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Starring Mandela and Cosby: Media and the End(s) of Apartheid

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Overview

During the worst years of apartheid, the most popular show on television in South Africa—among both Black and White South Africans—was The Cosby Show. Why did people living under a system built on the idea that Black people were inferior and threatening flock to a show that portrayed African Americans as comfortably mainstream? Starring Mandela and Cosby takes up this paradox, revealing the surprising impact of television on racial politics.

The South African government maintained a ban on television until 1976, and according to Ron Krabill, they were right to be wary of its potential power. The medium, he contends, created a shared space for communication in a deeply divided nation that seemed destined for civil war along racial lines. At a time when it was illegal to publish images of Nelson Mandela, Bill Cosby became the most recognizable Black man in the country, and, Krabill argues, his presence in the living rooms of white South Africans helped lay the groundwork for Mandela’s release and ascension to power.

Weaving together South Africa’s political history and a social history of television, Krabill challenges conventional understandings of globalization, offering up new insights into the relationship between politics and the media.

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Editorial Reviews

Graduate Program in International Affairs, The New School - Sean Jacobs

“This pathbreaking study of television in Apartheid South Africa is at once a fascinating history and a penetrating exploration how race, media, and globalization shape politics and culture in sometimes counterintuitive ways. It should change both the way we think about South Africa’s past and how we study the political dynamics of media in the present.”
author of Television Studies: The Basics - Toby Miller

“Ron Krabill has provided students of race, television, and cultural exchange with a new landmark that we all must read--and will all enjoy. In an era when we are told that race should not matter, TV is finished, and cultural exchange has been eased through YouTube, he brings us back to reality. Bravo!”
author of The Cinema of Apartheid - Keyan Tomaselli
“This is a wonderfully fluid, fluent, and extraordinarily well-written analysis. Krabill has immersed himself in his story and he provides a theoretically refreshing way of telling it. He senses the contextual experiential nuance and the local-global texture of events as they unfolded, and by locating his narrative within the analytical nexus between Mandela and Cosby, the U.S. and South Africa, he appeals to readers across disciplines.”
Journal of Modern African Studies - Corinna Arndt

“Krabill’s Starring Mandela and Cosby provides an unusual perspective on a phenomenon that may have been marginal in the bigger context of South Africa’s transition towards democracy, but nevertheless adds an interesting view to the study of communication in authoritarian systems.”
Toby Miller

“Ron Krabill has provided students of race, television, and cultural exchange with a new landmark that we all must read--and will all enjoy. In an era when we are told that race should not matter, TV is finished, and cultural exchange has been eased through YouTube, he brings us back to reality. Bravo!”—Toby Miller, author of Television Studies: The Basics

Sean Jacobs

“This pathbreaking study of television in Apartheid South Africa is at once a fascinating history and a penetrating exploration how race, media, and globalization shape politics and culture in sometimes counterintuitive ways. It should change both the way we think about South Africa’s past and how we study the political dynamics of media in the present.”—Sean Jacobs, Graduate Program in International Affairs, The New School

Keyan Tomaselli
“This is a wonderfully fluid, fluent, and extraordinarily well-written analysis. Krabill has immersed himself in his story and he provides a theoretically refreshing way of telling it. He senses the contextual experiential nuance and the local-global texture of events as they unfolded, and by locating his narrative within the analytical nexus between Mandela and Cosby, the U.S. and South Africa, he appeals to readers across disciplines.”—Keyan Tomaselli, author of The Cinema of Apartheid
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780226451886
  • Publisher: University of Chicago Press
  • Publication date: 9/15/2010
  • Pages: 200
  • Product dimensions: 6.10 (w) x 9.10 (h) x 0.70 (d)

Meet the Author

Ron Krabill is associate professor in the Interdisciplinary Arts & Sciences Program at the University of Washington Bothell and a member of the graduate faculty in the Department of Communication at the University of Washington Seattle.

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Read an Excerpt

Starring Mandela and Cosby

Media and the End(s) of Apartheid
By RON KRABILL

The University of Chicago Press

Copyright © 2010 The University of Chicago
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-226-45189-3


Chapter One

Structured Absences and Communicative Spaces

The central lesson of Gramsci's Prison Notebooks, [Stuart] Hall suggests, is precisely the importance of attending, with all the "pessimism of the intellect" at your command, to the specificity of a historical (and, one should add, geographical) conjuncture—namely, how diverse forces come together in particular ways to create a new political terrain. —Gillian Hart, Disabling Globalization

Each of the fence posts explored in this book—the introduction of television and the Soweto Uprising, the creation of "Black" channels and constitutional reform, the popularity of The Cosby Show and the States of Emergency, and the democratic transition of the SABC and the South African government—demonstrate key conjunctures at which the social history of television and the political history of South Africa intersect. However, observing moments of intersection and understanding the dynamics of those interactions are entirely different orders of analysis. To comprehend how television, and media more generally, helped shape the politics of late-apartheid South Africa, we need to develop a richer theoretical and methodological framework within which to work. This requirement becomes even more pressing if we want to comprehend the history narrated in this book not as a discreet case study of media and politics from the past, but as an instance of confluence shaping the present in which transnational media flows and processes of democracy converge within a globalizing world. This chapter examines the theoretical and methodological underpinnings of this project through three concepts that will recur throughout the book: hegemony, structured absence, and communicative space.

By arguing that television is best understood through the shared, transnational cultural space that the unique nature of the medium itself makes possible, though not inevitable, this work considers the relevance of not only critical-rational discourse within the so-called democratic (or democratizing) public sphere, but also the more emotive and less explicit implications of television, both in South Africa and elsewhere. Only by considering the shared space of communication formed by television can we identify the ways in which the medium facilitated the unexpected willingness of White South Africans to participate with Black South Africans in institutional politics and culture, thus smoothing the way for a political transition to formal democracy that was both surprisingly peaceful and predictably incomplete. South Africa provides a particularly rich lens through which to view transnational media flows, given the comparatively late introduction of television (in 1976, the 130th nation to introduce the medium) and the complex set of state-imposed restrictions and internationally imposed boycotts—both unevenly applied—that gave a unique shape to the apartheid mediascape. This work thereby engages with South Africa in order to challenge received notions of mass media in authoritarian or (post)colonial settings while simultaneously confronting crucial questions of globalization and democratization.

Hegemony and the End(s) of Apartheid

During the height of apartheid's repression in the mid-1980s, the key theoretical rubric through which many scholars of South Africa viewed the conflict was that of hegemony as articulated by the Italian revolutionary Antonio Gramsci in his Prison Notebooks, written during his incarceration by Mussolini's fascist regime. While the concept of hegemony became influential across global academic circles during this time, its appeal in the context of apartheid was particularly strong: here was a theorist/activist battling against a fascist state, trying to understand the ways in which the dominant ideology of the day had come to be understood as "common sense" by such a large number of his fellow countrymen and -women. Following the end of formal apartheid, however, hegemony has come to be rethought in South African scholarship—at times discarded, but at other times reworked into a more complex conceptualization that refocuses our attention on the nuances of Gramsci's thought.

As Kate Crehan and Gillian Hart have argued, Gramsci's concept of hegemony should be understood less as a question of varying degrees of strength and weakness in exercising social control—as something one does or does not have, or has a greater or lesser amount of—but rather as a set of problematics or processes. This approach emphasizes the inability of hegemony ever to become a fully closed, static circuit of power or cultural production; it will always contain weaknesses and contradictions that must be reconstructed. As Hart puts it, "Hegemony in this sense does not refer to ideological domination, manipulation, or indoctrination. Rather, it is most usefully understood as a contested political process ... understood in this way, hegemony is inherently fragile, and must be constantly renewed, recreated, defended, and modified. While by definition dominant, it is never total or exclusive."

This approach to the concept of hegemony allows the narrative to take on a significantly more complex project. My task in this book is not to prove that the medium of television did or did not challenge the hegemony of the South African regime or the racial project of apartheid, or even the degree to which it did or did not do so, but instead to examine the ways in which the communicative space of television helped shape the processes of hegemonic maintenance and decay within the racial project of the apartheid state. To reformulate the quote at the beginning of this chapter, how did the many diverse forces—televisual space, transnational media flows, state policy, processes of identification—come together in particular ways in late-apartheid South Africa to create a new political terrain that allowed for South Africa to end formal apartheid in the particular way that it did? This approach further allows a crucial follow-up question: in what ways does the crisis of the apartheid state and the transition to formal democracy constitute, simultaneously, both a challenge to and a reinscription of the racial project of the South African state? In other words, conceptualizing hegemony as a process, rather than a quality of power to be possessed, opens up the very real possibility—perhaps even likelihood—of simultaneous, contradictory (re)formations of White supremacy within our historical narratives, and of multiple historical trajectories (and multiple endings, or lack thereof) for apartheid itself.

Beyond Representation: Visibility, Invisibility and Structured Absence

Rather than seeking a strict causal chain from television through culture and identifications to politics, this study explores the layered interactions of these elements through an understanding of television as both cultural content and technological form in the period between its introduction and the inauguration of Mandela, the first democratically elected president of South Africa. At the center of these interactions are the two paradoxes high-lighted in the previous chapter: the profound yet never complete control over the medium of television by the apartheid regime; and the structured absences of Black South Africans in the apartheid-era political and social lives of White South Africans.

In Freaks Talk Back, Joshua Gamson convincingly displays the paradox of visibility and social power in his portrayal of sexual nonconformists in the world of television talk shows. As he demonstrates, visibility within the medium of television often operates as a double-edged sword for marginalized groups, offering the only outlet for visibility and expression, yet doing so in a context largely beyond their control. Although the presence of Black South Africans on South African television took a very different form than that of sexual nonconformists in the United States, Gamson nonetheless provides us with crucial insights for understanding the dual nature of visibility and representation on television.

Gamson offers us a problematic within which to work: what are the implications of the (re)presentation of marginalized groups in a setting not of their own making? He shows the many layers of rhetoric and politics that intersect with the process of cultural production within a particular genre—the talk show—to create profoundly ambivalent and at times contradictory results. By identifying some of the repercussions of visibility—whether through positive, negative, or somewhere in-between images—Gamson points the way toward an analysis that moves beyond representation without dismissing it.

Similar kinds of analyses have been brought to an understanding of portrayals of African Americans on television in the United States, most notably in a newfound appreciation for early pioneers on television shows, even if the characters to which they gave life were gross caricatures of African American life. For instance Donald Bogle, the author of Primetime Blues, claims that:

Black viewers might reject the nonsense of the scripts for some episodes of "Sanford and Son" or "The Jeffersons" or "Martin." Or the evasions of an otherwise moving series like "I'll Fly Away." But they never really rejected a Redd Foxx or a Sherman Hemsley or Martin Lawrence or Regina Taylor's Lily. What remained consistent throughout television history was that a group of dynamic or complicated or intriguing personalities managed to send personal messages to the viewers.

As one journalistic examination of this history points out: "When television began, official racial segregation was sanctioned in many states, and having a black actress play a maid on TV was considered, among African-Americans, both an insult and a coup" (emphasis added).

Recognizing the importance of representation while simultaneously realizing that it fails to tell us the whole story proves crucial for understanding television under apartheid. While state censors and members of the Broederbond went to almost comical lengths at times to control the visible content on television, they had little understanding of the deeper implications of television as a technological and social form. Widening the scope of research in this way allows me to develop a different kind of analysis than those most often provided by both earlier work on mass media under apartheid and various studies from around the world that translate progressive political stances into a primary concern with representation of marginalized groups.

In order to fully appreciate how visibility functions, some comprehension of the opposite state of being—invisibility—is also necessary. Here, Louis Althusser's notion of "structured absence" is particularly useful, and I adapt it with an eye to how other South African media scholars have done so in the past. Structured absence, as I use it, results from the active exclusion of an individual, group, or object from a given setting, or what Althusser described as "internal shadows of exclusion." As such, power is central to the concept, for only through power of one over another can absence be enforced, that is, structured, through the exercise of that power in ways that appear naturalized on the surface. Structured absence thus requires a certain level of power and discipline (in Foucault's sense of the term), as contrasted to a pure absence. Unlike structured absence, pure absence is simply a lack of presence and/or existence and implies no further enforcement or discipline on the part of either the excluded or the present.

Structured absence is never complete and rarely stable. In much the same way that Gramsci conceptualizes hegemony as a powerful yet always-contested problematic, structured absences are controversial, partial, and full of contradiction. Breaches in the power of structured absences are inherent to any attempt to forcibly exclude, rather than an exception to the rule. Consequently, the concept of structured absence indicates an acknowledgment that these absences were hotly disputed and, in fact, provide indications of larger power struggles taking place under the surface both within and outside of the media. In other words, conflicts around structured absences can serve as coded arguments about other issues and can, at times, tell us more about the operation of power than we can learn from immediately visible dynamics.

Much of the history of television in South Africa is a tale of changing relationships among power, visibility, and structured absences. Prior to 1976 television itself constituted a structured absence in South African social life, excluded by the apartheid regime on the basis of its perceived danger to Afrikaner identity. The structured absence of television paralleled, in a sense, the far more serious structured absence of Black South Africans in the political and social life of White South Africans. Yet in spite of its structured absence within the country, television nonetheless became a site of contestation between competing identities—particularly between Afrikaners and English- speaking White South Africans—even prior to its introduction.

Following 1976 television was no longer absent from South Africa, but Black South Africans continued to constitute a structured absence in political and most of social life, in spite of what Sarah Nuttall has aptly termed the "entanglement" of Black and White South African existence. The following fourteen years saw the slow erosion of Black South Africans' absence on and through television, even as the attempt to enforce their absence from shared institutional political life was escalated through new, more extreme levels of repression and/or cooptation into apartheid ideology. Television thus became one of the first and most important spaces within which South Africans began to imagine themselves as equal players inside the same nation. This trend finally culminated in the unbanning of the resistance organizations and the release of the most prominent political prisoners in 1990. Television then developed into a significant site for introducing former resistance leaders as legitimate political actors in a reformulated South African nation prior to the elections of 1994. The elections themselves mark the formal end of Black South Africans' exclusion from the political arena, bringing the parallel structured absences of both television and Black South Africans to their conclusion. Yet structured absences continue to mark South African life after 1994, as does the double-edged nature of media visibility for Black South Africans, both of which I discuss in the conclusion.

Television as a Communicative Space

In order to understand the role of televisual technology in this process, it is essential to conceptualize television in a manner that includes spatial and temporal dimensions. It has become a truism that television and other electronic media collapse time and distance; indeed, this has become a central tenet, and for many the most significant driving force, of those theorizing globalization as an acceleration or intensification of global interconnectedness. However, while the ability of various communications media to collapse or compress time and space—for example, through satellite telecommunications or the speed of the Internet—is oft-invoked, it is somewhat less common to conceptualize television as a constitutive space in which people meet, gather, and interact. Precisely this kind of constitutive space is inferred by the concept of "cyberspace" and expanded in more recent understandings of Web 2.0, but television as a medium is rarely understood fully in the same terms. Rather than imagining television to be solely a conduit of cultural production, an empty space through which to transmit competing representations, television can be better understood as a collection of places within which various social groups coexist and reimagine themselves in relationship to each other.

(Continues...)



Excerpted from Starring Mandela and Cosby by RON KRABILL Copyright © 2010 by The University of Chicago. Excerpted by permission of The University of Chicago Press. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Table of Contents

Acknowledgments

List of Abbreviations

INTRODUCTION / Media, Democratization, and the End(s) of Apartheid

ONE / Structured Absences and Communicative Spaces

TWO / In the Absence of Television

THREE / “They Stayed ’til the Flag Streamed”

FOUR / Surfing into Zulu

FIVE / Living with the Huxtables in a State of Emergency

SIX / I May Not Be a Freedom Fighter, but I Play One on TV

CONCLUSION / Television and the Afterlife of Apartheid

Postscript

Notes

Index

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