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HOWARD ROSENBERG

Two TV Programs Intensify the Reality of Apartheid Issue

December 14, 1987|HOWARD ROSENBERG

South Africa's despicable apartheid is becoming less of an abstraction here and more of a horrifying reality.

The new theatrical movie "Cry Freedom" is partly responsible, but more of the recent credit goes to TV, despite its record of seldom matching the South Africa reporting found in good newspapers.

TV is making up ground in huge chunks this month.

The recent CBS news documentary "Children of Apartheid" was a bold and stunning glimpse of racism--through youthful eyes--as a government, social and economic rite perpetuated for decades by a privileged white minority.

PBS turns even a more important page tonight with the debut of a landmark five-part "Frontline" documentary on apartheid at 8 on Channel 28, followed at 10 by a seething hour from a black South African playwright on "Great Performances." It's called "Asinamali!," a Zulu word meaning "nothing to lose."

For the Record
Los Angeles Times Tuesday December 15, 1987 Home Edition Calendar Part 6 Page 9 Column 5 Television Desk 2 inches; 47 words Type of Material: Correction
An editing error in Monday's Calendar resulted in the wrong word appearing in the last paragraph of Howard Rosenberg's column on programs about South Africa. The sentence in question should have read: "Small changes for the better have been instituted by Botha's government, but hope remains elusive and sadness and anger prevail."

The back-to-back programs offer separate--but--parallel visions of South African truth, one soberly expressed through film clips and interviews in terse, incisive documentary style, the other passionately articulately by five expressive actors in a Johannesburg theater.

This is an important night of television.

In "Asinamali!," five black prison inmates (played by Solomzi Bisholo, Thami Cele, Bongani Hlophe, Bheki Mgadi and Boy Ngema) express their generation's rage, humiliation and despair in stories, dances, songs and chants whose sounds and rhythms take getting accustomed to, but do sink in.

The cropped production is ideal for TV's small screen, moreover, and playwright Mbongeni Ngema's words (he also makes an appearance) and athletic actors relate the brutal inhumanity of apartheid with dark humor and stirring honesty. Director Ross Devenish adds energy and vigorous balletic movement to a fiery hour that was filmed before an audience that included Winnie Mandela.

What an inspired pairing--Ngema's dramatic outpouring from the heart appending this first of five weekly documentary segments, four from Britain's Granada Television and the last an American-produced hour that was unavailable for preview.

The "Frontline" series is simply unprecedented for American TV, giving social and political texture and historic breadth, depth and clarity to a subject that in the past has been almost always narrowly defined in mere blacks and whites.

Ranging far beyond the familiar Tutus and Mandelas and Bothas that epitomize South Africa in most Western eyes, this series at once gives expression to the varied voices of the usually faceless oppressed and to their English and Afrikaner oppressors.

The presentation is straight and seemingly factual, a meticulous, coolly told, brick-by-brick reconstruction of 335 years of history in which a nation for whites was built on the backs of indigenous blacks who were made outcasts in their own land. The parallels with America's own history are inescapable.

As the white Boers or Afrikaners and British themselves bitterly vie for control, blacks become their exploited economic pawns, meeting the demand for cheap labor, yet sharing in none of the fruits.

Such racial polarization is vividly captured in an excerpt from a 1936 British documentary here that admiringly notes the rich life style and supposed benevolence of the white South African.

"And what has he done for the native?" asks the narrator as the scene shifts from a posh white neighborhood to a crew of shirtless blacks swinging pickaxes. "He has put him to work." For starvation wages, with no hope of escaping poverty.

After the White Nationalist government gains power from J. C. Smuts' United Party in 1948, unofficial segregation evolves into a rigid policy of apartheid that includes the institution of the infamous passbook rules that made blacks virtual slaves.

"If we wouldn't have that, we'd have chaos," says Afrikaner Wentzel du Plessis in defense of the totalitarian apartheid. "The black man, he would overrun you, and then what would you do? Shoot him? That was the thing we wanted to avoid. We don't want to shoot the black man. We would rather govern him." Very generous.

The old clips and new interviews are fascinating and revealing. The unfamiliar is illuminated along with the familiar: the Sharpeville and Soweto slaughters . . . Hendrick Verwoerd . . . Nelson Mandela . . . Steve Biko . . . Gatsha Buthelezi . . . the P. W. Botha era and so on, leading to the volatile present and recent secret talks between leaders of the Afrikaners and the outlawed African National Congress.

What strikes you about this exceptional series is its layers and nuances. Neither side in the struggle is viewed as monolithic, the deep political and philosophical divisions shown here clashing with TV's usual, facile depictions of South Africa.

Small changes for the better have been instituted by Botha's government, but hope remains elusive and sadness and eager prevail. As one of the men in "Asinamali!" observes: "The world is verrrrrry strange!"

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