South Africa’s Media Scam

Against the Current, No. 14, May/June 1988

Dianne Feeley

CHANTING “FREEDOM YES! Apartheid No! Shaka Zulu’s got to go!” over 600 demonstrators marched with their flashlights and picket signs outside WKBD-TV studios in Southfield, a suburb of Detroit, last November.

Protesting the station’s showing of the mini-series, “Shaka Zulu,” the overwhelmingly Black picketers rejected the attempt to package a brutally racist history of South Africa and peddle it as a compelling epic.

The demonstration culminated a month-long battle between Detroit anti-apartheid activists and the local television station, which had paid over$170,000 in order to show the five-part series. Although we were not able to stop the show, we were able to mobilize a significant section of the Detroit community in support of a cultural boycott against South African-produced films.

There were protests in other cities around the United States as the mini-series was aired, especially in Los Angeles and St. Louis. By the time it was scheduled for Detroit, “Shaka Zulu” had already appeared on 79 stations covering 72 percent of the entire U.S. market. It had done very well for the television stations and its advertisers. And in many cities the series was specifically targeted at the Black viewer.

One technique the stations used to build a Black audience was to have local Black leaders who had no knowledge of the historical background preview the film. Delighted to see a well-made epic about Blacks in Africa, they gave the station comments that were then aired as advertisements.

In Detroit, the South Africa Committee of the Michigan Coalition for Human Rights (MCHR) built an in­ formal coalition and planned an extremely effective campaign. We began by contacting those individuals the station was using to promote the show and ex­ plained how the mini-series distorted African history.

Who Was Shaka Zulu?

In the early nineteenth century Lord Charles Somerset initiated a program of farm allotments to encourage British settlers to move to the arid northern region of the Cape province-the homeland of the Bantu­speaking peoples of Southern Africa.

This action provoked a response from the Indigenous people. And it was the brilliant military strategist and charismatic Shaka Zulu who unified the tribes and almost succeeded in driving out the British. Although frequently called the Black Napoleon, Shaka Zulu is much more similar to the American Indian leader Tecumseh. Both attempted to unify tribal peoples against an invasion of white settlers and both have become symbols of resistance in the face of oppression.

As leaders they stand as impressive historical figures, refutations to those who have the audacity to portray Western civilization as superior.

A movie about Shaka Zulu that portrays the leader as a blood-thirsty tyrant is suspect. The film never questions British colonization, and those who oppose it by defending themselves are portrayed as violent.

Packaged as “entertainment” and not as a political statement,”Shaka Zulu” is a$24-million film with an unsavory and partially hidden past. Although the television station claimed that Harmony Gold produced the film, that Los Angeles-based company has a record as a distributor-not as a producer-of films.

As early as May 1984, before filming had begun, the mini-series was discussed in South Africa’s parliament. One member, R.P. Meyer, raved:

“Even at this early stage, however, so much interest is being shown in the project that all the indications are that it will be financially profitable. I think the most important statement that should be made here is that it could place South Africa in the forefront of the international film industry. It is with regard to this aspect that I want to pay tribute to the SABC [South African Broadcasting Company]. This is probably going to be its biggest attempt up to now, and it is also an attempt which means a great deal to South Africa, especially as far as its image abroad is concerned. The presentation of such a film as a product of South African television could also be successful abroad, I believe.” (Hansard May 10, 1984).

The state-controlled South African Broadcasting Corporation was listed as the producer of “Shaka Zulu” in an early sales brochure, but the label was removed when the film was distributed in the United States (L.A. Times Nov. 21, 1986). A number of articles printed in South Africa recognize this fact (Panorama July 1985, and The Citizen Nov. 11, 1986).’

Perhaps most important, the United Nations Centre Against Apartheid has placed the film on its fourth registry (March 27, 1987) as part of its campaign to boycott South African products until apartheid is destroyed.

The outlaw South African government, after underwriting the film for at least $2.4 million, attempted to distribute a product that distorts and falsifies South African history. It knew that it had to hide its role. After all, the United Nations has demanded the cultural isolation of South Africa since 1962. The distribution of this film was in direct violation of that boycott.

The film is, in fact, subtle racist propaganda-pack­ aged as entertainment, but justifying the apartheid sys­ tem. In the opening minutes of the show, Shaka, the warrior-king who united scattered tribes into a mighty Zulu  empire,  is described  as  a “mass  murderer,  a depraved ogre whose thirst for conquest knows no limits.” The film is extremely violent. Howard Rosenberg,

TV critic for the L.A. Times and a Pulitzer Prize winner, described it as featuring “buckets of  blood-including numerous spearings, grisly impalings with victims who writhe on long sticks, and a couple of beheadings shot in close-up.”

Clearly the message is that such savages need civilizing-and whites are just the force to do it. Having done it before in history, whites certainly are destined to maintain their control over South Africa today-or so logic seemed to dictate.

Many of the film reviewers fail to set the film in any social context — nor do they even wonder why the South African government has acted in such a sneaky way. Typical was Mike Duffy of the Detroit Free Press, who talked about the “fascinating tale of the clash between two cultures,” of how the film “uses historical record, tribal mythology and legend” and presents “a rich character study of a fascinating leader ‘’Shaka Zulu’ may be controversial. But it is also compelling, well­made television.”

His review, while taking into account what anti­apartheid activists said, saw these as relatively minor flaws, as it were, in a great film. Duffy himself believed that the film was historically accurate, perhaps because it, in his eyes, is “one of the finer looking, more intelligently produced” series of recent years.

Duffy didn’t seem to get the point. The fact that the film was well directed and acted — with performances ranging from “mesmerizing” to “first rate” — rnade its racist propaganda even more poisonous.

Organizing Efforts

Soon after we learned that WKBD would air the mini-series, anti-apartheid activists called together by the MCHR mapped out a strategy to demand that the television station cancel the show. We wrote to the station and set up a face-to-face meeting with management. They claimed they had no knowledge that the film was produced by an arm of the South African government and pledged to cancel if that could be proven. They said the station would not want to appear to be supporting apartheid. But not even a telegram from the chair of the UN’s Special Committee Against Apartheid could convince them of the facts.

We flooded the station with letters and phone calls, secured a resolution in opposition to the showing from the Detroit City Council and organized a broadly at­ tended press conference at the offices of the Urban League.

Margaret Baylor, president of the Detroit chapter of TransAfrica and a board member of MCHR, explained that the South African government has “destroyed the concept of free press in that country-nothing can be written, filmed or transmitted by the media without permission by the government-and we are asked to accept ‘Shaka Zulu’ as a legitimate presentation of Black South Africans.” Rev. Allen McNeeley of the Catholic Archdiocese of Detroit called on the 1.4 million Catholics in the area to tum off their sets when the film came on.

The station took out a full-page ad in the Sunday papers calling on viewers to “judge for yourselves.” It responded to our attempts to get the show cancelled by claiming that we simply represented one point of view in a society where there were many different viewpoints. We responded by calling on Detroit viewers to observe the boycott of South African-made products.

We also attempted to find those corporations who were sponsoring segments of the ten-hour program and get them to cancel, but that proved difficult given the way large corporations buy television time through advertising agencies.

But the more work we did the more we were able to reach out beyond an activist core. Our campaign became a topic of conversation on radio and television talk shows. We even sent our speakers into the WKBD-TV station and debated the director of “Shaka Zulu,” who was interviewed from his home in South Africa.

The night of the first show found us picketing along the strip of road that led to the television station. Several buses from some of the larger Black churches in Detroit helped to swell the spirited and militant crowd to more than 600.

It was a satisfying feeling to know that while we had not stopped the show, we had started a political discussion about the connections between South Africa and our own lives. In Detroit that week everyone knew which show not to watch-or if one dared to peek, one was armed with an understanding of how the racist propaganda worked.

Some media workers were surprised we felt we were successful even though the film was aired all week long. But we believed that we had put the spotlight on the South African government and exposed the complicity of the television station in its attempt to ignore the cultural boycott. And we were well aware of the fact that the television station had already spent $170,000 plus advertising on the program, and it wanted to make a tidy profit.

MCHR has been working with the city union that represents bus mechanics (AFSCME Local #312). For the past two-and-a-half years the union has been fighting to prevent South African glass from being used in Detroit city buses. It was union activists who first found the glass marked “Made in South Africa.” Once they protested the sticker was removed, but the glass kept coming. Working with our committee, the union managed to bring the issue before the Detroit City Council, which ordered the glass banned. Under pressure from the Detroit City Council, the management of the city buses has finally agreed to work with the union to monitor compliance. And the union intends to make sure that agreement is kept. Union activists know, too, that our committee will back them up in blowing the whistle on any future reappearance of South African glass.

The fact is that the South African regime cannot survive isolation, so it must seek to disguise its products and attempt to break the anti-apartheid boycott. An anti-apartheid campaign requires vigilance and persistence-and offers us the opportunity to reach a broad community.

May-June 1988, ATC 14

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