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Back In Time In South Africa

September 28, 1985|CLARKE TAYLOR

NEW YORK — Charlayne Hunter-Gault, correspondent for public television's "MacNeil/Lehrer NewsHour," has returned from eight weeks on assignment in South Africa with an unusual series of profile reports as well as her own personal insight into the troubled region.

The 10- to 15-minute taped reports, which are being billed as portraits of "Apartheid People," are scheduled to be broadcast nightly next week on the "NewsHour," starting Monday. Among those profiled are a black nun, a white farmer and a black advertising executive working in a white ad agency--"all with differing views, but all affected by the violence that surrounds them," Hunter-Gault said.

"American TV viewers are now used to seeing the unfolding events and the violence in South Africa on the nightly news, but events ultimately are about people," she said in a telephone interview this week from "NewsHour's" headquarters here, in describing her trip and her series of coming reports. "I think we got at some of the reasons behind the events.

"We talked to people on both sides who, like most of us, normally are not violent. We wanted to see from their perspective how their rage could become so extreme and lead to violent actions," she continued. She pointed out that much time needs to be spent roaming the countryside, "because white cities and towns are so insulated and isolated from the realities of the way blacks throughout South Africa live that even I initially wondered whether the media might not be hyping the situation."

She soon learned the realities--firsthand.

Hunter-Gault, who is black, told a chilling story of her attempt during her first days in Johannesburg to have her hair done in a local beauty parlor.

"I saw that there were black women inside, so I went in," she recalled. "But they looked at me, and said, 'Sorry, we only do black hair (as opposed to 'colored,' or mixed race).' Suddenly, I was thrown back in time, 20 years."

In January, 1961, Hunter-Gault, then Charlayne Hunter, became one of the first two black students (with Hamilton Holmes) to enter and thereby integrate the University of Georgia.

"This is the same thing that has been happening to me throughout my life," said the newswoman in a rare departure from the objective demeanor she maintains on "NewsHour." "But I wanted to be a journalist, and I've insisted on being regarded as a journalist, so I have tried to maintain some distance.

"In South Africa, I was constantly having to adjust myself all over again to the realities of life, including every time we were confronted with 'white only' eating and bathroom facilities. Had we entered any of these places, I'm not sure I would have reacted like a journalist," she said soberly.

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