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Television in South Africa was first introduced in 1976. Despite being the most economically advanced country on the continent, South Africa was among the last countries in Africa to introduce television broadcasting to its population.


Opposition to introduction

The country's white minority government, under the National Party, viewed television as a potential threat to its control of the broadcasting media, even though the state-controlled South African Broadcasting Corporation (SABC) had a virtual monopoly on radio broadcasting. It also saw the new medium as a threat to Afrikaans and the Afrikaner volk, giving undue prominence to English, and creating unfair competition for the Afrikaans press.

Prime Minister Hendrik Verwoerd compared television with atom bombs and poison gas, claiming that "they are modern things, but that does not mean they are desirable. The government has to watch for any dangers to the people, both spiritual and physical."

Dr Albert Hertzog, Minister for Posts and Telegraphs at the time, said that TV would come to South Africa "over [his] dead body," denouncing it as "a miniature bioscope [cinema] over which parents would have no control." He also argued that "South Africa would have to import films showing race mixing; and advertising would make (non-white) Africans dissatisfied with their lot." The Dutch Reformed Churchmarker also proclaimed the new medium as the "devil’s own box, for disseminating communism and immorality".

However, many white South Africans, including Afrikaners, did not share Hertzog's reactionary views, and regarded the hostility towards what he called "the little black box" as absurd. When Neil Armstrong became the first man to set foot on the moon in 1969, South Africa was one of the few countries unable to watch the event live, prompting one newspaper to remark that "The moon film has proved to be the last straw… The situation is becoming a source of embarrassment for the country." In response to public demand, the government arranged limited viewings of the landing, in which people were able to watch recorded footage for fifteen minutes.

The opposition United Party pointed out that less economically advanced countries in Africa had already introduced television, while neighbouring Southernmarker Rhodesia had introduced it as early as 1961.

In the absence of television in South Africa, a radio version of the British television series The Avengers was produced by Sonovision for SABC's commercial network, Springbok Radio, in 1972. While it only ran for eighteen months, the radio series proved highly popular.

Slow introduction

In 1971, the SABC was finally allowed to introduce a television service. Initially, the proposal was for two television channels, one in English and Afrikaans, aimed at white audiences, and another, known as TV Bantu, aimed at black viewers., but when television was finally introduced, there was only one channel. Experimental broadcasts in the main cities began on 5 May 1975, before nationwide service commenced on 5 January 1976.

In common with most of Western Europe, South Africa used the PAL system for colour television, being only the second terrestrial television service in Africa to launch with a colour-only service. (Zanzibarmarker in Tanzania was the first territory in Africa to do so in 1973.) The Government, advised by SABC technicians, took the view that colour television would have to be available so as to avoid a costly migration from black-and-white broadcasting technology.

Initially, the TV service was funded entirely through a licence fee as in the UKmarker, but advertising began in 1978.

In 1981, a second channel was introduced, broadcasting in African languages such as Zulu, Xhosa, Sotho and Tswana. The main channel, then called TV1, was divided evenly between English and Afrikaans. Subtitling on TV was almost non-existent, the assumption being that people had no desire to watch programmes in languages they did not speak.

In 1986, the SABC's monopoly was challenged by the launch of a subscription-based service known as M-Net, backed by a consortium of newspaper publishers. However, as part of its licensing restrictions, it could not broadcast news programmes, which were still the preserve of the SABC, although M-Net started broadcasting a current affairs programme "Carte Blanche" in 1988. As the state-controlled broadcaster, the SABC was accused of bias towards the apartheid regime, giving only limited coverage to opposition politicians.


Imported programming

Owing to South Africa's apartheid policies, the British Actors' Equity Association started a boycott of programme sales to South Africa. This, combined with a similar boycott by Australia, meant that South African TV was dominated by programming from the United Statesmarker, and it was only after the end of apartheid that the boycott was lifted and non-US programming became much more widely available.

The availability of US programming was partly the result of a co-operative venture with Universal Studios in 1980 where an episode of Knight Rider was filmed in the Namib desertmarker in South West Africa , and local acting talent was involved in the filming. As a direct consequence, the SABC received the right to broadcast in American programming syndicated from Universal Studios/MCA, and through them purchased material from other studios.

Many imported programmes were dubbed into Afrikaans, the first being the British series The Sweeney, known in Afrikaans as Blitspatrollie. However, in order to accommodate English speakers, the SABC began to simulcast the original soundtrack of US series such as Miami Vice and Beverly Hills, 90210 on an FM radio service called Radio 2000. This also applied to Germanmarker and Dutchmarker programmes dubbed in Afrikaans, such as the Dutch soap opera Medisch Centrum West, known as Hospitaal Wes Amsterdam.

Local programming

There are currently many South African-produced programmes which are shown across Africa and around the world. For example, SABC 3's scifi/drama series Charlie Jade, a co-production between the Imaginarium and Canadamarker's CHUMmarker, has been broadcast in over 20 countries, including Japan, France, Korea, and in the US on the SciFi Channel. M-Net's soap opera Egoli: Place of Gold, has been shown in 43 African countries, and has even been exported to Venezuelamarker, where it has been dubbed in Spanish. The drama series Shaka Zulu, based on the true story of the Zulu warrior King Shaka, was shown around the world in the 1980s, but this was only possible because the SABC had licensed the series to a US distributor. The Zulu-language comedy 'Sgudi 'Snaysi achieved SABC's highest viewing figures in the late 1980s, and was shown in Zimbabwemarker and Swazilandmarker.

Political change

Following the easing of media censorship under State President F.W. de Klerk, the SABC's news coverage moved towards being more objective, although many feared that once the African National Congress came to power, the SABC would revert to type and serve the government of the day. However, the SABC now also carried CNN International's TV news bulletins, thereby giving South African viewers new sources of international news.

In 1996, two years after the ANC came to power, the SABC reorganised its three TV channels, so as to be more representative of different language groups. This resulted in the downgrading of Afrikaans' status by reducing its airtime, a move that angered many Afrikaans speakers.

New services

The launch of PanAmSat 4 saw the introduction of KU-band broadcasting on 2 October 1995, soon after Multichoice would launch DStv. Two years later the SABC would launch its ill-fated satellite channels, AstroPlus and AstroSport which were intended to catapult the corporation into the pay-tv market under the moniker of AstroSat but a lack of financial backers and initial insistence on using analogue technology as opposed to digital technology resulted in failure.

The SABC's monopoly on free-to-air terrestrial television was broken with the introduction of privately-owned channel in 1998. also provided the first local television news service outside of the SABC stable, although M-Net's parent company, Multichoice offered services such as CNN, BBC World and Sky News via direct-to-home satellite as part of its paid offering.

The first 24-hour local business channel, CNBC Africa was launched in 2007 with eight hours of local programming and the remainder pulled from other CNBC affiliates. CNBC Africa competes with Summit, a business television station owned by media group Avusa, which broadcasts only during evening prime time. Both stations are available only on the Multichoice direct-to-home platform, although the inclusion of CNBC Africa in the offering of new satellite players seems a near certainty.

In November 2007 regulators announced the award of four new broadcast licences after a process that saw 18 applications. The successful applicants were Walking on Water, a dedicated Christian service, On Digital Media, a broad-spectrum entertainment offering, e-Sat, a satellite service from and Telkom Media, a company 66% owned by telecommunications operator Telkom. The Multichoice licence was renewed at the same time.

E-Sat decided not to launch services but rather adopt a content provider business model. ESat launced E-News, a 24 hour news channel, in 2008. Telkom Media decided in early 2009 not to pursue the launch of television services as its parent company Telkom did not believe adequate investment returns could be achieved. The remaining licencees are expected to be operational by late 2009 and all will operate direct-to-home services using standard small aperture satellite dishes. Telkom Media was also granted an IPTV licence.

Digital technology

The first digital television implementation in South Africa was a satellite-based system launched by pay-TV operator Multichoice in 1995. On 22 February 2007 the South African government announced that the country's public TV operators would be broadcasting in digital by 1 November 2008, followed by a three year dual-illumination period which would end on 1 November 2011.

On 11 August 2008 the Department of Communications announced its Digital Migration Policy. The policy will govern the switchover from analogue to digital transmission, and states that the Department will provide funding to the national signal distributor Sentech to begin the migration process according to the published timetable. The timetable is phased as follows:

  • 8 Aug 2008 - MultiChoice launches South Africa’s first HD channel (DSTV channel 170)
  • 1 Nov 2008 - begin digital transmissions (DTV)
  • 31 Dec 2009 - 50% of households receive DTV
  • 31 Dec 2010 - 80% of households receive DTV
  • 1 Nov 2011 - ~100% digital coverage and switch-off of all remaining analogue transmitters

During the period 2008-2011, Sentech will transmit both analogue and digital signals in what is known as a dual-illumination period. Households not already using digital televisions will need to purchase a set-top box (STB) in order to continue receiving a television signal. The government plans to subsidise poorer households by 70% of the purchase price of the STB. The STBs will be manufactured locally by a number of different South African companies, the largest of which is Altech, a major local electronics company that also manufactures the STBs for Multichoice.

The government's stated goal is to have digital television as well as mobile television up and running in time for the 2010 FIFA World Cup tournament to be hosted by South Africa.

Satellite television

South African-based Multichoice's DStv is the main digital satellite television provider in sub-Saharan Africa, broadcasting principally in English, but also in Portuguese, German and Afrikaans. Another entrant into the satellite television circuit in Africa is MyTvAfrica, a subsidiary of Dubai based Strong Technologies. Satellite television has been far more successful in Africa than cable, primarily because the infrastructure for cable television does not exist and would be expensive to install since majority of Africans cannot afford paid cable television. Furthermore, maintaining a cable network is expensive due to the need to cover larger and more sparsely populated areas though there are some terrestrial pay-TV and MMDS services. The launch of Free2view has made satellite TV available to the masses in Africa. Free2view currently broadcasts MSNBC as its exclusive news channel and is about to roll out additional channels.

See also


  1. Bernard Cros in Why South Africa’s Television is only Twenty Years Old: Debating Civilisation, 1958-1969
  2. The Other Vast Wasteland, TIME, Nov. 20, 1964
  3. South African Government Information, 31 March 2008, Keynote address by the Minister of Trade and Industry, Mandisi Mpahlwa, at the launch of the revised film and television production incentive
  4. Cape Times, 4 May 1967, quoted in Contact, Vol 10 no 1, p4
  5. Sunday Times, 8 January 2007, From devil’s box to diversity: 30 years of SABC television
  6. Sunday Times, 7 July 1969, quoted in Why South Africa’s Television is only Twenty Years Old: Debating Civilisation, 1958-1969
  7. Apollo 11, Apartheid, and TV, Rob Nixon The Atlantic July 1999
  8. Why South Africa’s Television is only Twenty Years Old: Debating Civilisation, 1958-1969
  9. Avengers on the Radio
  10. Time Magazine, 10 May 1971 Apartheid Television
  11. A cracked mirror for a fractured land, Daily Dispatch, December 24, 1999
  12. Africa Film & TV 2000 Satisfying local demand
  13. Astrasat may be heading for the dump

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