- Starring Mandela and Cosby: Media and the End(s) of Apartheid
By the time television reached the homes of (mainly white) South Africans in 1976, it had already been introduced in over 130 nations. The late embrace of television in South Africa wasn’t a result of technological or financial hurdles, as in other nations, but rather a deliberate effort on the part of the ruling National Party to limit the reach of transnational media flows. The apartheid state, cognizant of the important role television played in the [End Page 29] United States’ civil rights struggle, was anxious to avoid the potentially destabilizing and democratizing effects of viewing international media. By 1976, however, anyone who could afford a satellite dish could gain access to transnational television; in order to avoid the influence of these flows, government officials initiated the development and deployment of state run television. The introduction of television in South Africa provides the starting point for Ron Krabill’s new book, Starring Mandela and Cosby: Media and the End(s) of Apartheid.
In addition to seeing the introduction of television, 1976 also ushered in an era of political agitation that provides the second strand of Krabill’s argument. On June 16th of that year, South African police fired on a group of unarmed students who were gathered to protest inequities in the education system. Although the social and political turmoil of the “Soweto Uprising” was contained after several months, the incident ignited the political agitation that would ultimately lead to the collapse of apartheid. While significant attention has been paid to the political events of the time, scant attention has been paid to the role of television in South Africa’s social and political upheaval.
In Starring Mandela, Krabill links these two histories together, and portrays South African politics and media engaged in a mutually constitutive relationship. He argues that the government’s hegemonic control over the new medium did not prevent television from subverting the ideology of the state. He locates this subversion in two ways. First, he attempts to show television’s role in transforming the political landscape and identifications of White South Africans. Second, he posits that while apartheid created a “structured absence” of Black South Africans in the lives of White South Africans, this absence was de-stabilized, in part, by the introduction of television.
Krabill identifies a viewing phenomenon that appeared following the introduction of “Black channels” in 1983 that he calls “surfing into Zulu.” Although channels 2/3 were designed specifically for Black South African audiences, Krabill demonstrates that White South Africans were also interested in channels 2/3, and frequently “surfed” into “Black” programming. Thus, despite the tight control over television exercised by the state, viewing patterns could not be fully controlled by state interests: both transnational and intranational media flows led to a form of integration (albeit virtual) of Black and White South Africans—exactly what the apartheid state worked to suppress. Television provided a communal space in which the “structured absence” of Black South Africans in the apartheid state began to break down, permitting White South Africans to imagine a more inclusive conception of nation and nationalism.
These changes took place incrementally and Krabill’s book is carefully constructed around four “fence posts”: specific historical moments significant in both political and media history. First is the moment of the Soweto uprising [End Page 30] and the arrival of TV in South Africa in 1976. Second is the introduction of the SABC (South African Broadcasting Corporation) TV2/3 channels, alongside the development of constitutional reforms in 1983–1984. The third fence post investigates the widespread popularity of The Cosby Show during the States of Emergency declared in 1986–88. The last fence post centers on the democratic transition of the early 1990s.
Although Krabill grounds his research in the context of South African history, his book makes more expansive claims about the intersection of politics and media in the transnational context. Drawing from a number of sources including ethnographic interviews, historical archives, and...