Tales of the strange days of segregated broadcasting
WHEN television came to South Africa in the mid-1970s, like everywhere in the country, racial segregation was the order of the day at the SABC: there was a whites-only channel and a blacks-only channel.
I wish I could laugh, but it was not funny. Most of the programmes were old movies from overseas and some not-so-funny comedies.
Because we didn’t know any better and had no say in the programming, we could not complain.
Then a few years later, towards the beginning of the 1980s, the SABC started investing in local productions like live music shows and some low-budget local movies for television.
People were happy because we finally had TV in South Africa. My manager informed me the SABC was doing a music programme for TV and they were interested in having me take part with a big band conducted by Gerry Bosman.
I had never heard of him but I was looking forward to this show.
An appointment was made for me to meet Gerry, who turned out to be a kind man.
He welcomed me and also introduced me to another singer named Eve Boswell.
Apparently she was a famous singer among the whites with a famous Afrikaans song called Suikerbossie.
I was curious to know why they had chosen me for this show and my manager told me in confidence that besides having a famous profile from all the productions I’d done, my name and surname worked in my favour for the whites-only channel. I wanted to laugh at the absurdity of it all, but my determination to break through those doors was very important to me.
On the first day, rehearsals took place in a big room at SABC building. After a couple of hours with the big band, we broke for lunch and I experienced the real meaning of segregation.
There was a canteen on another floor, but it was for whites only. The toilets for whites were nearby but the toilets for blacks were in the basement. When I inquired where to go for my lunch, I was told to go to the SABC radio building, which meant going outside and walking to the next building, standing in the long queue and eating there. It was preposterous; I was allowed to perform with these white people, but not to use their canteen or sit at a table and eat with them.
Because of the time it took for me to get my lunch, I’d get back late to rehearsals every day. The conductor was not happy with my tardiness and I didn’t know whether to be embarrassed or angry. I explained to him how segregation was affecting our work relationship, but I was not going to allow it to derail my determination to one day be part of the change in this monster corporation with its draconian rules. The next day at rehearsals Gerry and Eve arranged for my lunch to be brought to the rehearsal room. Eve brought hers too, so that we could eat together. This did not mean I had changed the status quo; it only saved me from taking that long walk to get my lunch.
We had two weeks to rehearse. The show costumes were specially designed for me and the dancers at the SABC. On the day of the show recording, I was a nervous wreck. I had only four songs in the whole programme, three of them on my own and a duet with Eve, Ebony and Ivory by Stevie Wonder.
At the end of our performance, the audience gave us a standing ovation and we hugged each other for a job well done. The show was pre-recorded and after a few months it was televised on the SABC’s whites-only channel. The part where Eve and I hugged at the end of our duet had been edited out and only the bows were shown.
I didn’t suspect any sabotage until many years later when I visited Eve in Durban where she was living and she told me how our performance with the big band was almost derailed when the SABC bosses found out that I was black. They had assumed from my surname, Louw, that I was coloured.
Under apartheid segregation, coloured people got preferential treatment because they were deemed to be superior to black people. The coloured people were accommodated on the whitesonly channel while blacks were not. A decision was made to edit out our hugging because it would upset the white viewers. Eve had been reprimanded for touching me.
As if my dark skin was going to rub off onto her! She never told me who reprimanded her. Much as this disgusted me, I was not surprised – this was apartheid. It made me more determined to keep kicking down those doors and if it annoyed them, so be it.
This is an extract from It’s me, Marah. An autobiography by Marah Louw, published by Jacana Media at a recommended retail price of R250.
With a career spanning over 40 years, Marah Louw is counted among South Africa’s musical and entertainment industry royalty and has a powerful and memorable story to tell.
This book is the reader’s front-row ticket to the joys, sadness, triumphs and setbacks that have been part of this legend’s life.
Even though she is a celebrity, her story aims to show that stars, no matter how bright, are human too. It also delves into her family secrets and her search for truth.
As one of South Africa’s most iconic entertainers, Louw has had an illustrious career. She performed at the Mandela Concert at London’s Wembley Stadium and she sang at the Newsmaker of the Year Awards, presented to Nelson Mandela and FW de Klerk and in honour of the late Chris Hani.
She appeared with Nelson Mandela during his visit to Glasgow in 1993 and sang at George Square and The Royal Concert Hall. In 1994, she sang at the inauguration of president Nelson Mandela and the Freedom Day Celebrations at the Union Buildings in Pretoria.
In 2001, Louw produced the successful musical concert Surf, which featured top South African artists including Hugh Masekela. Louw translated the music of The Lion King into Zulu for the Walt Disney Corporation and performed the theme song Circle of Life in Zulu. She was an Idols judge from 2003 until 2010. She had a lead role on the SABC2 television soap opera Muvhango and has acted in numerous musicals, stage plays and feature films. She is acting in the Mzansi Magic telenovela The Queen.