

While the South African government has always been able to orchestrate its propaganda and disinforma­tion campaigns, this has seldom been the case with the Resistance. If there has seemed to be a symbiotic relationship between the Resistance in South Africa and the foreign media, ultimately this has been because South Africans have taken dramatic actions, and been willing to lay down their

lives: they have supplied exciting pictures. South Africa's stability is not a creation of the foreign "media terrorists" but is built into the racist system. Because of brainwashing through the educational system and tight control of the press, radio, television, and cinema through censorship, it was possible for a majority of white South Africans to believe in the never-never land of apartheid. At the top, they made the fatal mistake of believing their own propaganda. It took the refreshing wind of television attention blowing from the West to make South Africans see themselves as others see them. The momentous events now taking place inside the country suggests that they have begun to understand the message.


Documentary filmmaker Peter Davis has made six films on South Africa, including Generations of Resistance and Winnie Mandela. In association with Daniel Riesenfeld, he is currently preparing a 2-part TV program on the changing image of South Africa in the cinema, called In Darkest Hollywood.