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NEW SABC PROGRAMS REACH BEYOND STEREOTYPES

By Published on .

JOHANNESBURG-In a telling scene from the recent South African Broadcasting Corp.'s miniseries "The Line," a rapacious landlord steps out of his flashy BMW to confront slum tenants with an unfair rent increase. On the curbside, he cooly rebuffs a threadbare beggar.

A scene from the old South Africa, perhaps? Not quite. The landlord is black and the beggar is white.

Nelson Mandela's April election as South Africa's first black president heralded a sea change at the SABC, once the exclusive mouthpiece of the apartheid government, censoring news about unrest in black townships and segregating channels, even TV game shows, according to race.

While "The Line," which telecast its first episode July 20, did cause some dissent, it was a shadow of what would have occurred under apartheid.

Changes are apparent elsewhere at SABC. A young black news anchor, Khanyi Dhlomo-Mkhize, has supplanted her white colleagues as the rising star of English newscasts on TV1, the SABC's flagship channel.

SABC's new national over-the-air channel CCV (Contemporary Community Values) has a mandate to serve each of 11 ethnic groups guaranteed equality under the new constitution. Prior to the election, SABC devoted one channel to English and Afrikaans and two other stations to local African languages.

Commercials on the two channels were similarly segregated. Now commercials within the same programs often air alternatively in English and indigenous languages.

Most of CCV's locally-produced programming is aimed at blacks. Last month CCV premiered "Soul City," a series about a black doctor who returns from an overseas medical school to work in a township clinic. The half-hour series aims to teach about primary health care by having popular characters fall victim to AIDS, lose children to dysentery and suffer other misfortunes.

Many commercials during the show are from British Petroleum South Africa, which provided a $275,000 grant in return for associating its logo and flag with the program. "We wanted BP to be seen as a company that cares," said a spokeswoman, adding, "`Soul City' will obviously bring a lot of attention to our service stations." Berry Bush, Cape Town, is the BP agency.

On CCV as well as SABC's other channels, commercials now use black and white roles interchangeably, in contrast to the apartheid era when blacks were shown mainly in subservient roles.

In one spot for SABC's Radio Metro, a black man drives to an office party at a smart country home in a large expensive car. He is followed by a white man in an ordinary car who tosses his keys to the black man saying, "Park it near the fountain." The white man discovers later that the black man is his new boss. The theme: "Stay in tune with the new South Africa."

To reach beyond the TV audience of 14 million, "Soul City" is broadcast on SABC's Zulu, Xhosa and Sotho radio stations, and BP is producing a glossy 36-page guide to primary health care that will be distributed free at its stations. It was produced by the Alexandra Clinic, the model for and consultant to the TV series.

The changes at SABC were predictable, since it is state-funded and under the watchful eye of President Mandela's African National Congress government.

The only alternative to SABC is cable channel M-Net. Despite a subscriber base of 890,000 that is less than 1% black, M-Net is demonstrating a certain political expediency by adding black-oriented U.S. TV shows like "In Living Color" and "Fresh Prince of Bel Air," to its lineup. Previously, its U.S. shows and movies were more of "The Phil Donahue Show" genre.

The channel is dubbing into Zulu shows such as the U.S.' "In the Heat of the Night.' Last November, M-Net hired Dali Tambo, the flamboyant fashion designer son of late ANC President Oliver Tambo, to host a racy late night talk show modeled after the U.S.' now-cancelled "Arsenio Hall" show.

"You could say we're trying to get our ducks in a row," said an M-Net spokeswoman.

For years, South Africa's predominantly white ad agencies have recognized the growing economic power of black consumers, who outnumber more affluent whites eight to one, and who are expected to outspend whites in urban areas by the year 2000. That is changing the way agencies develop creative specifically around the theme of black political empowerment.

Ogilvy & Mather Rightford created a commercial for department store Sales House that opens with emotive footage of Martin Luther King Jr.'s "Free at Last" speech. It is followed by shots of well-dressed blacks identified as nationals of African countries which have achieved independence since the 1960s and culminates with a shot of a Mr. Mandela look-alike, clad in a Sales House suit, serenely sitting in the Parlimentary speaker's chair in Cape Town.

Ironically, the Sales House ad drew fire from some black critics because it failed to portray whites.

"An attempt was made to celebrate Afrocentricity, but it made the assumption that African-ness is a race thing," said Peter Vundla, managing director of Herdbuoys, South Africa's only black-owned ad agency.

"Unfortunately a lot of white creative people in this country are groping for images, shrewdly recognizing the commercial value of African themes while seeing themselves as Europeans and holding blacks at a distance."

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