Frontline goes beyond superficial coverage in 'Struggle for South Africa'


It has often been observed that television is most comfortable with personalities and concrete images, not with abstractions and ideas.

And, since television defines the agenda for our information about the world, our perception of the changes in Eastern Europe has focused on Lech Walesa, Vaclav Havel, Mikhail Gorbachev as well as the dismantling of the Berlin Wall and other barriers that divided the continent.

The underlying message seems to be, "Communism is gone, capitalism is here, everything is fine."

The realities, which are more elusive to the electronic camera -- such as the centralization of capital needed to modernize obsolete industrial economies and the reappearance of ethnic rivalries -- were comparatively ignored, though they seem to be playing the major role in forming the structure of the emerging democracies.

A similar skew took place in South Africa. Television fell in love with the Nelson Mandela story, the one that told of the firm, resolute hero who was unjustly imprisoned for his beliefs. His release brought the full weight of American TV to bear on South Africa, celebrating a joyous day.

Again, there was an underlying message: "Mandela is free, South Africa is on the right road, everything is fine."

The cameras, for the most part, then went home, or rather went on to focus on the next personality who would strut onto the world stage, be it Noriega or, nowadays, Saddam Hussein who attracts the anchors and the satellite trucks.

The BBC left a few cameras behind in South Africa and the 90-minute documentary that resulted can be seen tonight on PBS' Frontline series, at 9 o'clock on Maryland Public Television, channels 22 and 67.

"The Struggle for South Africa" finds that, as in Eastern Europe, everything is not fine; indeed the difficulties have just begun.

The parallels go further than that. In Eastern Europe ancient tribal disputes are arising again now that Communist oppression and control have been lifted. Such sentiments are tearing apart Yugoslavia, threatening Czechoslovakia, causing brutal clashes in Romania, and revealing undercurrents of anti-Semitism in many countries.

In South Africa, the black population that was united in its oppression, is now splitting along its own tribal lines as the possibility of sharing in the rule of this country moves closer to reality.

The struggle against apartheid that seemed so pure and clean -- and so perfect for TV's heroes-and-villains approach to the news -- has now become a bloody, multi-sided mess. Mandela's African National Congress fights to maintain its central position in the country's black political spectrum, challenged by the Inkatha movement, dominated by the Zulu tribe which carries on its own ancient tribal warfare with the Xhosa.

Among the whites, the original settlers, the Boers, retreat into their own tribal ways, resisting efforts to bring down the racial barriers, often blaming such moves on the other white tribe, the English.

The more reactionary elements among the whites may well be inciting some of the violence among the blacks, perhaps in an odd alliance with more radical blacks who oppose political compromise.

In the middle is the country's president, F.W. DeKlerk, who released Mandela and forged a tentative alliance with the ANC in trying to chart the course of the country's post-apartheid future.

Both the ANC and DeKlerk's National Party are political parties as we would recognize them, those that call on people to unite for their economic and political gain, regardless of ethnic similarities and differences. But it is not at all clear if such a call can have greater pull than that of tribal loyalties.

Producer David Harrison and reporter David Dimbleby have no startling revelations or stunning insights. They have produced an overview of the state of South Africa, an introductory course on its future.

And it is not a pretty picture, raising the specter of a country locked in the type of intractable, self-destructive conflict that paralyzes Northern Ireland and Lebanon.

"The Struggle for South Africa" isn't as much fun to watch as the coverage of Mandela's release, but it is more important that those who care about this country see these images of complexity instead of only those simplistic celebrations.

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