Officially television came to South Africa on 5 January 1976, and I believe we were amongst the last countries in the world to experience this wonder of “entertainment and information”, although in our case it was a wonder of propaganda and local rubbish. We had been watching short test transmissions since May the previous year, mostly in shop windows, because very few people took the risk of buying a television set until they were absolutely sure that the SABC and the National Party wasn’t going to change their minds, or be influenced by the verkramptes in the censorship board. Rhodesia had TV before South Africa did and yes, it is true, we did all gather in front of the shop windows to gawk at the goggle box in amazement.
And woe betide any shop which did not turn up the volume so that we could hear what was being said! I recall seeing episodes of the “The Bennie Hill Show” and “Musikladen” (A German music programme) while sitting on bus stop bench outside the Russel’s furniture store in Mayfair. We did not think it strange at the time, because we were not the only ones who did it. Just before the big switch on day arrived my family purchased a TV, it was a 61 cm “monochrome” Telefunken which we paid the unearthly sum of about R350-00 for (payable on HP over 24 months). Colour TV’s were out of our budget range; the Rolls Royce of TV’s being the Sony cabinet model which I seem to recall cost about R700-00. A very nice young chap installed a VHF aerial for us (complete with earth spike too) and when the big day arrived we were there waiting for TV to start.
Remember that opening logo? how do you describe it? some people said it resembled a toilet bowl, make your own decision on that one. I do know it had the colours of the national flag on it accompanied by an impressively boring signature tune. I only saw it years later in colour so I could be pulling your leg. The first presenters were Dorianne Berry and Heinrich Marnitz and there were only 37,5 hours of TV per week and each evening the broadcast was half English and half Afrikaans, alternating each day.
Anyway, here the 4 of us sat staring at the idiot box. Amongst the stuff we saw in those early days has long slipped out of my mind, but most people will recall “Haas Das se Nuuskas” (YouTube link) which featured the voice of Riaan Cruywagen (soon to be stalwart newsreader) and his sidekick Piet Muis. On Tuesdays the award winning documentary “The World At War” was shown. This stunning series was preceded by a local documentary called “Ons Argitektoniese Erfenis” which would not have won an award even if it was the only TV programme available. We still had much to learn in South Africa about TV, the Equity ban on South Africa meant that we were denied all of the good BBC material available. Strict government censorship meant that we were denied anything even vaguely considered risqué, and our news bulletins would have a pro National Party slant to them.
It took quite a long time before our first TV advert was shown, the winner being for “Big T Beef Burgers”. Our first “real” American soap/drama was “Rich Man Poor Man”; the country ground to a halt when it was on and we all hated Falconetti with a passion. “Dallas” was still in the future and we never even realised that somebody would shoot JR and that Pamela had such long drawn out dreams. Our local series were a mixed batch; “Willem”, “Doktor Doktor” and “The Villagers” were amongst the first ones made in this country. They were amateurish in their concept and the stories were often full of holes and improbabilities. However, the Afrikaans dramas were always better than the English ones and we were all avid fans of them. Many of the kiddies programmes ran for years, “Wiellie Wallie” with Bennie Boekwurm seeing to have survived the many axes which fell over the years (YouTube link). Naturally sport featured quite high in the priorities of the SABC, although it was mostly rugby, cricket, boxing, horse racing and occasionally soccer. A whole new crowd of people came into our living rooms too, Michael De Morgan, Heinrich Marnitz, Dorianne Berry, Nigel Kane, David Hall-Green, Betty Kemp, and a few old faces from Springbok Radio made the transition to acting too. Much of the best stuff which was available from the BBC was dubbed into Afrikaans. Programmes like “Thunderbirds” (“Redding Internasionaal”), “Space 1999” (“Alpha 1999”), “Sweeney Todd” (“Blitspatrolie”) and numerous others all suffered the hand of the SABC’s dubbing department. The biggest joke was when “Rupert the Bear” was dubbed into English, although it was already in English when they bought it!
Pop music on TV was rare, but eventually they flighted “Pop Shop” to try placate the hordes of clamouring teens but it was a poor attempt, only 20 minutes long with at least 5 of that being the logo music. Alas, we would have to rely on the radio for our musical interludes, but that’s another story.
Back then SABC had no competition in the TV department. When Bophuthatswana became an “Independent state” they launched their own TV station called “BOP-TV” in 1984, and it was so much better than the boring old SABC that we were watching. Launched on UHF it could be watched if you installed a UHF antenna and were in the overflow area that included Mayfair and parts of Johannesburg. The government was not amused and the signal was altered as much as possible to exclude everywhere but Bophuthatswana and Soweto. BOP-TV was a revelation because it really showed what a small operation was capable of. The SABC shut it down in 2003.
When the video machine arrived it changed our lives because we could now hire movies and record off the TV (especially pop music), although we only acquired a video machine in 1984. I bought my first TV in 1984 too, and it was a Philips monochrome portable. Colour portables were quite rare and expensive though, and we were never able to get our hands on those small handheld TV’s that we often saw in the movies. I disposed of my portable in 2014 when I cleared out my furniture. It was still working and had never really seen a lot of use.
The image below shows the popular Sony Cabinet model and the image on the right is a Telekunken mono portable that could be powered by batteries.
It is now many years later and I have seen so much mediocre and bad TV that it all seems to blend into nothingness. Strange, there is a whole generation that has not known how it was before TV came to South Africa. Watching reruns of shows like “Night Rider” or “The A-Team” makes me wonder how starved we must have been for entertainment. “The World at War” has been back on TV at least 5 times since 1976 and I still enjoy it today. Today TV in South Africa still has a ruling party slant to it and the only difference is that the programmes are a different class of drivel, and there are 4 free channels to not watch instead of 1. Unfortunately mismanagement has driven the SABC almost into bankruptcy and there are those who say that would be a good thing too.
In 2007 it was announced that South Africa would be broadcasting in digital by 1 November 2008, Unfortunately due to incompetence and mismanagement digital migration has still not happened as at February 2020 and South Africa will be amongst the last countries in the world to use analogue transmission instead of digital.
I last watched South African TV in 2004, and even now do not even watch the BBC; I still prefer a good book or Netflix. TV does not really interest me, and reality TV is one of the most inane ideas to come out of the TV world.
There is quite a lot of material out there about South Africa’s introduction to the world of TV. A very good breakdown of history of TV in South Africa may be found at Wikipedia and there is a short clip of that first broadcast on YouTube. The first TV advert in South Africa is also available on YouTube.
DRW © 2020. Created 26/02/2020. This post is really about how I experienced TV in South Africa and does not reflect official policy and is not an official history of TV in South Africa. It was first posted on AAS in 2010 and blogged on 17/05/2014. TV Schedule from Family Radio and TV Magazine 26 June – 2 July 1978.