WHEN acclaimed author Nadine Gordimer appeared on television for the first time two weeks ago, South Africa passed another milestone in transforming its state-run television. Until recently, TV was the most potent propaganda vehicle for apartheid. Ms. Gordimer, several times shortlisted for the Nobel Prize for literature, prevented the South African Broadcasting Corporation (SABC) from airing her work 10 years ago. Three of her most celebrated books deal with the suffering of ordinary people living under apartheid. Since TV was introduced in South Africa in 1976, Gordimer had refused to be interviewed.
The recent profile, in which she articulated her strong political views as a member of the African National Congress, would have been unthinkable as recently as two years ago when the SABC used its power to promote Afrikaner culture and ignored growing black resistance to apartheid.
Today, astonished viewers are treated to lively discussion programs that air a wide range of views and sometimes bring political adversaries together on the same platform for the first time. Interviewers who had been restricted because of their probing questions have been rehabilitated. Leading anti-apartheid activists, once banned, are interviewed at length.
The SABC, for decades rejected by anti-apartheid groups, is becoming a sought-after forum for black political groups to make their views known. The Congress of South African Trade Unions, the 1.2-million-member black trade union federation, said last week that it was exploring a joint venture with the SABC to air a program on union affairs.
The impact of changes has been felt mainly by the country's 5 million whites, who own the majority of the 2 million or so licensed TV sets, and by middle-class blacks in the urban townships who make up for their smaller number of sets by crowding twice as many viewers around each set. At the peak viewing times, about half of the 6 million or so TV viewers are white and about half are black. But the 3 million white viewers represent 60 percent of the white population while the 3 million black viewers rep r
esent only about 12 percent of 25 million or so blacks.
There are two black TV channels, concentrating on music, news, and quiz programs that broadcast in five African languages and attract up to 3 million viewers at prime hours. The 12 million or so daily radio listeners are predominantly black and have a choice of 23 radio services in 20 different languages.
When Nelson Mandela was freed last year, TV news began portraying the ANC as a legitimate party and its leaders as part of the political solution.
For many urban blacks, TV has played an important role in boosting morale. For the first time they see their leaders and political groups portrayed as equal players in the quest for a new dispensation. But the 1 million or so right-wing whites have reacted with increasing incredulity and anger at the TV time being given to militant activists.
"I think we have shown that we mean business to all sections of South African society," says Carel van der Merwe, head of SABC radio and one of the architects of the dramatic turnaround which, he insists, began before Frederik de Klerk became president in 1989. "We believe we must broaden our base through deregulation and creating an independent broadcasting control council to replace ministerial control of broadcasting," he says. "We need to commercialize."
But rigid political control remained intact and consultation with black South Africans did not materialize. As public disquiet mounted, the government announced the appointment of a task force on broadcasting to recommend guidelines commensurate with the changing political reality. But the appointed group consisted almost exclusively of white, Afrikaans-speaking men, including three members of the National Intelligence Service and a retired chaplain of the South African Defense Force. Instead of defusin g
the issue, the task force generated protests by anti-apartheid groups, journalists, and civil rights workers.
"You can't have an institution investigating itself," says Professor Gavin Stewart of the liberal Rhodes University's journalism department.
The government-dominated board of the SABC responded by appointing two English-speaking businessmen and a black newspaper editor to the task force - a step branded as meaningless by critics. Since last December, the SABC has taken three steps that could help defuse widespread resentment.
In December it gave the conditional green light for the creation of a TV news service by the successful pay channel M-Net. In February, the board appointed Quentin Green, an accountant with two years experience at the SABC to head the TV section. Mr. Green is the first English-speaker to get a top SABC post. Three weeks ago the SABC made its boldest move yet by appointing Madala Mphahlele, a black executive, to head its multicultural second channel, which alternates between English and five African lan g
uages. Mr. Mphahlele sees his job as devising a strategy for programming that would unite the country's ethnic groups. "We have now reached a point where we have to thoroughly debate our South Africanness and television is a powerful medium which we can use," he told City Press, a newspaper read mainly by blacks.
ANC leaders have identified state control of the broadcasting media as a priority item in negotiating a political transition. They favor an interim body and have voiced suspicion of current plans to deregulate if that means putting broadcast media beyond the reach of the next government.
"The present task force has nothing to do with the democratization of broadcasting ... it is illegitimate," says John van Zyl, head of Film and Television studies at Witwatersrand University's School of Dramatic Art. "I can't see the SABC surviving in an era of vigorous competition," says Mr. Van Zyl. "There is an ingrained culture at the SABC and I think it will be impossible for them to break out of that."
Professor Stewart disagrees. "I think the SABC will become more vibrant over time."