When Bara, a carefully crafted documentary about a hospital in Soweto, hit the South African state television screens in October 1979, its producer, Kevin Harris, was fired from the broadcaster within 24 hours and made headlines for weeks on end in South African newspapers. Taking the events around the broadcast as a point of departure, I analyse a South African discourse of authority and its challenges by moving across the levels of media production and textuality. I argue that the documentary highlighted the impossibility as well as the immorality of lived apartheid, a revelation which was often concealed in public secrecy. The chapter thus aims to understand the particular relationship between visibility and legitimacy in the regime set up by Hendrik Frensch Verwoerd, the psychology and sociology professor and newspaper editor who was to become South African Prime Minister in 1959. In the equation of two profiles of authorization, I place the politician and the filmmaker both within the category of media experts, who themselves produce media which in turn legitimate their positions.
This is a preview of subscription content, access via your institution.
Tax calculation will be finalised at checkout
Purchases are for personal use onlyLearn about institutional subscriptions
VOC , the Vereenigte Oost-Indische Compagnie, was a Dutch colonial corporation of aligned merchants running a business empire between 1602 and 1799, see Ulrich (2016).
Writing about South African society implies as major fallacy an inherited and highly problematic group classification and terminology, which I am compelled to reproduce writing a partly historical account. I use capital letters to mark White and Black as categories. It is beyond the scope of the paper to develop alternatives to the terminology.
The Afrikaner Broederbond was founded in 1918 “as a sort of cultural society” (Wilkins and Strydom 1980, p. 46) on the model of the existing English clubs. After three years, the members decided to transform it into a secret society, and the number of ‘cells’, the smallest local organizational unit, expanded steadily from 1 (in 1920, with 37 invited members) to 23 (in 1930, with a total of 512 members) to a total of 12,000 members, organised in 810 cells, by 1977 (ibid. p. 47). Dan O’Meara (1977, p. 162) situates the Broederbond as an elite grouping, dominated by the Transvaal section of Afrikaner nationalism. Substantial membership fees and strict rules for personal and economic conduct distinguished the invited members from ordinary Afrikaners and specially from the ‘poor Whites’ identified in the Witwatersrand area. The National Party needed these workers as voters, however, and canvassed relentlessly to keep them away from ‘communism’. Until the 1970s, the composition of the Broederbond had changed from a majority of academics and teachers to a majority of businessmen (O’Meara, 1977, p. 164).
Surely, there had been other popular visibilizations before, most consistently since the 1950s in the popular ‘Black’ magazine DRUM (cf. Newbury and Sachs 2009). However, with the tightening of apartheid rules during Verwoerd’s reign, a gap in the representation of Black city life featured, particularly after the Sharpeville massacre in 1960.
The etymology of secret and segregation points to the same Latin roots.
See also Stultz (1969, p. 3), citing Apter on ‘end values’ end ‘efficiency’ in the legitimacy of government.
Ellipsis, respectively aposiopesis, sometimes in combination with the rhetorical question “you know?”, were common. The pervasion of Broederbonders in the SABC higher echelons was so strong that the hearings an independent broadcasting commissions held to find new managers in the early 1990s had non-membership as a condition for working at the SABC.
This party had broken away from J.B.M. Hertzog’s National Party when it united with Smut’s South African Party.
Posel holds that, in the 1940s, “versions of apartheid differed over a basic question, the relationship between ‘political segregation’ and the ‘economic integration’ of Africans in ‘white’ areas” (Posel 1987, pp. 125–126). The main bone of contention lay in the eviction or maintenance of Africans within the economic structure, as they were perceived as either compatible or ultimately incompatible.
As Giliomee (2012, p. 57) outlines, the complementary projection into the past contained the claim that South Africa was hardly settled until the seventeenth century and that ‘the Bantus’ and ‘the Dutch’ arrived at the same time, albeit from different directions. This claim was refuted in 1969 by detailed historical work in Wilson’s and Thompson’s Oxford History of South Africa.
Alexander Hepple was the leader of the South African Labour Party and Member of Parliament contemporary to Hendrik Verwoerd. His concise biographic account dwells on newspaper reports and Hansard debates and, in contrast to later assessments—for example by Giliomee (2012)—, does not subdue contemporarily widespread religious rhetoric in favour of highlighting Verwoerd’s rationality.
Stressing his own special relationship with God, Verwoerd was however careful not to directly employ the bible to legitimate his power or politics. Claims on biblical ‘legitimation’ of apartheid policies had been shown to be invalid in the past. Presented by Dutch Reformed Church theologian A. G. J. Oosthuizen at a World Council of Churches meeting in 1954, the claims had been thoroughly refuted by the international theological community and could not be validated in the following years, commitments of special commissions notwithstanding (Wilkins and Strydom 1980, p. 205). Yet, two discursive strategies were employed by Nationalist Afrikaners members, who claimed to know the truth better than what theological experts advised. For one, they would use biblical texts arbitrarily and out of context, offering a particularly biased interpretation of the Genesis’ narratives about Noah’s sons and the Tower of Babel (Thompson 1962, p. 134; cf. Crapanzano 1986, p. xi). They would also rely on an identification of the history of Israel with that of the Afrikaners/Boers, God-chosen to Christianize South Africa (Wilkins and Strydom 1980, p. 290; cf. Bosch 1986; Du Toit 1985). Du Toit summarizes: “Because of their belief that they were a Chosen People, the Afrikaners came to believe that God had taken a direct hand in shaping the organization and behavior of Afrikaner society […]. The assumption thus was that Afrikaner society was ‘sanctified’, and traditional behavior, attitudes, values, and institutions were reified and made moral imperatives. Virtually any modification of the traditional life-style assumed the status of a sacred rather than purely social violation” (Du Toit 1985, p. 75).
Meyer became Chancellor of the Randse Afrikaanse Universiteit (RAU) from 1978 to 1983. These three institutions—the Broederbond head office, the SABC and the RAU—are situated just a stone’s throw from each other in Johannesburg.
In the first two years commercials were not allowed, and people who spent money on TV sets and licenses were thus addressed not as consumers but as citizens (Harrison and Ekman 1976, p. 104).
Tomaselli et al. (1989, p. 112) quote SABC foreign correspondent Cliff Saunders describing the policy of alignment to government policies as one that worked qua “osmosis”, not leaving traces, and the documentary filmmakers said they had asked for written guidelines, which were never provided. Instead, on the level of work organization and positions, a middleman was inserted into the hierarchy at the SABC. People with the occupational title “organiser […] translated consensual discourse from the upper management into organisational practice” (Tomaselli and Tomaselli 1989, p. 116).
Sunday Times journalists Wilkins and Strydom publicized Broederbond material such as circulars and membership lists in 1978, first in the newspaper as a six-part series, then, much more elaborated, as a book. They relied on the leakage of documents by a “disillusioned” member, “deeply shocked” by the Soweto “riots” in 1976 which made him aware for the “first time” of the “depth of Black dissatisfaction with the status quo” (Wilkins and Strydom, 1980, preface). The same anonymous apostate would say he was deeply disturbed when the Minister of Justice, Jimmy Krueger, was quoted to be left koud (Eng. ‘cold’) by the 1977 death (read murder) of Steve Biko in police custody. Now, he would be “in the twist as this is against his Christianity but the Broederbond oath is also sworn before God” (Wilkins and Strydom 1980, preface).
YouTube link, Harris, Kevin (1979), Bara. SABC documentary, now www.youtube.com/watch?v=3C2I-dxECCg&t=2663s. Sadly, but ironically, part of the controversial opening scenes got lost due to a technical failure when Harris recorded and privately screened the broadcasting (Interview Harris, 29 January 2020). The scenes are partly maintained, however, in the 1996 film “SABC television 20 years—the untold story”, www.youtube.com/watch?v=DzyJgI-qA-s. See 26:41 min–27:54 min.
In a further turn of the loop, Harris’ own production company was commissioned to produce a SABC TV documentary by the name “SABC TV 20 YEARS—The Untold Story” in 1996. This told the story of censorship through a presentation of two departments, News and English Documentary—and the Bara-case was a key event.
He spent his childhood in a comparable setting, with his father being the financial administrator of a hospital in Natal. Remembering this context, he said, made him make the film in the first place. Scenes of nurses carrying candles through the patients’ wards on Christmas, singing hymns, reminded him of his childhood and he placed this in the very middle of the film.
In October 1979, the English-medium, government-controlled newspaper The Citizen quoted from the letter Harris wrote to his SABC supervisor, stating: “Placed in a position of moral dilemma, where my personal integrity and the basic values of truth and honesty are at stake, I made a decision to disobey the instruction from management to remove the opening sequence—dealing with sociological conditions of Soweto—from the programme”.
The Rand Daily Mail and, following suit, the Sunday Express as well as the Cape Argus quoted Harris’ allegations that it was a case of “political manipulation” and that a “secret political censor” was the source of the summons to cut the opening scenes. What had been on page three of the Rand Daily Mail, journalist Marian Shinn made a page one cover story for the Sunday Express on 14 October 1979. After telling her readers that Dr Beukes, chief superintendent of the hospital, objected after the courtesy screening to “2 ½ minutes [….] and the commentary”, she quoted extensively from the voice-over of the introduction. Her report appears obscure in its effort to ‘balance’ the various voices which appear to talk past each other.
Another former SABC journalist/media scholar, Graham Hayman, said about the SABC’s first years of television that even the few graduates from the London Film School, who were there in South African TV’s early years were “cut-off” by the leading persons in the corporation, “certainly they bargained for a settling down period, a screening period after which all the mavericks would leave” (Tomaselli and Tomaselli 1989, p. 114).
The new medium created new professions and Harris, considered an expert, got elected as the General Secretary of the South African Film Technicians Association after his dismissal. The organization he “set about transforming—to the horror of the majority of the members who were white, conservative film technicians working mainly in the Commercials Industry & who were solely concerned with protecting their own job security […] so that, for example—when video activists were detained much later during the States of Emergency in 1985/86—as Gen Sec of SAFTA, I sent a telegram to the Minister of Law & Order demanding the release of a video-activist who had been held in detention-without-trial for some time. As a result, he was released within days” (Harris , personal communication, 2 April 2020).
For a comparatively reactionary perspective on the changes in the SABC’s news reporting and exegesis, see Bothma (1988).
Balstad Miller, Roberta (1993). Science and Society in the Early Career of H. F. Verwoerd. In: Journal of Southern African Studies, 19 (4), pp. 634–661.
Bosch, David J. (1986). Afrikaner Civil Religion and the Current South African Crisis. In: Transformation, 3 (2), pp. 23–30.
Bothma, Louis Johannes (1988). Kommentaar sonder grense. Die SAUK … en die storie daaragter. Pretoria: Oranjewerkers.
Bourdieu, Pierre / Johnson, Randal (2011). The Field of Cultural Production: Essays on Art and Literature. (First published in 1993) New York, NY: Columbia University Press.
Bourdieu, Pierre / Wacquant, Loic J. D. / Farage, Samar (1994). Rethinking the State: Genesis and Structure of the Bureaucratic Field. In: Sociological Theory, 12 (1), pp. 1–18.
Connerton, Paul (2008). Seven Types of Forgetting. In: Memory Studies, 1 (1), pp. 59–71.
Crapanzano, Vincent (1986). Waiting: The Whites of South Africa. (First published in 1985) London: Paladin Grafton Books.
Dracklé, Dorle (1996). Discourse Analysis in Anthropology. In: Van Bremen, Jan / Godina, Vesna / Platenkamp, Jos (Eds.), Horizons of Understanding: An Anthology of Theoretical Anthropology in Europe. Leiden: Leiden Research School CNWS, pp. 24–42.
Dubow, Saul (2014). Apartheid, 1948–1994. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Giliomee, Hermann (2012). The Last Afrikaner Leaders: A Supreme Test of Power. Cape Town: Tafelberg.
Giliomee, Hermann (2003). The Afrikaners: Biography of a People. Charlottesville, VA: University of Virginia Press.
Hall, Stuart (2006). Encoding/Decoding. In: Durham, Meenakshi Gigi / Kellner, Douglas (Eds.), Media and Cultural Studies: Keyworks. Malden, MA: Blackwell, pp. 163–173.
Hannerz, Ulf (2010). Anthropology’s World: Life in a Twenty-First Century Discipline. London: Pluto Press.
Harris, Kevin (1996). SABC TV – 20 Years: The Untold Story. Retrieved from www.youtube.com/watch?v=DzyJgI-qA-s.
Harris, Kevin (1979). Bara – Kevin Harris – 1979. Retrieved from www.youtube.com/watch?v=3C2I-dxECCg&t=2663s.
Harrison, Randall / Ekman, Paul (1976). TV’s Last Frontier: South Africa. In: Journal of Communication, 26 (1), pp. 102–109.
Hayman, Graham / Tomaselli, Ruth (1989a). Broadcasting Technology as an Ideological Terrain. Some Concepts, Assumptions and Problems. In: Tomaselli, Ruth / Tomaselli, Keyan G. / Muller, Johan (Eds.), Currents of Power: State Broadcasting in South Africa. Bellville: Anthropos, pp. 1–22.
Hayman, Graham / Tomaselli, Ruth (1989b). Ideology and Technology in the Growth of South African Broadcasting, 1924–1971. In: Tomaselli, Ruth / Tomaselli, Keyan G. / Muller, Johan (Eds.), Currents of Power: State Broadcasting in South Africa. Bellville: Anthropos, pp. 23–83.
Hepple, Alexander (1967). Verwoerd. Harmondsworth: Penguin Books.
Herbst, Susan (2003). Political Authority in a Mediated Age. In: Theory and Society, 32, pp. 480–503.
Herzfeld, Michael (2009). The Performance of Secrecy: Domesticity and Privacy in Public Spaces. In: Semiotica, 2009 (175), pp. 135–162.
Horwitz, Robert Britt (2001). Communication and Democratic Reform in South Africa. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Jones, Graham M. (2014). Secrecy. In: Annual Review of Anthropology, 43 (1), pp. 53–69.
Kenney, Henry (1980). Architect of Apartheid – H.F. Verwoerd: An Appraisal. Johannesburg: Ball
Koch, Julia (2019). Fieldwork as Performance: Being Ethnographic in Film-Making. In: Anthropology Southern Africa, 42 (2), pp. 161–172.
Koch, Julia (2017). South Asian Muslim Women on the Move: Missionaries in South Africa. In: South Asian Diaspora, 9 (2), pp. 129–146.
Marx, Christoph (2020). Trennung und Angst: Hendrik Verwoerd und die Gedankenwelt der Apartheid. Oldenburg: De Gruyter.
Marx, Christoph (1993). Hendrik Verwoerd and the Leipzig School of Psychology in 1926. In: Historia, 58 (2), pp. 91–118.
Newbury, Darren / Sachs, Albie (2009). Defiant Images: Photography and Apartheid South Africa. Pretoria: Unisa Press.
Nichols, Bill (1991). Representing Reality: Issues and Concepts in Documentary. Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press.
Nichols, Bill (1983). The Voice of Documentary. In: Film Quarterly, 36 (3), pp. 17–30.
O’Meara, Dan (1977). The Afrikaner Broederbond 1927–1948: Class Vanguard of Afrikaner Nationalism. In: Journal of Southern African Studies, 3 (2), pp. 156–186.
Orgeret, Kristin Skare (2015). From ‘The Devil in the Black Box’ to a Nation-Building Tool: Early TV in South Africa – A New Medium for a New Nation. In: Anderson, Stewart / Chakars, Melissa (Eds.), Modernization, Nation-Building, and Television History. New York, NY: Routledge, pp. 187–208.
Orgeret, Kristin Skare (2009). Television News, The South African Post-Apartheid Experience: Continuity and Change in the SABC (South African Broadcasting Corporation). Saarbrücken: Verlag Dr. Müller.
Orlik, Peter B. (1968). South African Broadcasting Corporation: An Historical Survey and Contemporary Analysis. Dissertation. Wayne State University Michigan.
Ortner, Sherry B. (2010). Access: Reflections on Studying Up in Hollywood. In: Ethnography, 11 (2), pp. 211–233.
Posel, Deborah (2009). The Assassination of Hendrik Verwoerd: The Spectre of Apartheid’s Corpse. In: African Studies, 68 (3), pp. 331–350.
Posel, Deborah (1987). The Meaning of Apartheid Before 1948: Conflicting Interests and Forces within the Afrikaner Nationalist Alliance. In: Journal of Southern African Studies, 14 (1), pp. 123–139.
Postill, John (2017). The Diachronic Ethnography of Media. From Social Changing to Actual Social Changes. In: Moment Journal, 4 (1), pp. 19–43.
Rosenthal, Eric (1974). You Have Been Listening to… The Early History of Radio in South Africa. Cape Town: Purnell.
Schatzki, Theodore R. (2006). On Organizations as they Happen. In: Organization Studies, 27 (12), pp. 1863–1873.
Seekings, Jeremy (2008). The Carnegie Commission and the Backlash against Welfare State-Building in South Africa, 1931–1937. In: Journal of Southern African Studies, 34 (3), pp. 515–537.
Simmel, Georg (1906). The Sociology of Secrecy and of Secret Societies. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press.
Stultz, Newell (1969). The Politics of Security: South Africa under Verwoerd, 1961–6. In: The Journal of Modern African Studies, 7 (1), pp. 3–20.
Ulrich, Nicole (2016). From Servants to British Subjects: Citizenship, Khoesan Labour, and the Making of the Modern Colonial State, 1652–1815. In: Hunter, Emma (Ed.), Citizenship, Belonging, and Political Community in Africa: Dialogue Between Past and Present. Athens, OH: Ohio University Press, pp. 43–73.
Union of South Africa (1959). Promotion of Bantu Self-Governing Act, Act No. 46, dated June 19, 1959. Retrieved from https://www.aluka.org/stable/10.5555/AL.SFF.DOCUMENT.leg19590619.028.020.046.
Tomaselli, Ruth / Tomaselli, Keyan G. / Muller, Johan (Eds.) (1989). Currents of Power: State Broadcasting in South Africa. Bellville: Anthropos.
Tomaselli, Keyan / Tomaselli, Ruth (1989). Between Policy and Practice in the SABC, 1970–1981. In: Tomaselli, Ruth / Tomaselli, Keyan G. / Muller, Johan (Eds.), Currents of Power: State Broadcasting in South Africa. Bellville, South Africa: Anthropos, pp. 84–152.
Thompson, Leonard M. (1985). The Political Mythology of Apartheid. New Haven, CN: Yale University Press.
Thompson, Leonard M. (1962). Afrikaner Nationalist Historiography and the Policy of Apartheid. In: Journal of African History, 3 (1), pp. 25–141.
Du Toit, André (1985). Puritans in Africa? Afrikaner ‘Calvinism’ and Kuyperian Neo-Calvinism in Late Nineteenth-Century South Africa. In: Comparative Studies in Society and History, 27 (2), pp. 209–240.
Wilkins, Ivor / Strydom, Hans (1980). The Super-Afrikaners. (First published in 1978) Johannesburg: Ball.
Williams, J. Michael (2010). Chieftaincy, the State, and Democracy: Political Legitimacy in Post-Apartheid South Africa. Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press.
Wolf, Loammi (2012). David Beresford Pratt: Die mens agter die sluipmoordpoging. In: Litnet Akademies: ‘n Joernaal vir die Geesteswetenskappe, Natuurwetenskappe, Regte en Godsdienswetenskappe, 9 (3), pp. 743–804.
Zeitlyn, David (2012). Anthropology in and of the Archives: Possible Futures and Contingent Pasts – Archives as Anthropological Surrogates. In: Annual Review in Anthropology, 41, pp. 461–480.
Editors and Affiliations
© 2021 The Author(s), under exclusive license to Springer Nature Switzerland AG
About this chapter
Cite this chapter
Koch, J. (2021). Secrecy and Visibility: Challenging Verwoerdism in South Africa’s Twentieth Century. In: Steinforth, A.S., Klocke-Daffa, S. (eds) Challenging Authorities. Palgrave Macmillan, Cham. https://doi.org/10.1007/978-3-030-76924-6_14
Publisher Name: Palgrave Macmillan, Cham
Print ISBN: 978-3-030-76923-9
Online ISBN: 978-3-030-76924-6