Tales of the strange days of seg­re­gated broad­cast­ing

Saturday Star - - NEWS - MARAH LOUW

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.

Au­thor bi­og­ra­phy

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.

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