August 31, 1987
South Africa is winning the war of images, and that is changing the way the entire world looks at the human struggle in that faraway land. In the name of more accurate and sensitive coverage, perhaps the time has come for Western news organizations, specifically American network news operations, to say ”enough” to the Government in Pretoria and to pick up our marbles and go home.
The current state of emergency regulations imposed by the Government have now been in effect for more than a year. These restrictions severely limit what publications and broadcasts can say about events in the townships or homelands or anywhere else there.
More significantly for television, the rigid prohibitions extend to pictures. Here’s what that means: We cannot broadcast or even shoot pictures of any unrest, which is defined by South African authorities. We cannot show police or security forces acting in their official capacity trying to ”keep the peace.” Our cameras are not supposed to be within telescopic range of such events. The point is not what the media can no longer do, it is what the public no longer sees.
So the recent strike by black miners against the gold and diamond industries is reported almost as a routine labor story. Never mind that workers have been herded out of company owned housing and sent away. Never mind that miners have been shot and killed by authorities under mysterious circumstances. Because we cannot see pictures of these incidents, it is harder to comprehend what is going on.
The American consciousness about South Africa, I believe, was formed and maintained by the constant television images of brutal repression in many forms: the image of the padded, faceless policeman, club raised; the image of a black youth with fear covering every inch of his face as he throws a rock. These were constant and common images, and now they are missing.
One day in October 1985, an innocuous truck, driven by whites, moved ostentatiously through the streets of Cape Town. It was out of place and provocative, and when black kids began throwing rocks, the truck stopped and armed police jumped out of boxes on the back of the truck.
At CBS, we always referred to that day as the ”Trojan Horse” incident. The surprise attack, the beatings and arrests were captured in frightening detail on videotape by a CBS cameraman who risked great injury to keep his camera rolling. Such were the risks our South African colleagues took daily. Those pictures were broadcast that night on the CBS Evening News and were seen by millions of Americans. By the next morning, they were all over European television.
They are called tight shots. The camera moves in close enough to see the expression on a face, even the look in an eye. In South Africa, they are the narrow, harrowing images of oppression. If a picture is worth a thousand words, television can do what column inch after column inch of newspaper copy cannot. Television can raise the consciousness of a nation.
These images are no longer on American television because we cannot broadcast them, for fear of being expelled from South Africa. We play an insidious game of video appeasement with the Government. Walk up to the line. Don’t cross it. Show as much as you think you can get away with, never more.
While we compromise to keep our credentials in South Africa, we no longer truly cover events as we used to. As a result, Americans’ passion for that story, the identification with the human struggle and the underdog have receded.
I wonder if the American people wouldn’t be better served if the networks were thrown out of South Africa or just left on their own. In this day of quality home video, there would probably be many sources for pictures of the events that we can no longer legally record or broadcast. We would get pictures, a colleague once pointed out, from every cowboy with a camera. The gloves would be off. No more deals with the Government. We smuggle pictures out of the wilderness of Afghanistan. We could do the same in South Africa.
Pretoria knows that. Perhaps that’s why we’re still there.