South African whites clamor to tune in black TV

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

A number of white South Africans are irate. For once, apartheid is working against them. The issue causing so much static among white South Africans is the attempt by the government-controlled television broadcasting service to extend apartheid to the airwaves.

Traditionally the government's policy of apartheid (strict racial separation) gives South Africa's black majority the short end of the stick - inferior housing, education, and social services.

But in one small way, whites are bearing the brunt of apartheid. The South African Broadcasting Corporation (SABC) is trying to deny whites in Johannesburg access to a new television station beamed at blacks. And many whites are angry.

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The new black television station - called Bop-TV and operated by Bophuthatswana, one of the so-called ''homelands'' - offers a different perspective than the SABC's heavily biased news programming. And the new station is not so touchy on racial issues. Comic references to ''whites'' and ''blacks'' are not ''bleeped'' out as they are on SABC.

The new station also offers more imported American television serials than SABC. ''Ironside,'' ''Benson,'' ''Streets of San Francisco,'' ''Rockford Files, '' and ''Mod Squad'' are some of this month's programs on the black station. For many viewers, slick Hollywood imports are preferable to the SABC's local productions.

''No one in his right mind is going to watch excruciatingly boring (government-controlled) television if there's entertainment available elsewhere, '' wrote an angry white from Pretoria in a letter to a local newspaper. The writer is just one of many fed up with the SABC's monopoly of the airwaves.

Bophuthatswana, the black territory that runs Bop-TV, is one of 10 tribal homelands established by South Africa's white-minority government.

Pretoria uses the homelands as a means of removing blacks both physically and politically from ''white'' South Africa. It regards every black as a citizen of one or another homeland. If this policy is carried to its conclusion, one day there will be no black South Africans. The idea is that each homeland will become ''independent'' - and their black ''citizens'' will become statutory foreigners to South Africa.

Four homelands, including Bophuthatswana, have taken independence so far. No country in the world recognized this status, but Bophuthatswana has earned a special status.

It boasts a degree of economic and political stability not found in most of the homelands. Its Sun City resort and casino complex hosts top entertainers and sportmen that attract even many white South Africans. Its latest distinction is its new television service.

But like the alleged citizens of the other homelands, a large number of Bophuthatswana subjects live beyond the territory's fragmented borders. Indeed, a great share of the Tswana people linked to Bophuthatswana live in Soweto, a large black settlement near Johannesburg. This is the audience that is most apt to have television sets - not the rural residents of Bophuthatswana - and most apt to have the buying power that advertisers seek.

However, there is a hitch. Because Bophuthatswana is not recognized as an independent nation internationally, it cannot apply to the appropriate international agency for its own broadcasting frequency. It has had to use air wave space granted to it by the SABC. And to beam into Soweto, Bop-TV is having to send its beam to an SABC tower in Johannesburg, from where it is relayed into Soweto.

The SABC has tried to make the beam into Soweto as narrow as possible. But there is ''spillage'' into white areas - to the delight of white television viewers and the dismay of the SABC.

The SABC has also tried to stop whites from picking up Bop-TV. It has warned them any investment in a new antenna could be wasted since there is no guarantee the SABC won't find a way to further reduce the ''spillage.''

Bop-TV broadcasts on ultra high frequency. So tuning it in usually requires the purchase of a new antenna.

Ian Gray, television critic for the Johannesburg Star newspaper, says the criticism of the SABC is in many ways unfair. ''There is not a country in the world that allows direct TV access by another country,'' he says. And while he recognizes that many do not regard Bophuthatswana as truly ''independent,'' he points out that to be consistent with that reasoning, one should not then expect the territory to have its own TV service.

But Mr. Gray thinks there is a message in the controversy. ''At the root of the problem is the total dissatisfaction with SABC television. SABC is just not in touch with what the people want,'' he says.

Despite the obstacles, whites are rushing to watch the black station. One estimate put the number of whites viewing Bop-TV at 30,000.

''There has been such a demand on stock that we haven't been able to keep any UHF antennas on hand,'' said a clerk at one hardware store.

The segregation of the airwaves actually began about two years ago. SABC launched two of its own channels for blacks in native languages.

One person wrote to a newspaper that the whole issue shows the faulty premise of the ''homelands'' policy. Bophuthatswana has been separated from South Africa because of the different language and culture of its black population, according to Pretoria.

''Nonsense,'' wrote this person, pointing out that Bop-TV is broadcasting primarily in English and providing programs that are evidently popular among both whites and blacks.

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