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VOICES ARE COMING IN LOUD AND STRONG FROM SOUTH AFRICA : Media Aid Winnie Mandela, Bishop Tutu in Renewed Challenges to Apartheid Forces

June 25, 1986|HOWARD ROSENBERG | Times Television Critic

The South Africa file grows.

For a long time, TV didn't do a very good job of telling the story of daily apartheid beyond the obligatory headline or fleeting picture. One reason was the South African government's limitations on media coverage. Another was the networks' traditional shunning of foreign news that fell short of fiery upheaval.

Now, however--ironically at a time when South Africa's government has all but squelched Western news media under its new emergency regulations--there are slivers of light in the fog.

South African Bishop Desmond Tutu has been the most visible black anti-apartheid leader on TV. Last week, his dramatic plea for American help during a taped interview on ABC's "World News Tonight" angered the South African government and may have indirectly jeopardized the network's Johannesburg bureau. Three journalists have been ordered out of the country in the last 12 days, and more may follow. However, ABC vows to continue testing the press restrictions.

This week, though, is Winnie Mandela week.

The heroic wife of imprisoned African National Congress leader Nelson Mandela risked arrest herself Monday by giving a clandestine interview to British TV that was excerpted on ABC and the "CBS Evening News."

Her blast at South Africa's recently imposed state of emergency clearly violated the white-minority government's ban on "subversive" statements to the media. And the interview itself violated a government order forbidding Mandela to speak to the press.

Meanwhile, Winnie Mandela was also the lead story of NBC's "1986" news magazine Tuesday, and is the focus tonight of a new PBS documentary, "Mandela." She also appears tonight in an older PBS documentary, "Women of South Africa." (See below for times.)

The NBC and PBS programs offer vastly different perspectives.

NBC's 14-minute profile of the 50-year-old Mandela by Peter Kent (including a brief interview conducted before the imposition of emergency rules) had a more critical tone than the hourlong PBS program.

On "1986," Mandela was shown as a charismatic black leader whose open defiance of apartheid has earned her enormous popularity among South Africa's blacks. She was also shown as someone who has appeared to endorse black violence against blacks suspected of collaborating with the white Pretoria regime.

The PBS "Mandela" is a much fuller account. Made on a small budget, it is not an elegant film. However, there is also nothing elegant about the misery caused by apartheid in South Africa.

The program at once traces the anti-apartheid movement and the relationship of Nelson and Winnie.

South Africa's best-known political prisoner, black anti-apartheid leader Nelson Mandela has been in jail since 1962. For the first 20 years of his imprisonment, he was allowed visits from his wife only once every six months, and since has been allowed to see her monthly. Hence, the Mandelas have lived together only briefly as a couple, and Winnie grew into her activism independent of her husband.

To restrict her political activity, the government forced Mandela in 1977 to leave her Soweto home and live 200 miles away in the isolated town of Brandfort. She was forbidden from being with more than one person at a time, making public appearances, being quoted in the domestic press and leaving Brandfort without police permission. Her house was raided by police and fire-bombed.

She says on "Mandela," though, that it was much earlier, in the late 1960s, that the government turned her into a "soldier at heart." It was then that her anti-apartheid activities brought her 16 months of solitary confinement.

Prisoner Winnie Mandela was kept in a cell so small that "if I stretched my hands, I touched both walls." She was alloted a bottle of water, three blankets and a sanitary bucket. Her jailers gave her food on the bucket's lid.

She was continually interrogated and a floodlight shone on her night and day. Worse still was the "utter torture" of being unable to speak with anyone. So she had imaginary conversations with her two young daughters. "If I had an ant or fly in the cell, I would imagine myself having company for the day," she says.

Winnie Mandela and other black South African women have faced a double-edged battle for equality, forced to endure both the government's apartheid and, more benignly, traditional male dominance in the black African family.

"I think that Winnie has educated Nelson about women's lib through her letters to him," Peter Davis, the English director and producer of "Mandela," said by telephone from Hurleyville, N.Y.

Davis interviewed Mandela last year in her Brandfort home--he and his crew violating the rule against her seeing more than one person simultaneously. They spent seven hours with her.

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