Journalism in South Africa During Apartheid

Jannie Botes

Assistant Professor, Program on Negotiations and Conflict Management, University of Baltimore

Interviewed by Julian Portilla, 2003

This rough transcript provides a text alternative to audio. We apologize for occasional errors and unintelligible sections (which are marked with ???).

Television came very late to South Africa, in 1975, which is a whole history in itself. I was one of the people who got into that field as a very young person. I was 25 when I got into television and anchored when I was very young. It had to do with the fact that the apartheid government wanted to keep television away from South Africa because they understood the socialization aspects of television, but that's another long story.

More importantly my days as a journalist in South Africa and especially as an anchor made me very keenly aware of the intersection between the media and the conflict. In those days the African National Congress, the ANC, the party of Nelson Mandela, was banned and that meant that we had to cover the major conflict in the country without being able to quote Mandela while he was in jail, or have members of the ANC on television or cited or quoted in newspapers. So we had to get really ingenious in terms of how to cover the story. When Nightline came to South Africa in 1985 for a week of reporting on the conflict in South Africa, they had a similar problem.

By law, they had to get special permission from the government to cover some of the ANC people because they weren't broadcasting in South Africa, they were broadcasting in Washington, but they still did not have major ANC member interviewees because they were either banned or they were outside of the country. Nelson Mandela was in jail. So the major representative of the out party, the party not now in control to use conflict resolution theory for the moment, the ANC party being the apartheid government of South Africa at the time. The chief representative that they had of the ANC party was Bishop Tutu, although he was not a politician but he was the official spokesman, or rather unofficial spokesman of black people in South Africa. So for those shows with the minister of foreign affairs at the time Pik Botha as the official response for the government in the debate that was held on that first show, "The Other Side" representing black South Africa by Desmond Tutu.

I was always keenly aware of the fact that we could not have the impact on a story that other people could because our hands were tied behind our backs. It was very interesting to me that Nightline did a lot for us because South Africans then said, "Why don't you do this kind of intense journalism?" They said this because the Nightline shows were broadcast on South African television, after the cuts were edited out that were too critical for the government from their view. All that made me keenly aware of the shortcomings of South African journalism and working for them unfortunately at the time, but you couldn't work for anybody else. The only people who had television were the government so I worked for, in essence, not the government, but government controlled television.

So, then I left South Africa, which was due in part to my frustration with the lack of print in South Africa, it was very vibrant in terms of what it could be in spite of these problems that we had with laws that made it very restricted. However television was very different because television directly impacted these fields by the government. There was not private television. So jumping ahead, these frustrations made me leave journalism.