Author Essays, Interviews, and Excerpts, Books for the News, Sociology

Starring Mandela and Cosby


Ron Krabill’s Starring Mandela and Cosby: Media and the End(s) of Apartheid (2010) considers the implications of a particular paradox: 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. In the wake of the death of Nelson Mandela, Krabill’s emphasis on how the esteemed human rights advocate and then political prisoner’s image was rendered invisible (it was illegal to publish photos of Mandela) just as Bill Cosby became the most recognizable Black man in the country, remains integral to understanding the crucial role media played during the end of apartheid. The argument advanced in Starring Mandela and Cosby, which contends that Cosby’s presence in the living rooms of White South Africans helped lay the groundwork for Mandela’s release and ascension to power, speaks to the influence of a shared space for communication in a deeply divided nation. In light of Mandela’s death, the book recalls a time when American popular culture’s icon of middle-class African American life was necessarily substituted for one of the world’s most admired public figures—and the social and political consequences of this exchange. An excerpt from the book’s Introduction follows after the jump.


In the fifteen years since the end of formal apartheid in South Africa, the anti-apartheid struggle has come to be viewed as the archetypal fight of good against evil. Nelson Mandela and Desmond Tutu are Nobel Peace Prize laureates and internationally recognized as global icons of moral leadership and heroism, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission has been heralded (and copied) as a model for postconflict societies, and the term apartheid has come to be used as a rhetorical weapon to indicate a nearly incomparable form of evil in government policies. In short, South Africa and its history play a symbolic role in international and transnational politics that extends far beyond the highly ambiguous nature of South African politics and social life today.

The combination of four remarkable facts regarding the struggle against apartheid inspired this book from the beginning: first, at the height of apartheid’s State of Emergency in the mid-1980s, the most popular television show among White South Africans was The Cosby Show. Second, during this time, Nelson Mandela had spent nearly a quarter of a century under what was known in South Africa as “the ban,” making it illegal to publish his image. As a result, most South Africans could recognize Bill Cosby’s face, but almost no one knew what the figurehead of the anti-apartheid struggle actually looked like. Third, television as a medium was actively kept out of South Africa by the apartheid regime until 1976—after more than 130 other countries had launched a television service. And fourth, the advent of television coincided with a significant increase in protest against the state in that same year. These four faces combine to indicate a specific, remarkable historical conjuncture that can and should continue to inform our thinking about politics and culture in multiple times and places.

Today, when globalization and transnational media flows dominate thinking about media and culture, these facts might strike one as either quaint throwbacks to a bygone era or profoundly counterintuitive. It seems hard to imagine a time when television was not almost universally available, and talk in both scholarly circles and the popular press was not yet focusing on new media and the eclipse of television as the most important medium in cultural production. Likewise, the idea that the iconic situation comedy of wholesome, heteronormative family life that was so intricately tied up with race in the United States—The Cosby Show—could be enjoyed without irony by White South Africans in the midst of the apartheid regime’s most brutal moments seems equally difficult to comprehend. Yet the central questions embedded within these four facts speak clearly to today’s driving concerns around media, politics, and globalization: How do various media facilitate or constrain political action? How do they shape everyday social and political life across the globe? How do transnational media flows operate in particular times and places? And how do the technologies of media shape our imaginations of ourselves and our places in the world? In the historical particulars of late-apartheid-era television, we find a wealth of insight regarding twenty-first-century media and culture. Taken together, these four observations provide a compelling entry point to problematize the interactions between transnational media flows and processes of democratization by engaging television, White South African identifications, and politics between the years of 1976 and 1994.

Scholars of South Africa have long recognized the Soweto Uprising and its aftermath as a major turning point in the struggle against apartheid. The apartheid state had enjoyed over a decade of relatively little overt opposition within the country following the banning of the African National Congress (ANC), the Pan-African Congress (PAC), the South African Communist Party (SACP), and several other resistance organizations in the early 1960s, along with the imprisonment and exile of their leadership. Although the strike waves of the early 1970s seem, in retrospect, like the harbinger of further political protest against apartheid, the Soweto Uprising nonetheless caught both the government and activists unprepared. Initially a local protest organized by schoolchildren against the use of Afrikaans as the language of instruction, the Uprising quickly spread—with the help of television—beyond both Soweto and the schools after police opened fire on the unarmed children. While the government managed to quell the Uprising after several months of violence, it would never again hold the kind of control over the nation that it did prior to 1976. The Soweto Uprising marks the beginning of the end of apartheid.

In spite of (or perhaps in part because of) its concurrence with the Soweto Uprising, scholars have paid scant attention to another significant event that took place in 1976: the introduction of television into South Africa. Very few places in the world have simultaneously experienced massive social unrest and the creation of a large-scale, state-of-the-art national television infrastructure as did South Africa that year, thus begging the question of whether one conditioned the other in any way. Although this book shows that television had little, if any, direct impact on the Soweto Uprising itself, the coincidence of the two provides a unique starting point from which to trace the increasingly intertwined relationships between television and politics in the period leading up to the overwhelming electoral victory of the ANC in 1994. The National Party’s ideological resistance to television even before it entered the country also marks the South African experience as unusual when compared to almost every other industrialized nation, where television services were usually instituted as soon as they became financially feasible. Thus the social history of South African television and the political history of late apartheid feed off each other in unique ways that anticipate contemporary debates around transnational media and politics.

During the multiple declarations of a “State of Emergency” during the mid- to late 1980s—the high point of repression in a nation already renowned for its state-sponsored cruelty—the most popular television show among all South Africans, including and particularly White South Africans, was The Cosby Show. At first glance, this may seem an odd anomaly that represents no more than a strange and ironic disjuncture in a highly racialized setting. However, the intense yet widely divergent reactions to the show, even two decades later, remain striking. For several years, the counterintuitive popularity of the show became a persistent question in my research and, indeed, my social life. I would ask literally everyone I met in any setting in South Africa, whether a gas-station attendant, a fellow party-goer, or the head of the broadcasting regulatory agency, “How do you explain the popularity of The Cosby Show among White South Africans in the 1980s?” The responses, though far from a scientific sample, nonetheless displayed noteworthy consistencies. Some White South Africans dismissed The Cosby Show as “mere entertainment” or “too American” to have had any impact on their opinions regarding Black South Africans or racialized politics within South Africa. Yet many others claimed that The Cosby Show significantly influenced how they and their friends viewed Black South Africans, in essence opening their eyes to the possibility of equality. It was not uncommon for people to go so far as to declare that “The Cosby Show did more for race relations in this country than anything else ever has.”

Black South Africans, on the other hand, nearly always claimed that The Cosby Show held no relevance to political or social life in late-apartheid South Africa. Black South Africans tended to focus on explaining what it was about the fictional Huxtable family that appealed to White South Africans. Most common among these explanations was the opinion that the Huxtables were “safe”—that is, highly educated, upper-middle class, and nonthreatening—a similar interpretation to those critical of The Cosby Show in the United States. In the context of Black militancy in South Africa, the Huxtables thus provided White South Africans with an alternative representation that explained the United States’ ability to maintain a different form of race relations while reinforcing White South Africans’ own views of race relations within their country. In other words, Black South Africans perceive White South Africans as having thought to themselves, in those shockingly yet predictably possessive terms, that “their blacks” (African Americans) are more civilized than “our blacks” (Black South Africans). Though the responses to The Cosby Show among White and Black South Africans are in many ways divergent, the show’s popularity across these identifications encourages us to look more deeply into the conjunctures of politics and cultural production.

Two paradoxes embodied in these original facts have consistently reappeared throughout the process of writing this book. First, in spite of the fact that the medium of television was from the very beginning firmly under the control of the apartheid state, television nonetheless played a far more complicated and at times contradictory role in the political life of South Africa. The contradictions embodied by apartheid-era television undercut many of the presuppositions of both media studies and democratic theory originating in North America and Western Europe, which provides an opportunity to contribute to De-Westernizing Media Studies, as called for by James Curran and Myung-Jin Park in their edited volume of the same name. A second paradox, hinted at in the title of the book (Starring Mandela and Cosby), involves absence and visibility in political and public life. While Black resistance leaders such as Nelson Mandela were removed from public life through various forms of state repression such as the ban, Black entertainment figures like Bill Cosby were not only visible but even beloved by White South Africa. This book seeks to explore these two paradoxes in detail, from the time of television’s introduction in 1976 through the establishment of democratic elections in 1994. While late-apartheid South Africa remains the setting for this story, the themes of the telling—visibility and absence, the maintenance and subversion of hegemony—travel well to other times and places.

To read more about Starring Mandela and Cosby, click here.