Shades of grey

By Ian Johnstone In Historical

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Anti-Springbok Tour protesters at Rugby Park, Hamilton, in July 1981. Photo/NZH

In December, like millions of other TV viewers, I watched as South Africans mourned Nelson Mandela’s death and celebrated his gift of freedom. But quite often, my thoughts went back almost 40 years, when black South Africans’ freedom seemed an impossible dream, and TV coverage of the country was rare.

In April 1976, after many requests, the South African Government gave a TV1 film crew, including me, permission to film there. Andy Leslie’s All Blacks would soon be touring, and perhaps Prime Minister John Vorster’s advisers assumed most Kiwis supported their policy of apartheid, which held 20 million blacks in servitude for the benefit of five million whites.

It was my first time to film in a police state, where nobody could really trust anyone else. Although we could not get near Mandela, imprisoned on Robben Island, many other leaders, black and white, were prepared to risk laws against free speech and talk in front of our camera. Writers Donald Woods and Alan Paton, churchmen Desmond Tutu and Beyers Naudé, and college and university students (we insisted they remain nameless) spoke with passion and surprising good humour about apartheid and their hopes for its end.

But one speaker, Hector Ncokazi, a politician from the Transkei, was very angry – and very brave. Blazing into the camera lens, he told me the patience of his black countrymen and women was almost exhausted; if the white government did not come to its senses and do away with punitive race- based policies, black South Africans would have no option but to rise up and take power. We don’t want that, he said, but if we have to, we’ll do it – and we have the numbers. We will win.

Police Commissioner Bob Walton (left) and Prime Minister Robert Muldoon watching videos of the protests. Photo/NZH

On a Friday three weeks later, back home in TV1’s Avalon headquarters, the film editor and I assembled sequences and interviews for Sunday night’s scheduled documentary South Africa – The Black Future. We knew it would rate well. Few Kiwis had seen the harshness of apartheid. The evidence we had gathered in interviews and from segregated townships, buses, beaches, cinemas and simple, silly incidents such as a cafe owner’s refusal to sell me a hamburger because “you’ve got a black man in your car” was compelling. It was obvious apartheid ran against every New Zealand value and could not be sustained or supported. To drive home the point, we ended the film with Ncokazi’s statement – a powerful, chilling closer. With the 30-minute film all ready for broadcast, I cycled happily home.

At 3am, I woke with Ncokazi’s words burning through my head. I realised that any South African official hearing them would charge him with treason, which carried the death sentence. It was good to know Ncokazi’s words wouldn’t be heard in South Africa. But, but, what if …?

At 7am I rode to Avalon, plonked the film on the editing machine, cut out Ncokazi’s statement, changed the programme duration to 29 minutes, and went home.

That evening, my wife and I went to dinner with John Forbis, a writer/broadcaster who did agency work. As we downed a second generous glass of his scotch, he said, “I’m looking forward to your show tomorrow … see, I’m all set up to record.” In his study he showed me camera and microphone placed in front of his TV set (the technology was primitive in those days). “I do some work for the South African Embassy. They’re keen for a copy of South Africa – The Black Future to send back to Pretoria.” I excused myself, went into his front garden and threw up over the gardenias.

I don’t know what happened to Ncokazi. If he continued to deliver his grim warning, apartheid police and security bullies probably carted him off – or even killed him. But I hope he was still there to jump for joy when Mandela walked free.


Another strong reverie about TV and apartheid South Africa took me back to 1981, just before the Springboks arrived here for their tour, strongly supported and equally strongly opposed across New Zealand.

Again, I was back in the Avalon building; this time in the cafeteria with another 400 TV1 employees. We were quiet, tense. We had serious business to consider.

TV1 management had agreed to send live coverage of the Springboks’ New Zealand matches by satellite to the South African Broadcasting Corporation, for transmission across South Africa, beginning with the weekend match against Waikato.

Incensed by the decision, anti-tour members of the local branch of the Public Service Association had called the cafeteria meeting seeking a majority vote in favour of their proposal that staff should refuse to transmit rugby coverage to South Africa, and if management arranged transmission in any other way, all employees would immediately go on strike.

Reporter Ian Johnstone in 1978.

The debate was fierce. Coverage of the matches, said the proposal supporters, would delight South Africa’s rugby-mad whites and comfort them with the false impression that the racially selected Springboks were welcomed by all New Zealanders. And the idea that New Zealand was happy to co-operate with the ruling white minority would dismay and discourage the millions of black and coloured people who were held down by apartheid and hoped for support and encouragement from fair-minded New Zealanders.

That argument meant a lot to me. Five years earlier, Tutu, Woods, Naudé, Ncokazi, Cassiem Jabaar and many other South Africans had persuaded me that the best way for my country to show its support for those imprisoned by apartheid was to refuse to play rugby against racially selected teams. If I supported transmission of the matches, I would betray them.

But, but, but … I sat in a corner, head in hands. I was a reporter, not a censor. I had no right to impose my personal moral judgment or sense of loyalty on a decision like this. With many misgivings, I voted against the motion, as did most of my colleagues. The tour matches would be sent to South Africa.

On July 25, 1981, when the police cancelled the Waikato match after determined protesters linked arms and swarmed onto Rugby Park to show their hatred of apartheid, I was at home, watching it unfold on TV. And so were millions of people in South Africa, for whom the effect of that half-hour of live television was the opposite of what we’d all expected.

The privileged white minority, surprised to see such committed disapproval from so many New Zealanders, were dismayed and discouraged, while the millions of South Africans who dreamed of an end to apartheid, among them Mandela, were heartened and encouraged.

It can be awkward and painful making choices between black and white and shades of grey. But I guess if we’re to get anywhere near the truth, we have to keep the media open so people see what happens and not what someone else thinks they should see.

NZ On Screen has excerpts from a related programme, South Africa – The White Future. Click here to view.

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