I kind of fell in love with South Africa during a visit to Johannesburg in 2000. My buddy David Simon had been invited by two South African TV producers; they were creating a cop show in the mold of “Homicide: Life on the Street,” which was pretty popular over there. Simon, of course, wrote the book “Homicide,” and was a writer and producer on the TV series. I traveled along on Simon’s coattails.
We spent two weeks there, one week as the focus of a seminar for South African TV-industry professionals, and the second week hanging out with the writing staff of “Zero Tolerance.” (Since then, I’ve seen a few episodes of “Zero Tolerance," and it’s terrific. Somebody like HBO or Showtime should pick it up and show it to us in the States. While they’re at it, they should pick up “Yizo Yizo” too, a hard-hitting drama set in a black township high school.)
In between our official duties, Simon and I got big eyefuls of the country and its culture. I’m no world traveler, so my mind really got blown. Everything in my field of vision seemed new and fascinating; the days seemed twice as long as I drank in information.
One interesting thing I learned: South Africa didn’t even have television until the 1970s. The white minority population being so scattered geographically, it didn’t make sense for the apartheid government to build a TV broadcasting infrastructure. By the time it did, the government enforced peculiar rules as to what could be shown. Like, there was no such thing as a live TV interview. The powers-that-be clamped down so tightly on the flow of ideas, they dared not let anyone speak live on camera. I’m also told that South African television would never show blacks and whites on screen at the same time.
It’s a different world now. The booming black middle class in South Africa reminded me of America in the 1970s. With magazines aimed at that demographic, just like Ebony, right down to the toothpaste ads with cute black kids and shimmering smiles. The music was also amazing. When Lebo, the young brother who drove us around, took me and Simon out to Sun City for a little gambling, he had the radio on, and it sounded like London club music. Black folk in South Africa make their own brand of house music, and it smokes.
Of course, it wasn’t all roses. Crime is such a problem, drivers don’t even stop for red lights at night, for fear of being “highjacked.”
During my college days, it was all about divestment and shantytowns and “Free Nelson Mandela.” Ever since the African National Congress took over, it seems like no one in the U.S. thinks about South Africa any more. I’m rooting for the “Rainbow Nation” to prosper and not go the way of Zimbabwe. But I’ve read that one-fifth of the white population has emigrated. These people are putting the “flight” in white flight; they’re flying to New Zealand, Australia, Canada, the U.K., any place they imagine the future looks brighter for them.
So… every now and then, I like to check out Johannesburg’s Talk Radio 702, via the magic of the Internet. When I was a kid, it used to be a thrill at night to find an out-of-town baseball game on AM radio. It’s just as much of a thrill to have my fat ass in California and my ears on the other side of the globe. So I took some notes. Figured there might be some talk about Oprah Winfrey’s just-opened Leadership Academy for Girls, who knows?
It was 6 p.m. Wednesday for me but 4 a.m. Thursday in Joburg when I tuned in to Bongani Bingwa, one of the few black on-air personalities at 702. The phones weren’t exactly jumping at 4 in the morning, but Bingwa threw out some provocative topics. A Gallup poll had just reported that 45 percent of South Africans think things will improve in their country in 2007, while 55 percent believe things will get worse. Wealthy South Africans were more pessimistic, Bingwa said, and the responses also differed according to race, though “I don’t particularly want to go down that route this morning.”
“Do you think we will slowly but surely figure out the problems that bedevil us as a country?” Bingwa asked his listeners.
He also invited calls on another topic. After mentioning an Australian newspaper poll on the “most embarrassing Australian,” Bingwa asked: “Who is the most embarrassing South African?” The name that came straight to his mind was an actress who “claims to be South Africa’s answer to Paris Hilton.” Her name blew by me so fast I couldn’t catch it. But this sister apparently spent 80,000 rand (about $11,000) on a toy car for her kid.
Over the next two hours, lots of calls and text messages came in concerning the “most embarrassing South African.” Not a single call on the more sober question: Are things in S.A. getting better or worse? The former, however, provide insights on the latter.
“For my money,” said a caller named Peter, “it would be Jackie Selebi, commissioner of police.” Selebi is under investigation for corruption; he’s accused of hobnobbing with mobsters. Someone later text-messaged: “Jackie Selebi dresses like the doorman from the Ritz.” Bingwa chided his listeners to stick to the issues, not make it personal.
The most emotional caller was a white man who also chose Selebi: “Politicians in high places need to understand that there’s a level of fury in this country about crime,” he said, palpably angry. ”I’m embarrassed by our government that can’t grasp that essential fact. Crime, AIDS and Zimbabwe – those are the problems this country has failed on.”
A couple of listeners nominated Jacob Zuma, deputy head of the ANC, who is also accused of being corrupt, though Bongani Bingwa pointed out that nothing has been proven.
One white caller, back in South Africa after a couple of years in Australia, said Jacob Zuma is the talk of the town Down Under. Some Aussies believe that if Zuma were to become president, the 2010 World Cup soccer tournament might be taken away from South Africa and granted to Australia instead!
A black caller picked Thabo Mbeki, the current president, as “most embarrassing South African” for failing to deal with AIDS. Today, with a black government, he said, three times as many people die from AIDS per month as during apartheid.
On a lighter note, one tongue-in-cheek caller nominated Graham Smith, a star cricket batsman. “Every time the camera zooms in on him, he’s chewing gum with his mouth open, which does not look good for South Africa.”
[TO BE CONTINUED]