Rooting out the undesirables
I get an enormous kick out of finding files labelled “strictly confidential” in the state archives. I recently rummaged through some government files on the TV series Roots and was met by this note, right in the front of one folder: “This information is strictly confidential — only for the Minister of Home Affairs.” In case of inquiries, the note said, the folder’s custodians had to say that there was no such record.
Basically, they had to pretend it didn’t exist.
What exactly did a TV series do to deserve such secrecy? The series itself was quite a thorn in the government’s side, but the reason for this confidentiality was not the series, but the diplomatic awkwardness it caused.
In 1978, the US embassy’s Cultural Centres in Soweto, Cape Town and Durban held screenings of the TV series based on Alex Haley’s famous book. Thousands of black and white South Africans sat right alongside each other as they watched the story of Kunta Kinte and his descendents. The South African government was not impressed, and not just because the audience was mixed or because there were screenings on Sundays and Ascension Day. See, the Americans didn’t submit the films for approval by the Directorate of Publications (the censors who decided what could and what most certainly could not be shown to the public). Moreover, if ever the censors wanted to keep a film or series from South African eyes, it was this one. After attending the screenings, the publication’s committee decided that Roots had to be banned.
The series met many of the 1974 Publications Act’s criteria for being “undesirable” (the censors’ way of saying a film or book was banned). According to the censors’ report, which forms part of this classified folder from 1978, the series was banned because it showed excessive violence and cruelty, put white people in a bad light while portraying the black slaves as innocent, and hinted at white men raping black women. (According to the report, the fact that these “interracial sexual encounters” were against the law in South Africa made these depictions not only immoral, but also illegal — as if rape in itself wasn’t illegal!)
But by far the biggest problem was the “naked racial hatred”: “The violent clash of black against white in America, for reasons that can often be understood, can be emotionally interpreted by numerous South Africans (especially black viewers) as justification for similar violence in the Republic.” With phrases such as “Kill the white man!”, it would incite violence and disturb the “peace and good order”. In short, it was seen as a danger to state security.
To illustrate the peril, one censor described how black viewers thoroughly enjoyed the scene in which Kizzy spits into her former mistress’ water cup. The screenings also attracted some unsavoury characters: “Noticeable was the frequent visit of around twenty eager, middle-aged ladies that arrived early and occupied some of the best seats. Some of them looked familiar and was, as far as I could judge, linked to leftist or liberal groups such as the PFP, Black Sash, etc.”
Yet there was next to nothing the South African government could do about these screenings. The American Cultural Centres claimed diplomatic immunity, which means that the South African government had little say about what happened within the walls of those centres. So while the censors were furious, they could do little but rant (in secret, of course, considering the sensitive nature of diplomatic relations).
In 1984 the series was briefly unbanned, but the Publications Appeal Board quickly reversed this decision. This is sometimes given as the date that Roots was banned, possibly because the 1978 report “didn’t exist”. The series was finally unbanned in 1986, and M-Net aired it in 1988. The SABC only followed in the mid-1990s. (Incidentally, the book was never banned, because it was seen as less explicit and more “historical” than the series.)
Luckily, this folder has since been released. It contains the censors’ report (in Afrikaans), handwritten notes and newspaper clippings about the 1978 screenings and can be found at the Western Cape Provincial Archives in Cape Town. Just give the archivists a heads-up: the file is stored in another building, so you’ll have to order it a day or so in advance. Here’s the reference number:
Source: IDP; Volume no. 2/67; Reference number R78/5/47.
Some related archival documents:
Source: IDP; Volume no. 2/95; Reference number R80/2/56
Source: IDP; Volume no. 2/242; Reference number R84/7/94
Source: IDP; Volume no. 2/306; Reference number R86/11/45
Source: IDP; Volume no. 1/33; Reference number P78/7/147