Apollo 11, apartheid and television: A story of a culture left behind

Television came into focus in South Africa in a time of religious and political upheaval, and unlike other countries whom readily accepted the new technology, the Prime Minister at the time, Hendrik Verwoerd compared the television to an atomic bomb, warning his country that the modern device would cause destruction and it was the governments job to “watch for any dangers to the people, both spiritual and physical” (Van Vuuren 2004 p. 12). Driven by religious views the government decided that it would partake and allow television into South Africa ‘over their dead body’; and with Christianity being a major factor in South African culture, followed by 89.7% of the population during the 60’s (Louw and Mersham 2001, p. 304) the general consensus found television to be a modern evil and should be ‘verboten’ (criminal technology under apartheid).

The first landing on the moon by Apollo 11 in 1969 reignited this debate; South Africa was one of the few countries who were unable to watch the event live and instead millions of South African families huddled around a radio to listen to the moonwalk. The event created international criticism as South Africa was the last industrialized, Western country in the world yet to introduce television (Harrison and Ekman 1976 quoted in Van Vuuren, p. 14).

Newspapers remarked that the moon landing was the last straw demanding change as the “situation is becoming a source of embarrassment for the country” (Nixon 1999). Due to overwhelming public demand the government sought to quell local discontent by arranging limited viewings of the landing, permitting South Africans to watch the 15 minute recorded footage in local cinemas or schools.

My grandma, 27 at the time recalls attending the screening at a local cinema complex with her first husband; she remembers the event as a glamorous occasion and recalls getting dressed in her best pearls and spending hours to get her beehive just right for the momentous occasion. She recalls gliding into the cinema and for fifteen minutes feeling integrated with the wider world that surrounded her.

While my grandma was one of the more affluent citizens, middle class citizens lined up at a planetarium, Monday, Wednesday and Friday for whites and Tuesday and Thursday for blacks. She recalls the turnout being immense with heavy police presence to control the unruly crowd who had been waiting for several hours outside in the rain. A family friend recalls his father telling him about the moment he entered the barricaded enclosure with twenty other people and being seated on collapsible metal chairs, when the velvet curtain slid back and the television was revealed he recalls his father describing the lunar landing on bizarre black box in the center of the room.

A few years later on 5 May 1975 experimental broadcasts began in the main cities but it wasn’t until 5 January 1976 that a nationwide service was set to commence (Van Vuuren 2004 p. 22). My grandma remembers the first time she owned a television, it was the summer of 1977 in the family owned franchise called ‘Wimpy’, the Wimpy CEO had demanded that all stores should implement a television in the restaurant as part of a sales gimmick to draw customers in.

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Which according to Nan it did, as people would just buy a plate of fries or coffee (or the cheapest item) and spend all day watching the television; she recalls families bringing their children after school regularly to watch their favorite children shows, a favorite of which is ‘Haas Das’ which you can watch below.

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Watching television was a social occasion as my mum remembers as a child playing on the street at one instance and at 6 the streets being bare as each child would run to the nearest house with a TV to watch their favorite scheduled shows. At this time there was only one channel SABC1, controlled by the South African Broadcasting Corporation (SABC) meaning that audiences were affected by scheduling practices (Eastman 1998 quoted in Curthoys, p. 84) and planned their viewing around these times. The scheduling was roughly as follows:

6 am : News
7 am – 9am : Children morning shows
10 am – 3 pm: Soap Operas (for housewives – American: especially Dallas was a favorite)
4 pm – 6pm: Children after school shows
7pm – 8pm: Family orientated shows (Game shows- see link below, South African dramas)
*At 8 sign appears to inform that adult viewing is commencing (children would go to bed)
9pm – 10pm: Scheduled movie (due to strong censorship films such as Blue Lagoon was banned)
*10 pm sign appears that channel has ended and would restart at 6 am

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Initially there was only 37 hours of programming a week on this channel of which a majority relied on local content as the British Actors’ Equity Association and Australia started a boycott of programme sales to South Africa, due to South Africa’s apartheid policies; meaning that South African TV was dominated by programming from the United States, and it was only after the end of apartheid that the boycott was lifted and non-US programming became much more widely available.

“Watching television is a major feature of modern life in developed countries and, increasingly in developing countries” (Barwise and Ehrenberg, 1988 quoted in Curthoys, p.92)

While South African TV might have had a late start, being only 40 years old, it is catching up as it began digital transmissions (DTV) in 2013 and plans to have 100% digital coverage (switch off all remaining analogue transmitters) by 2015; a process which Australia achieved earlier this year (Department of Communications, 2014).

Since then South African TV has caught up immensely with its western counterparts having a free-to-air commercial channel (e.tv), in addition to the SABC’s three channels (SABC 1, SABC 2, SABC 3) and a privately owned subscription channel MNet which allows viewers access to CNN international, BBC World News and Sky News so that they never miss a global news event again.


Australian Government, ‘Digital TV in Australia’, Department of Communication, accessed 9/08/2014, http://www.communications.gov.au/television/digital_tv_in_australia

Curthoys, A 1991, ‘Television before television’, Continuum: The Australian Journal of Media & Culture, Vol 4, No. 2, pp. 87 – 93
Louw, E , Mersham, G 2001, ‘Packing for Perth: The Growth of a Southern African Diaspora’, Asian and Pacific Migration Journal, Vol 10 , No.2, pp 303–333.

Nixon, R 1999, ‘Apollo 11, Apartheid and TV’, The Atlantic, accessed 7/08/2014, http://www.theatlantic.com/past/docs/issues/99jul/9907apartheidtv.htm

Van Vuuren, D 2004, ‘Radio and Television Audiences in South Africa: 1994–2002’ in Communication : South African Journal for Communication Theory and Research, Vol. 30, No. 2, pp. 1-23


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