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HOWARD ROSENBERG

Southern Africa Through a Glass, Clearly

October 09, 1989|HOWARD ROSENBERG

Two faces of South Africa.

One is "South Africa Now," a low-budget, low-key--but in its own way absolutely spectacular--weekly newsmagazine that is indispensable viewing for anyone who wants to know what's really happening in southern Africa. Aired on PBS outlets in 62 cities, it's available locally at 9 a.m. Sundays on KCET Channel 28.

The other face is "Shaka Zulu," a gory, historically suspect, Pretoria-encouraged miniseries about unredeemably savage and blood-lusting Zulus in early 19th-Century southern Africa. "Shaka Zulu" has been traveling across America in syndication since 1986, amassing impressive ratings, and now gets its first national airing this week on cable's TBS network. It runs in five installments, today through Friday from 5 to 7 p.m.

Made at a cost of $24 million--including $2.5 million from the state-controlled South Africa Broadcasting Corp.--the 10-hour miniseries is lavishly mounted, but so ineptly executed that it's mainly for viewers who like seeing barbaric, semi-nude blacks running around carving each other up as civilized whites look on in horror.

"Shaka Zulu" is a muddy window.

Watching "South Africa Now," however, is like seeing through a clear window for the first time.

Always spotty, American television coverage of South Africa has dropped off considerably since the Pretoria government declared a state of emergency and increased media censorship in June, 1986. And even in the best of times, the time limits imposed on network news stories are not conducive to in-depth reporting.

"South Africa Now," a nonprofit series that has had a single focus since its inception in April, 1988, has more than filled the coverage gap, drawing from a variety of sources, ranging from Afrovision to free-lancers in South Africa who smuggle their material out of the country at great risk. Although a culture segment is slipped into each half hour, the heaviest emphasis is hard news:

* Black youths turn their bare backs to the camera to display ugly wounds said to come from police whippings.

* An investigation reveals ways South Africa is said to circumvent a global oil embargo.

* A white leader in the rebellion against South Africa's continued control over the South West Africa territory of Namibia speaks about threats and attempts on his life. He was assassinated after taping the interview.

* A renegade American conservative is accused of violating U.S. law by representing South Africa's extreme-right, rigidly pro-apartheid Conservative Party in this country without registering as its agent.

* Anti-apartheid journalists appear in an excerpt from an Irish documentary about hazards faced by the dissident press operating inside South Africa.

Produced by the independent production firm Globalvision in association with the anti-apartheid Africa Fund, "South Africa Now" surely is anti-apartheid, which is about as dishonorable as being anti-Nazi.

"South Africa Now" is anything but a shrill soap box, however, and the reporting is usually fiercely sober and thorough.

Produced on a relatively spare budget of $26,000 a week--which is underwritten by mainstream foundations and individuals, including Bruce Springsteen--this is also not a gleaming, elegant program with wide anchor desks and dazzling technology.

Because of its diversity of sources, moreover, the quality of production varies greatly from story to story. So does the quality of the anchors, who range from rough-edged quasi-amateurs (who are in the show's training program for young journalists) to producer Carolyn Craven, a polished former anchor-reporter for KQED in San Francisco and former White House correspondent for National Public Radio.

What makes "South Africa Now" special is that there's nothing like it anywhere else. No other program sheds so much light on the dark continent.

Mainstream media coverage of Southern Africa does not escape its close scrutiny. A segment on Sunday questioned New York Times reporter Christopher Wren's use of "shadowy" to describe the "mass democratic alliance" against apartheid in South Africa.

"South Africa Now" failed to clarify the context in which Wren had applied "shadowy" to organized apartheid opposition. What it did do was demonstrate the power and potential hair-trigger combustibility of words used to characterize political or human rights movements.

Without a doubt, "shadowy" does apply to "Shaka Zulu," whose resurfacing on TBS also occupied a portion of Sunday's "South Africa Now."

Los Angeles-based Harmony Gold is listed as the producing company for "Shaka Zulu." Directed by white South African William C. Faure and featuring such prominent English actors as Edward Fox and Christopher Lee, the miniseries centers on the great warrior king of the powerful Zulu nation from 1816 until his murder in 1828.

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