Seeing SA with new eyes

2009-03-09 00:00

A decade away from a fast-changing country like ours renders one useless in some regards but empowered in others. There are many things I sometimes cannot understand, despite their undeniable familiarity (the African National Congress being a good case in point). There are others which I immediately grasp as a logical development of what existed 10 years previously. The most pleasant bits are the surprises: the proof of change in our country that sometimes catches the eye.

One palpable change for me now is the number of people of colour on TV, particularly in advertisements. I know that this is more an indication of the clever targeting of marketing strategists, than of any great social change. Nevertheless, the fact that the markets have changed, and that a new demographic defines the target audience, is interesting in itself.

I try hard to explain to my children what it was like to be raised in a country where the sight of a person of colour on TV was rare and, without fail, a conversation piece. One of my first memories of a black person on the SABC was Huggy Bear in the Starsky and Hutch series. Unsurprisingly, he was a strange-walking, odd-talking stereotype of an African-American and, like BA Baracus of the A-Team, a bit sinister and threatening, and perhaps reflective of how the United States media struggled at that time to come to terms with race. There were no darker-skinned detective heroes, but loads of drug-dealers, pimps and murderers. There was certainly no Oprah Winfrey in those days. And there were no adverts that I can recall with black middle-class families driving SUVs or eating the Colonel’s secret herbs and spices.

When I first saw Sidney Poitier in Guess Who’s coming to Dinner, and in To Sir with Love, two award-winning films with interesting race-related themes made in 1967, I was amazed by the fact that an outstanding actor of colour who had actually won an Oscar in 1963, had remained unknown to me.

The brilliance, poise and dignity of Poitier stood out in stark contrast to the inherent badness embodied by the ubiquitous “black” villain. It was a wonderful and memorable experience, much delayed by the nonsensical racism of our censors. The need for such censorship must have made complete sense to the powers that were, but like all deprivation it only rendered us more hungry for forbidden fruit.

One delight for our deprived eyes was videotapes of BBC documentaries smuggled in from the United Kingdom. One such video had an excellent exposé by the Panorama team of goings-on in apartheid South Africa. Whoever recorded it left the tape running and this oversight gave me my first glimpse of the West Indian cricket team of 1984 in action. Whereas the SABC’s steady diet of overweight locals such as Henry Fotheringham and Alan Kourie and supposedly fast bowlers like Clive Rice did nothing for my disregard for an apparently boring game, my first sight of the athletic Malcolm Marshall, the majestic Vivian Richards and that most natural of all leaders, Clive Lloyd, invoked in me a passion for cricket I never imagined I had. I wonder if the team was actually incredible or if their value to me became vastly increased by the fact that I was not given access to them by the SABC. Cricket fundis assure me that the former is the case, but it did help that the SABC never once mentioned the best cricket team, ever.

As a child, I remember hearing the name Mohammed Ali incessantly. He must have been the most spoken about invisible boxer of my generation. I heard of his incredible achievements but I never saw him at work. He fascinated me and I read every scrap of info that I could lay my hands on. I saw pictures of Ali in books and read of his wonderful use of the English language, but I never saw him on TV. I saw Gerrie Coetzee, Kallie Knoetze, Jimmy Abbot and Mike Schutte, but no Ali. This deprivation and the thirst to see him transformed my first Ali fight into a religious experience. I wonder still, if we had grown up with Ali on our TV screens, whether he would have made such an impression.

My children have no way of appreciating the deprivation we endured, not only as darker-skinned people, but as a nation. As much as I was deprived of Ali, my privileged lighter-skinned compatriots suffered the same fate.

What a strange bunch they must have been: the people who made these bizarre decisions, to deny the existence of Poitier, to ignore the West Indian cricket team, to prevent Ali from getting on SABC. I heard once that they also censored the Bible and Shakespeare. How they must hurt now. We who were deprived are having a feast. I wonder what they are doing ?

• Kamal Singh is a former activist and development worker who now runs his own transport company called SoWhere2 in Johannesburg.

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